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18th-century sailors

18th-century sailors: no strangers to scurvy

During the age of exploration and long sea voyages, scurvy was a common malady among men who went for months on an unbalanced, limited diet. Scurvy is a serious disease that occurs when you have a severe lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in your food. The symptoms of scurvy include weakness, fatigue, loose teeth, swollen gums, stinking breath, anemia, skin eruptions and even hemorrhages.

Vitamin C is vital for the health of connective tissues such as collagen, cartilage and bone; it is also critical to the body’s ability to absorb iron for healthy red blood cells. Though Lewis and Clark would not have known about vitamin C and its role in human health, they were certainly aware of the dangers of scurvy, and there is some evidence that they took concrete steps to prevent it during the Expedition.

Jug of vinegar

Vinegar did little to help prevent scurvy

Starting in Revolutionary times, the Continental Army included a daily dose of 4 teaspoons of vinegar in the men’s rations to help prevent scurvy among the troops. It is recorded in the journals  that William Clark obtained “750 rats. [rations] of Soap Candles & vinager” for the Corps of Discovery while at Camp River DuBois in January 1804. Since vinegar is never mentioned again in the journals, it is unknown whether the rations were handed out at Camp River DuBois, taken along on the expedition, or used for some other purpose than scurvy prevention.  In any case, the vinegar would not have helped much. Though cider vinegar is as tangy as lemon juice and would have supplied some of the acid ideally gotten through citrus fruits, it contains no vitamin C and thus would have had little practical effect in preventing scurvy.

A Treatise on the Scurvy by Dr. James Lind, 1753

A Treatise on the Scurvy by Dr. James Lind, 1753

Fortunately for Lewis and Clark, scurvy is not that easy a disease to get. It takes one to three months of complete vitamin C deprivation before the human body begins to show signs of scurvy. For much of the journey, the men were able to find fruits, vegetables, and berries along the trail that would have supplied some much-needed vitamin C. In various entries in the journals, Lewis and Clark mention the men consuming rosehips, plums, chokecherries, serviceberries, and currants. Also, some greens like cattail, lamb’s quarter, and miner’s lettuce are good sources of vitamin C and would have been available at points along the trail.

I did not know (until researching this blog) that some types of meat can also contain vitamin C. Organ meats such as kidneys and liver are sometimes rich in vitamin C, and so are some kinds of fish. So these sources would have also helped supply the much-needed vitamin in the Corps’ diet.

Nevertheless, some scholars believe that Lewis and Clark’s men may have suffered from the beginning stages of scurvy at some points along the expedition.   On May 10, 1805, while traveling through violent winds and sometimes snow in present-day Montana, Lewis wrote:  “Boils and imposthumes have been very common with the party Bratton is now unable to work with one on his hand; soar eyes continue also to be common to all of us in a greater or less degree.” Dr. E. G. Chuinard, author of Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, suggests that the “boils and imposthumes” may have been an indication of mild scurvy.

Hawthorn berries

Hawthorn berries from the Nez Perce provided desperately needed vitamin C

There can be no doubt that the Corps was badly malnourished when they emerged from the Bitterroot Mountains in September of 1805. Deep snows made the seven-day crossing of the rugged Bitterroot Range a terrible ordeal, and there was no wild game to be found. The Corps was reduced to slaughtering their horses and eating rancid “portable soup” Lewis had purchased back in Philadelphia two years before. During this time, Clark records that skin infections and boils were common among the men, and it would not have been surprising if these were a sign of scurvy. Fortunately, the Corps reached the Nez Perce villages, where the natives supplied hawthorn berries. Later on the Columbia River, they had access to fruits and fish that helped restore the men to health.

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Albert Szent-Gyorgi discovered Vitamin C in 1927

While various theories about the treatment of scurvy abounded, the actual cause of the disease remained somewhat poorly understood, and scurvy continued to be a scourge of armies and navies well into the 20th century. It was not until the 1920’s that Hungarian researcher Albert Szent-Gyorgyi isolated a substance known as hexuronic acid, or vitamin C. The connection between the lack of hexuronic acid and scurvy was finally proven in 1932, by American researcher Charles Glen King of the University of Pittsburgh.  Albert Szent-Gyorgyi won the Nobel Prize for his achievement – and renamed his discovery “ascorbic acid” in honor of its antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy) properties.

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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.

Officers at a court martial, circa 1835

Officers at a court martial, circa 1835

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.

"Mad Anthony" Wayne

General "Mad Anthony" Wayne

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.

See The Politics of Meriwether Lewis

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.

Dueling in the 18th century

Dueling in the 18th century

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.”

Bayonets in the Wilderness by Alan D. Gaff

Bayonets in the Wilderness by Alan D. Gaff (2008)

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

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The Burning of Washington, 1814

The Burning of Washington, 1814

Today marks the 197th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg. The day began with President James Madison confident that the U.S. capital was safe from the threat of British attack. It ended with the public buildings of Washington a smoking ruin. It is one of the ironies of history that the battle that is sometimes called “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” led to the genesis of the modern U.S. Army.

From the colonial period forward, Americans had had a deep mistrust of standing armies. Colonials who fought alongside British troops in the French and Indian War had a low opinion of British troops, finding that the redcoats were generally coarse, profane drunkards from the lower ranks of British society. Further aggravating colonists’ hostility towards the British Army was the massive debt incurred during the conflict, which led the British Parliament to tax the colonies more heavily. The Quartering Act, which required colonists to provide housing and provisions for troops in their own homes, was another thorn in the colonists’ side. For many, the British Army began to seem like merely an expensive way to enforce King George’s tyranny.

The Boston Massacre, March 1770

The Boston Massacre, March 1770

With the Boston Massacre in March 1770, Americans’ dislike of British soldiers turned into a rebellious rage. The death of five civilians at the hands of British troops crystallized American attitudes about standing armies for generations. The final draft of the Declaration of Independence railed against King George’s abuse of the army’s power. Citing his insistence that the British army was independent of American civilian authority, his quartering the troops among the people, and his use of mercenary soldiers, the Declaration accused King George of using the army to “compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny.”

After independence, James Madison was one of the founding fathers who most strongly opposed creating a standing army on the American continent. Despite Madison’s support for a strong central government, he felt that a regular professional army could not be “a safe companion to liberty.” Madison told the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, “The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending have enslaved the people.”

Most Americans shared Madison’s view. By the early 19th century, hatred of a standing army had become a powerful and near-universal attitude among the American people. The Continental Army was quickly disbanded after the Revolution, and irregular state militias were generally relied upon for local defense, with the exception of regular troops posted on the western frontier and at the arsenal at West Point. The Legion of the United States, created in 1792 to counteract the British/Indian threat on the western frontier, was disbanded after its victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the signing of the Treaty of Greenville, and the surrender of British forts in 1796.

James Madison

James Madison

During the Jefferson years, the regular U.S. Army was kept small, weak, and deeply politicized. Jefferson tolerated the dubious loyalties of commanding General James Wilkinson in exchange for his commitment to keep the army firmly under civilian control. The officer corps was full of incompetent dinosaurs from the Revolution, appointed mostly for political purposes, and the army relied heavily on the participation of citizen-soldiers – the mainstay of the Revolution – which all too often were poorly trained and ill-equipped for battle. It was this army that Madison inherited, and saw in action at Bladensburg, in August 1814.

The British Army, newly energized by the defeat and exile of Napoleon in the spring of 1814, had turned its attentions to the American theater. A brigade of British troops under Major General Robert Ross, consisting entirely of veterans from the army of the Duke of Wellington,  arrived in the Chesapeake Bay to “effect a diversion on the coasts of the United States of America in favor of the army employed in the defence of Upper and Lower Canada.”

U.S. Secretary of War John Armstrong was not concerned about an attack on Washington, believing the British were more likely to attack the more strategic city of Baltimore. Commanding the troops defending Washington was Brigadier General William H. Winder, a lawyer by trade and a veteran of the Battle of Stoney Creek. Although Winder theoretically had 15,000 militia at his disposal, his “boots on the ground” troop strength was actually about 120 Dragoons, 300 Regular troops, and 1500 poorly trained militia.

General William H. Winder

General William H. Winder

After a brief clash with Ross’s leading troops on August 22, Winder fell back and began to set up a line of defense at Bladensburg. Bladensburg commanded the roads to Baltimore, Annapolis, and one the two roads available for an advance on Washington. Unfortunately, Winder had placed Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury in command at Bladensburg. When Stansbury received a message from Winder that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch of the Potomac and intended to fire the lower bridge, Stansbury panicked, abandoned his strong position, and threw away the American tactical advantage.

The action the next day was a disaster for the Americans. The defending U.S. troops were poorly placed and their fire was largely ineffectual. When it became clear the British were about to overwhelm their position, the poorly-trained militia broke and ran, fleeing through the streets of Washington. A group of 400 navy men and marines desperately tried to hold the field, but were heavily outnumbered, badly cut up, and forced to retire.

The road to Washington was wide open, and the British marched in. That night, they burned the Capitol, the White House, and most of Washington’s other public buildings to the ground. Madison, who along with the rest of the cabinet had been present at the battle, was forced to flee for his life and liberty. The cabinet’s hasty flight was later satirized in an 1816 poem, “The Bladensburg Races:”

So like an arrow swift he flew,

Shot from an archer’s bow;

So did he fly—so after him

As swift did fly MONROE.

Six gentlemen upon the road

Beheld our GENERAL ride—

MONROE behind—the chapeau gone;

The broadsword by his side.

As for Madison, what he had seen on the battlefield caused him to reexamine his long-held prejudice against a standing army. Just before the White House went up in flames, he exclaimed, “I could never have believed that so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force, if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.” Madison’s eyewitness view of the debacle at Bladensburg, along with the superb performance of well-trained American troops under General Winfield Scott at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane earlier in the summer, convinced him that a well-trained, well-equipped standing army was not a danger to liberty, but a vital part of national defense.

The Battle of Lundy's Lane, July 1814

The Battle of Lundy's Lane, July 1814

This sea-change in Madison’s attitude led to a wholesale reorganization of the U.S. Army. Within the next year, four-fifths of the Old Army’s officer corps was dismissed, with the new criteria for an officer’s appointment being competence to serve rather than political affiliation. Under new Secretary of War William Crawford, funding was provided for a military general staff, an expanded military academy at West Point, and improved conditions and uniform drill for new recruits. Much of their training was to be implemented by Winfield Scott, the hero of Lundy’s Lane. Out of disgrace and defeat at Bladensburg, the modern U.S. army was born.

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An Artist in Treason by Andro Linklater

An Artist in Treason by Andro Linklater

I recently finished reading Andro Linklater’s fine biography of General James Wilkinson, An Artist in Treason. What a smooth operator Wilkinson was! Throughout his life, Wilkinson knew how to curry favor with powerful patrons. Despite decades of being in secret collusion with the Spanish government – he was known in Havana as “Agent 13” – Wilkinson still  managed to hang on to his post as commanding general  of the U.S. Army through four different changes in administration. The tale of how he did that is something worthy of Shakespeare.

Wilkinson was born in 1757 to an aristocratic Maryland family fallen on hard times. His father, a wealthy planter, fell into disastrous debt and died at the young age of 33, leaving his family to survive on the charity of relatives. Wilkinson idealized his father as the perfect country gentleman, seeming to harbor both resentment at the family’s diminished status and a ravenous desire to recreate his father’s wealth.

General Horatio Gates, by Gilbert Stuart

General Horatio Gates, by Gilbert Stuart

Wilkinson’s army career began during the Revolution, where he made a habit of cultivating powerful patrons who helped advance his own career. A smart and charming young man, brimming with confidence, young “Wilky” comes across as an 18th-century version of Eddie Haskell. Ironically, Wilkinson’s first mentor was the soon-to-be-turncoat Benedict Arnold, whom he dropped in favor of Horatio Gates when Arnold’s star began to fade. Gates became something of a surrogate father to Wilkinson, but that relationship also soured. When the young officer’s indiscretion inadvertently revealed the existence of a group of high-ranking generals known as the “Conway Cabal” who were conspiring to remove George Washington as head of the Continental Army and replace him with Gates, Gates tried to discredit Wilkinson to save himself. Wilkinson responded viciously, and the two men’s friendship ended in an ugly and theatrical duel.

"Mad Anthony" Wayne

"Mad Anthony" Wayne

Anybody but Wilkinson would have been cashiered at this point, but his charm and confidence – not to mention a modicum of ability, rare in the army in those years—made his military career all but unsinkable. After some time in civilian life following the revolution – a time when he made contact with Spanish officials in New Orleans and agreed to help advance The Spanish Conspiracy in exchange for cash – he rejoined the army in 1791, assuming he would end up its commander. Instead this job fell to “Mad Anthony” Wayne, whom Wilkinson hated as a bitter rival and relentlessly sought to undermine. It was not until Wayne’s death in 1796 that Wilkinson finally got his wish, ascending to the coveted post of “commander-in-chief” of the U.S. Army.

It is astonishing to realize that every president Wilkinson served under, from George Washington to James Madison, was well aware of Wilkinson’s vanity, treachery, and allegiance to the Spanish crown. In a time when the mere existence of a standing professional army was a matter of extreme controversy, Wilkinson’s predictability was a valuable asset. The men in the White House banked on the fact that if you stroked Wilkinson’s ego nicely enough, he would ensure that the army remained party-neutral and under civilian control.

The president who seems to have had the most smug certainty about Wilkinson’s pliability was Thomas Jefferson, who might have felt differently had he known that Wilkinson had tipped the Spanish government off to the fact that the Lewis & Clark Expedition would be passing through Spanish territory. The Spanish sent out three attempts under Captain Pedro Vial to kill or capture Lewis & Clark’s party. Had they succeeded, the history of U.S. western expansion might have played out much differently.

Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr

Even Jefferson’s certainty was shaken in 1806, when the president found himself waiting in trepidation to see whether Wilkinson would keep the army loyal to the United States or throw it behind the empire-building conspiracy of former Vice President Aaron Burr. Burr connived with Wilkinson and others in a scheme to raise a military force to separate the western states from the U.S. and invade  Mexico. This was no pipe dream, but a well though-out plan that had the backing of political and military luminaries such as Andrew Jackson. But when plans went awry and Wilkinson knew his involvement was about to be exposed, he unceremoniously decided to save his own hide. Declaring himself the savior of the nation, Wilkinson threw Aaron Burr under the bus and exposed the conspiracy to the world.

Wilkinson’s talent for flattery and play-acting is on great display in these two passages from Linklater’s book, describing Wilkinson’s role as star witness in the trial of Aaron Burr. The first encounter between Wilkinson and Burr – betrayer and betrayed—was electrifying. Here is how author Washington Irving described the scene:

Wilkinson strutted into court and took his stand in a parallel line with Burr on his right hand. Here he stood for a moment, swelling like a turkey cock and bracing himself for the encounter of Burr’s eye. The latter did not take any notice of him until the judge directed the clerk to swear General Wilkinson; at the mention of the name Burr turned his head, looked him full in the face with one of his piercing regards, swept his eye over his whole person from head to food, as if to scan its dimensions, and then cooly resumed his former position, and went on versing with his counsel as tranquilly as ever. The whole look was over in an instant, but it was an admirable one. There was no appearance of study or constraint in it; no affectation of disdain or defiance; a slight expression of contempt played over his countenance.

Thomas Jefferson by St. Memin

Thomas Jefferson by St. Memin

And here is how Wilkinson described it, and a letter to President Thomas Jefferson:

I was introduced to a position within the bar very near my adversary. I saluted the bench and inspite of myself my eyes darted a flash of indignation at the little traitor, on whom they continued fixed until I was called to the Book; her, sir, I found my expectations verified—this lion-hearted, eagle-eyed Hero, jerking under the weight of conscious guilt, with haggard eyes in an effort to meet the indignant salutation of outraged honor; but it was in vain, his audacity failed him. He averted his face, grew pale, and affected passion to conceal his perturbation.

Despite Wilkinson’s testimony, Burr was acquitted. And in  keeping with his reputation as a general who “never won a battle but never lost a court-martial,” Wilkinson survived an inquiry into his own role in the matter. But he fooled no one. The Burr conspiracy left an indelible stain on his high-flying but sordid career, which ended only when the U.S. military was completely overhauled after the War of 1812.

Linklater does a great job using Wilkinson’s life as an indictment of the entire era he represented – an era when the U.S. Army was amateurish, starved for cash and leadership, and heavily politicized.  Of Wilkinson’s final court-martial –an inquiry into military blunders on the Canadian frontier during the war of 1812 – Linklater gives us this damning summation:

…with the hindsight of history, what seems overwhelmingly obvious is that the wrong accusations were leveled against him. Even the one charge of which he was certainly guilty, covert treachery to the United States, was less damaging than his overt and repeated betrayal of the army. Yet no court could try him for acquiescence in its political neutering and financial strangulation because the instigators were Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

These words are a fitting capstone to this shabby life story which is both tragedy and farce. It makes you give quiet thanks for our modern-day, well-trained, professional U.S. Army.

Order "The Fairest Portion of the Globe"

For more interesting reading on Wilkinson, I recommend our two novels, To the Ends of the Earth and The Fairest Portion of the Globe. Wilkinson appears as a major character in each. I must say, I was gratified to read Linklater’s book and confirm that our characterization of Wilkinson was right on the money. It’s hard to get enough of this fascinating “finished scoundrel.”

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Whiskey barrels

Whiskey barrels - the most practical way to transport grain

Meriwether Lewis’s first experience in the military came in the Virginia state militia during the conflict known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Lewis joined up at age 20 in August of 1794, when President George Washington issued a proclamation calling out the militia to put down a revolt among the settlers in western Pennsylvania.

The “Whiskey Rebellion” sounds like an out-of-control frat party, but at the time, the conflict rocked the Federal government to its core. The name of the uprising comes from the Whiskey Act of 1791, an excise tax on whiskey that treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton imposed to help fund the national debt. Whiskey was an important cash and barter crop in western Pennsylvania, which lacked both economic infrastructure and good roads. Without any practical means to get their grain to market, Pennsylvania farmers found the most profitable use of grain was to ferment it and distill it into alcohol.

Hamilton’s tax effectively eliminated any hope the farmers had of making a profit. Adding insult to injury, many larger distillers based in the east paid their tax all at once with a flat upfront fee, while smaller farmers (mostly in the west) could not afford the flat fee and ended up paying a higher tax per gallon. Even more galling, the western farmers felt like they were being taxed for nothing. Indian raids had ravaged the western frontier, and settlers received little protection or help from the Federal government.

Whiskey rebels tarring and feathering a tax collector

'Whiskey Rebels' tarring and feathering a tax collector in western Pennsylvania, 1794

It was tea-party politics at its most contentious, and Hamilton’s tax was the last straw. Led by a man named David Bradford, farmers in western Pennsylvania started rioting in river towns, with enraged mobs erecting “liberty poles” and roughing up tax collectors. The attacks flared into real violence in July of 1794, when federal marshal John Neville arrived to serve writs to distillers who had not paid the excise. More than 500 armed Pennsylvanians attacked Neville’s home in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Two protesters ended up dead and Neville’s house was burned to the ground. The federal government was facing a serious challenge to its authority.

When President Washington issued his proclamation calling for troops in 1794, Meriwether Lewis was one of those who responded. As a staunch Jeffersonian, Lewis was no fan of Alexander Hamilton and certainly no defender of the whiskey tax—but excitement, patriotism, and the siren song of adventure could not be ignored. Lewis joined a combined force of approximately 13,000 militiamen from Virginia, Maryland, eastern Pennsylvania, and New Jersey — as large as the army that had defeated the British — under the command of General “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, the sitting Governor of Virginia. President Washington himself, as the commander-in-chief, set out at the head of the troops to suppress the rebellion.

Washington reviewing the troops at Fort Cumberland, 1794

Washington reviewing the troops at Fort Cumberland, 1794

At issue was nothing less than the strength and authority of the U.S. government. For the very first time, the federal government was going to attempt to enforce order in a U.S. state. The result was an anticlimax. By the time the first troops reached Pittsburgh in October 1794, the ringleaders of the “Whiskey Boys” had already fled down the Ohio River. David Bradford escaped to Spanish territory and took up residence at Natchez. The militia arrested about 20 people and took them to Philadelphia for trial, with (in the words of historian John Bakeless) “minor brutality.” George Washington ended up pardoning the lot.

A flag of the Whiskey Rebellion

A flag of the Whiskey Rebellion

As for Lewis, he was far from disappointed with his army experience. On the contrary—he was hooked. Despite the Virginia militia being late on the scene and missing all the fun, Lewis had been promoted to ensign. He wrote home to his mother that the food was good: “We have mountains of Beef and oceans of Whiskey and I feel myself able to share it with the hartiest fellow in camp.” By November of 1794, most of the militia were already heading home, but Lewis volunteered remain with a small force near Pittsburgh, stationed there in case another outbreak of rebellious feeling broke out. Lewis wrote to his mother, “I am quite delighted with a soldier’s life.” He assured her that he was not missing the comforts of home and layed it on a bit thick with, “The general idea is that the Army is the school of debauchery but believe me it has ever proven the school of experience and prudence to your affectionate son.” He sent his regards to all the girls, announcing that he will bring “an Insergiant Girl to them next fall bearing the title of Mrs. Lewis.”

Lewis’s mother needn’t have worried about an insurgent girl, as her son was now a confirmed army man. In May 1795, Lewis was eligible for discharge, but volunteered for summer operations and transferred to the Regulars in the the 2nd Sub-Legion of Anthony Wayne’s army, retaining the rank of ensign. He wrote to his mother that he had had an epaulet sent from Philadelphia. Not long after this he was headed down the Ohio to join Wayne’s forces. He was assigned to the Chosen Rifle company, commanded by one William Clark.

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The classic Lewis & Clark Trail highway sign

In our recent post, Powdered Hair and Macaroni, we talked about the clothes and hairstyles that the well-dressed man wore back in Lewis & Clark’s day. Meriwether Lewis was a bona fide dandy (what we might call a metrosexual), while William Clark went in more for the retro look (in his case, the long hair and ruffled shirts of the Revolutionary generation). But it’s safe to say that neither one of them was too concerned about being reported to the fashion police once they hit the trail west. Instead, the primary concerns were practicality and maintaining military discipline.

Over the years, a surprising number of myths have built up about the Lewis & Clark Expedition, perhaps none more persistent than that they wore buckskins and coonskin caps, with Captain Lewis distinguished from the rest by his three-cornered hat. After all, that’s the way that the captains are portrayed in countless artists’ renderings, including the famous roadside marker that lets highway travelers know when they’re on the Lewis & Clark Trail.

Tailor Made, Trail Worn, by Robert J. Moore, Jr. and Michael Haynes (2003)

Thanks to the groundbreaking research done by Robert J. Moore, Jr. and Michael Haynes, we now know better. In their fantastic, heavily illustrated book Tailor Made, Trail Worn: Army Life, Clothing, & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery, historian Moore and artist Haynes delve deeply into long-lost history to reconstruct the actual physical world of the Corps of Discovery. This book is a must-have for any aficionado of Lewis & Clark or the early American military.

As Moore explains, uniformity of appearance was as important in Lewis and Clark’s unit as it is in any military organization. The captains were known as by-the-book officers, and it’s clear that each of the military members of the Corps were issued the standard uniform clothing of the day: shirts, vests, pants, socks, shoes, blankets, hats, and fatigue coats. Dress uniforms for diplomatic ceremonies with the Indians were also packed away and brought out for special occasions. The clothes were made from either wool or linen and came in three sizes, which the company tailor (probably Joseph Whitehouse) altered to fit.

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. In 1955, at the height of the Davy Crockett craze, coonskin caps sold at the rate of 5000 per day.

Unlike Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone, experienced frontiersmen never wore buckskin if they could help it (and neither did Indians, who traded for woven cloth whenever they got the chance). Let’s face it: leather clothing might look great at the disco, but what sane person would want to wear it for heavy, sweaty outdoor work?

Meriwether Lewis by Michael Haynes

Naturally, as the Expedition went on, they didn’t have a choice. Their clothing wore out and had to be replaced, and it’s safe to say that by the second summer, as they crossed the plains of Montana, that the men were wearing a combination of uniform clothing and Indian-style moccasins, hats, and shirts and pants. By the time of the winter on the Pacific coast at Fort Clatsop, they were wearing almost all leather clothing, a fact which influenced their decision to set up camp where the elk hunting was good. By the time they got back to St. Louis in the fall of 1806, after two and a half years on the trail, they were described as looking like “Robinson Crusoes–dressed entirely in buckskins.”

So did they have long hair and beards like Robinson Crusoe? Not likely. Again, Lewis and Clark were hard-nosed, by-the-book officers. Army regulations stated that the hair was to be worn short and that soldiers were to be clean-shaven. Lewis and Clark packed plenty of soap and razors for the men, and authors Moore and Haynes conjecture that they would have made the men clean up whenever it was practical. The Corps may have gotten scruffy during the most rugged ordeals of the trip, but they would never have had a “mountain man” type appearance as depicted by some artists.

Napoleon Bonaparte and his trend-setting hat

And what about those coonskin caps and three-cornered hats? Never happened, say Moore and Haynes. By the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, tricorn hats had gone out of fashion. Military officers wore enormous, fantastical cocked hats known as chapeau bras, a style made famous by Napoleon Bonaparte. Though they seem totally impractical, it is known that Meriwether Lewis, at least, wore this hat in the field and used it to win the trust of the Shoshone chief, Cameahwait, at a critical moment in which the chief feared that Clark’s approaching party was an ambush:

we now dismounted and the Chief with much cerimony put tippets about our necks such as they temselves woar I redily perceived that this was to disguise us and owed it’s origine to the same cause already mentioned.    to give them further confidence I put my cocked hat with feather on the chief and my over shirt being of the Indian form my hair deshivled and skin well browned with the sun I wanted no further addition to make me a complete Indian in appearance    the men followed my example and we were son completely metamorphosed.

U.S. infantry hat, by Gary R. Lucy

More often, though, the men of the Expedition wore standard-issue round hats. This style, which prevailed so widely on the American frontier, perversely survives today only in the form of the formal silk top hat. As for fur hats, the explorers mention making several animals into caps as the Expedition forged further into the west. Elk, lynx, otter, and mountain sheep all found themselves transformed into headgear, but alas, no raccoons. Sorry, Walt.

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Recruitment at Fort Massac, 1803, by Michael Haynes

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark recruited the men of the Corps of Discovery from several sources. First, Lewis was given what amounted to carte blanche to recruit 30 elite enlisted men from the frontier forts. (This probably did not make Lewis very popular with his fellow commanders when he swept through and took their best men off for his expedition.) Second, William Clark took charge of recruiting experienced frontiersmen, a group that became known as the “Nine Young Men from Kentucky” (plus York, Clark’s African-American manservant). Third, the captains recruited about a half-dozen French-speaking rivermen from the area around St. Louis.   

Somehow these very different men had to be molded into a unit, a task that William Clark undertook during the winter and spring of 1803-1804 at a place called Camp River Dubois (Wood River), in Illinois across the river from St. Louis . One of the first things Clark did was select a sergeant to help keep the duty roster and command the training camp when he had to be away. The man chosen had to be physically and mentally tough, absolutely reliable, and literate — a qualification that knocked out a number of otherwise outstanding men.

The first sergeant, 29-year-old John Ordway of New Hampshire would become one of the most well-remembered men of the Corps. Like the captains, he kept a daily journal of his experiences on the journey. His matter-of-fact observations, especially those on the details of Indian life, are now priceless historical treasures. At Wood River, Ordway was responsible for issuing provisions, assigning guard duty, acting as a clerk for Lewis and Clark, and commanding the camp when the captains were both away.   

At first, it appears that Ordway had trouble imposing his authority. Once, when the captains were gone at a ceremony marking the transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States, several men defied Ordway’s orders to stay in camp and ran off to get drunk at a local tavern. Another time, fighting broke out in the camp and two of the men threatened to kill Ordway. But somehow as the time for departure grew closer, Ordway seemed to become more at ease in his new role. On April 8, 1804, he wrote a letter home which has become one of the most quoted Expedition documents: 

Honored Parents: I now embrace this oportunity of writeing to you once more to let you know where I am and where I am going. I am well thank God and in high Spirits. I am now on an expedition to the westward, with Capt Lewis and Capt Clark, who are appointed by the Presidant of the United States to go on an Expedition through the interior parts of North America. We are to ascend the Missouri River with a boat as far as it is navigable and then to go by land to the western ocean, if nothing prevents. This party consists of 25 picked men of the armey and country likewise and I am so happy as to be one of them picked men from the armey … we are to receive a great reward for this expedition when we return. I am to receive 15 dollars a month and at least 100 ackers [acres] of first rate land and if we make great discoveries as we expect the United States has promised to make us great rewards … will write next winter if I have a chance.  

Departure from Wood River, 1804, by Gary R. Lucy

As the time for departure grew closer, Lewis and Clark divided the men into “the permanent party” and the “return party.” The permanent party, who would make the attempt to go all the way to the Pacific Ocean, would consist of three squads, led by Sergeant Ordway and two additional sergeants, 21-year-old Charles Floyd and 31-year-old Nathaniel Pryor. Floyd and Pryor were cousins and two of Clark’s “nine young men from Kentucky” group of frontier recruits. Another group, led by Corporal Richard Warfington, would return to St. Louis after the first year with Lewis and Clark’s reports and scientific discoveries made up to that point. That way, if the Expedition was lost, at least some of their accomplishments would become known.

Each squad would combine regular Army and former civilians, and would correspond to a “mess,” which would cook, eat, and camp together, the better to establish bonds among the men. Each sergeant would also be responsible for keeping a journal. Soon after the Expedition departed Wood River in May 1804, Lewis assigned more specific duties, which probably rotated. One sergeant would man the helm of the expedition’s keelboat. He would be in charge of the irreplacable compass, steer the boat, and keep track of the baggage. The sergeant at midships would supervise the men poling and rowing the boat, manage the sails, and draw Captain Clark’s attention to river mouths, creeks, and islands for navigation and mapmaking. He would also attend to the evening whiskey ration and act as sergeant of the guard. Finally, the sergeant in the bow would act as lookout, keeping track of all other river traffic or sightings of Indians on shore.

Forensic recreation of Sergeant Charles Floyd. Courtesy of the Sergeant Floyd River Museum, Sioux City, Iowa

The Expedition was still in the early shakedown stages when tragedy struck; the journal of young Sergeant Floyd was destined to be a short one. Charles became ill with nausea and severe stomach pain near present-day Sioux City, Iowa. It turned out to be an attack of appendicitis, an illness for which the medical knowledge of the time had no treatment. William Clark’s journal entry of August 20, 1804, tells what happened next:

we Came to make a warm bath for Sergt. Floyd hopeing it would brace him a little, before we could get him in to this bath he expired, with a great deel of composure, haveing Said to me before his death that he was going away and wished me to write a letter— We Buried him to the top of a high round hill over looking the river & Countrey for a great distance    Situated just below a Small river without a name to which we name & call Floyds river, the Bluffs Sergts. Floyds Bluff—  We buried him with all the honors of War, and fixed a Ceeder post at his head with his name title & Day of the month and year    Capt Lewis read the funeral Service over him    after paying everry respect to the Body of this desceased man (who had at All times given us proofs of his impatiality Sincurity to ourselves and good will to Serve his Countrey)  

Two days after Floyd’s death, the captains allowed the men to vote on his replacement (a common practice at the time). They chose Patrick Gass, the expedition’s carpenter. At 33, the Pennsylvania-born Gass was older than most of the men and had worlds’ more experience, having fought Indians and traveled the rivers and seas as a deck hand before joining the Army. Steady and perceptive, Gass was a tough Irishman with a gift for profanity; Clark would write that Gass’s manners were “better suited to the camp than the parlor.”

Each sergeant would leave his mark on the Expedition in his own way. For a man who sounds so thoughtful and mild-mannered in his journals, John Ordway had a way of attracting death threats. During the winter at the Mandan villages, he drew the ire of a jealous husband and forced Clark to become a marriage counselor:

I was allarmed about 10 oClock by the Sentinal, who informed that an Indian was about to Kill his wife in the interpeters fire about 60 yards below the works, I went down and Spoke to the fellow about the rash act which he was like to commit and forbid any act of the kind near the fort—  Some missunderstanding took place between this man & his fife about 8 days ago, and She came to this place, & Continued with the Squars of the interpeters, 2 days ago She returned to the Villg.   

in the evening of the Same day She came to the interpeters fire appearently much beat, & Stabed in 3 places—    We Derected that no man of this party have any intercourse with this woman under the penelty of Punishment—    he the Husband observed that one of our Serjeants Slept with his wife & if he wanted her he would give her to him, We derected the Serjeant Odway to give the man Some articles, at which time I told the Indian that I believed not one man of the party had touched his wife except the one he had given the use of her for a nite, in his own bed, no man of the party Should touch his Squar, or the wife of any Indian, nor did I believe they touch a woman if they knew her to be the wife of another man, and advised him to take his Squar home and live hapily together in future—   William Clark, November 22, 1804

Dr. John Patrick Jewell is pictured with the model for a statue of John Ordway. The completed bronze stands at Fort Lewis, Washington, the Army's only statue of a named enlisted man

 This incident aside, Ordway served capably throughout the Expedition. Perhaps his most memorable moments came on the return journey in 1806. He commanded a detachment of nine men who traveled by canoe from the area of Three Forks, Montana back to the Great Falls to recover the cache of goods and scientific discoveries that the Corps had buried there the previous year.

Nathaniel Pryor seems to have been a dignified man who soon became trusted to accomplish just about any assignment. Clark called him “a steady, valuable, and usefull member of our party.” The captains’ journals record countless times when Pryor used his head. He was cool-headed with Indians during diplomacy and trade, an alert wrangler of the baggage and canoes on treacherous rivers, a willing volunteer (along with Sergeant Gass) to help assemble the complex and ill-fated “iron boat” during the portage at the Great Falls, and a leader who could take men exploring up side rivers and report details back to the captains. He could also use his fists, taking the initiative at Fort Clatsop to break up a rare fight between the men and Indians that was about to turn deadly.

Like Ordway, Pryor also distinguished himself during the return journey. The Corps had collected about 50 horses which they hoped to sell at the Mandan villages. Pryor and three men were assigned to drive the horses there, but they soon found themselves stranded on the Montana prairie when Indians stole every one of the mounts. Pryor kept his head. Camping near the “Pompey’s Pillar” rock formation, he and the men spent several days building two bullboats, large rudderless tubs made of buffalo hide that that the Indians used to travel short distances on the river. They took to the Missouri and soon caught up with the rest of the Expedition.

A dugout is flipped by a tree in this drawing by Patrick Gass from his 1807 memoir

Patrick Gass made his mark by quite literally put a roof over his comrades’ heads. The carpenter saw to the building of the Expedition’s two winter forts, Fort Mandan and Fort Clatsop. Gass also supervised the hewing of the Expedition’s dugout canoes whenever they needed them, and constructed the wagon by which the Corps dragged its baggage over a bone-numbing eighteen miles during the portage around the Great Falls. On the return voyage, Gass was entrusted with leading five men to portage the Expedition’s cached baggage back around the Great Falls.

After the Expedition, each man met a very different fate. At first, John Ordway seemed most likely to succeed. Within a year of returning to civilization, Ordway had married and started a farm in the bootheel of Missouri. Unlike most of the men of the Corps, he not only hung on to his land grants from his service, but expanded on them, owning as much as a thousand acres. His operation included a fruit orchard and a horse and cattle breeding enterprise. But in 1811 and 1812, Ordway became a victim of the New Madrid Earthquakes, which not only wiped out everything he had tried to build, but destroyed the value of his land. Ordway died in 1818 at the age of 42, apparently penniless.

Sam Houston and Nathaniel Pryor at Three Forks, Arkansas Territory, by Mike Wimmer. This painting hangs in the lobby of the Senate chamber at the Oklahoma state capitol. Houston, of course, went on to become the Father of Texas.

Steady and clear-headed Nathaniel Pryor led a life surrounded by the violence and chaos of the frontier. Promoted to the rank of ensign, in 1807 he led a contingent assigned to return Mandan chief Sheheke, who had visited the east with Lewis and Clark, to his home in North Dakota. Hundreds of Arikara warriors attacked Pryor’s flotilla and Pryor was lucky to shoot his way out of the mess and get his men and Sheheke home alive. Pryor then established a trading post near present-day Galena, Illinois, which was burned in a massive Indian attack in which Pryor again escaped by the skin of his teeth. A veteran of the Battle of New Orleans, Pryor eventually settled down as a government agent among the Osage Indians in the rough-and-ready Arkansas Territory (present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma). He married an Osage woman and died in 1831 at the age of 59.

Patrick Gass earned the ire of Captain Lewis by rushing his journal into publication in the spring of 1807, beating Lewis and Clark’s own efforts by a whopping seven years. Staying in the Army, the sergeant fought in the War of 1812, most memorably at the epic Battle of Lundy’s Lane, and lost his right eye in service to his country. In the years that followed, Gass did not exactly prosper, working odd jobs in frontier Ohio and West Virginia.

Patrick Gass in his later years. He and Alexander Willard were the only two members of the Corps of Discovery to be photographed.

At age 60, Gass was doing carpentry on a house near Wellsburg when he amazed everyone who knew him by somehow winning the heart of the 20-year-old daughter of his employer. Patrick and Maria were by all accounts happy and became the parents of seven children. Maria died during a measles epidemic when Patrick was 75. His children remembered him as a devoted single parent who wanted them to have a good education. In his later years, he moved in with one of his daughters. He was well-known to the citizens of Wellsburg for his stout hickory cane and his slow, steady walk into town to get the mail, a four-mile journey that he continued almost until the very end. Patrick Gass died in 1870 at the age of 98, the longest surviving member of the Corps of Discovery.

And what of the journals kept by the sergeants? The journals of John Ordway and Charles Floyd survived and have been published in their entirety in the University of Nebraska series by Gary Moulton. Nathaniel Pryor’s journals have never been found, and Gass’s journal is believed to have been lost or thoughtlessly destroyed by the ghostwriter who helped Gass publish his book in 1807.

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