August 18, 1804 was Meriwether Lewis’s thirtieth birthday, and it was a lousy one. Moses Reed, a private in the Corps of Discovery, had been brought back into camp after deserting two weeks earlier. Reed pleaded for leniency— and got it. As William Clark recorded in his journal, the court “only Sentenced him to run the Gantlet four times through the Party & that each man with 9 Swichies Should punish him and for him not to be considered in future as one of the Party.” Though he was facing a brutal beating and dishonorable discharge, Reed had gotten off easy. The more typical punishment for desertion was death.
Compared with modern standards of military discipline, the U.S. Army in Lewis and Clark’s time was a place of jaw-dropping brutality. The rules of military justice under which they operated had been in force since the Revolution. These “Rules and Articles of War” prescribed court-martial procedures and maximum punishments for such crimes as mutiny and desertion, disrespect and sedition, fraudulent enlistment, and a wide variety of lesser offenses. A surprising number of crimes carried a maximum penalty of death.
The Expedition journals and orderly book reveal that seven official courts-martial were convened by the Corps of Discovery between May 1804 and February 1805 to deal with breaches in discipline. The offenses included going AWOL, “behaving in an unbecoming manner,” getting drunk, sleeping on post, mutiny, and desertion. The sentences usually involved flogging. Indians who witnessed the punishments being carried out often broke into tears.
Lewis and Clark were considered to be fair and even kind-hearted commanders, but it is clear they were no softies. How could they be? As young officers, they apprenticed under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, who whipped the army into shape—quite literally—following the disastrous defeats of Arthur St. Clair and Josiah Harmar.
When he assumed command of the army in 1792, Anthony Wayne inherited a defeated rabble of men, demoralized by the low pay, poor living conditions, and isolation of frontier service and traumatized by the terror of Indian warfare. Wayne instituted a regime of strenuous training and strict discipline. Minor infractions were punished swiftly—by assigning extra duty, docking the soldier’s pay, or depriving him of his daily whisky ration. Officers could expect no better. Misbehaving officers were reduced in rank, and one lieutenant who talked out of the side of his mouth at parade was cashiered and dismissed from Wayne’s service.
The more serious the crime, the more brutal and humiliating was the punishment. An enlisted man who was foolish enough to steal money from Wayne’s tent was sentenced to walk the gantlet naked at a slow step, to have his head and eyebrows shaved, to be branded on the forehead and the palms of both hands with the letter ‘T’, and to be drummed ignominiously out of camp. But the most common punishment for severe offenses was flogging. A hundred lashes on the bare back with a wire rope whip was standard for desertion; the flogging was sometimes spread out over three or four days to give the criminal more time to repent of his crime—and also because most soldiers simply could not bear to take the punishment all at once. The most infamous punishment one of Wayne’s courts ever imposed was against a group of five repeat deserters. Four of them were sentenced to be shot by the fifth.
By the standards of the time, the U.S. Army’s courts-martial were far more lenient than their British counterparts, which routinely assigned punishments of 500 to 1000 lashes for serious crimes. Anthony Wayne eschewed such punishments, because he needed every fighting man he could get. A soldier who was physically or mentally broken was of no use battling Indians on the frontier.
For Lewis and Clark, commanding a small force far from home, maintaining military discipline was critical. The general lack of problems in the Corps showed both their firmness and flexibility as leaders— and how much they had learned from “Mad Anthony.”