By all accounts, Meriwether Lewis was a competent, respected and reliable army officer – otherwise, he would not have been selected as leader of the cross-continental exploring expedition. But when he was just starting out in the army, Lewis did not travel a golden road any more than any young person beginning a new career. In 1795, 21-year-old Ensign Lewis was in trouble so deep he could not have foreseen his later success. He had just joined the Fourth Sublegion of “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s army, and he was facing a potentially disastrous court-martial.
Courts-martial are as old as armies. To maintain army discipline in the field, the court martial deals with crimes committed by soldiers, especially uniquely military offenses. Then as now, courts-martial are not standing courts, but ad hoc bodies convened each time that charges are referred for trial. A military court may consist of a military judge, the prosecutor and defense counsel, and the members of the court who will decide guilt or innocence and pass sentence on the accused. In Lewis’s case, the outcome of the trial was being followed closely by General Anthony Wayne himself.
One of the more comprehensive accounts of Lewis’s court-martial published to date is in Richard Dillon’s Meriwether Lewis: A Biography, originally published in 1965. (We eagerly await new research and a fuller account of the court-martial in Thomas Danisi’s forthcoming book, Uncovering the Truth about Meriwether Lewis, due out this month.) Here is how Dillon describes the events of November 6, 1795:
Major Joseph Shaylor presided at [Meriwether Lewis's] trial, the first such court-martial held in Wayne’s Legion. Testimony began on the 6th and did not close until the 12th because of an adjournment. The charges were brought against Lewis by a Lieutenant Elliott (perhaps Surgeon John Elliott, a New Yorker [or Lieutenant Joseph Elliott – ed.]). The first was the accusation that Lewis had made a direct, open and contemptuous violation of Articles One and Two of the Seventh Section of the Rules and Articles of War. To wit, that on September 24, 1795, Lewis had engaged in provocative speech and gestured in the Lieutenant’s quarters and had presumed, that same day, to send him a challenge to a duel. Elliott’s second charge was that of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. According to the accuser, Lewis, drunk, had burst into his room, uninvited and “abruptly and in an ungentlemanly manner.” He had then not only insulted the Lieutenant without provocation and offered to duel to the death with him, but had disturbed the “peace and harmony” of the officers who were Elliott’s guests that day.
It is believed that the conflict that triggered Lewis’s outburst was over politics. Then as now, politics made quick enemies. Lewis was, of course, a Jeffersonian Republican, and Elliott was evidently a Federalist.
Given the mores among the officers of Wayne’s Legion in the 1790’s, drunkenness and political disagreements were hardly uncommon, so perhaps the most serious of the infractions of which Lewis was accused was dueling. Gentlemen of the time, particularly Southern gentlemen, lived by the code duello, in which insults and other offenses to personal honor could not be tolerated. Such an insult must be quickly redressed – if not verbally, than with pistols at ten paces, in a ritual of carefully choreographed violence.
According to Alan D. Gaff’s Bayonets in the Wilderness, numerous duels had interrupted the Legion’s training and led to at least six fatalities amongst an already thin officer corps in the preceding years. Even for Anthony Wayne — who had disagreed with George Washington’s remonstrances against dueling among officers during the Revolution – enough was enough. He was ready to dismiss officers who resorted to dueling when they could not get along. Article 2 of the Seventh Section of the Rules and Articles of War read: “No officer or soldier shall presume to send a challenge to any other officer or soldier, to fight a duel, upon pain, if a commissioned officer, of being cashiered.”
The battery of charges was stated to Lewis at the start of his court-martial, and he was asked to plead. According to Dillon, “The reply from the now stone-cold sober Virginian was a resounding ‘Not Guilty.'” The officers of the court called witnesses, studied the evidence, and finally issued their decision six days later. Lewis was indeed found not guilty of the charges against him. The court recommended that he be “acquitted with Honor,” a verdict that was upheld by Anthony Wayne, with the added “fond hope” that “as this is the first, that it also may be the last instance in the Legion of convening a Court for a trial of this nature.”
The fact that Meriwether Lewis was competent and reliable – adjectives that could not be applied to every officer in Wayne’s army – no doubt worked in his favor. As fate would have it, this unpleasant experience led to one of the most fortuitous events in Lewis’s life. To forestall any possible further conflict with Elliott, Lewis received a transfer. He was reassigned to the Chosen Rifle Company, a unit of elite sharpshooters commanded by another young officer, Lieutenant William Clark. The rest, as they say, is history.
More interesting reading from “The Art of Manliness” Blog: An Affair of Honor – The Duel