Espontoon Before Lewis & Clark

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Explorers at the Portage

Scriver, Lewis with espontoon

Detail from, by Robert M. Scriver, overlooking the Missouri River at Great Falls, Montana. Photo by Michael Carrick.

At his right hip Lewis carries his shot pouch and powder horn. Around his neck is slung the knife he probably called a dirk, which was not only a practical tool but also a defensive weapon. As with all the rest of the Corps since leaving Fort Mandan, he is clad in buckskin. Historical research since the onset of the bicentennial observance has shown that the tricorn hat he wears here was officially replaced with new styles of headgear before the expedition began.

A spectacular use of the weapon in attack occurred at the Battle of Cowpens January 17, 1781. Colonel Howard, commanding part of Daniel Morgan's main line against the British, observed an enemy artillery battery a short distance in front. He ordered one of his officers, a Captain Ewing, to take it. Howard then relates that another nearby officer, Captain Anderson:

"hearing the order, also pushed for the same object; both being emulous for the prize kept pace until near the first piece, when Anderson, by putting the end of his spontoon forward into the ground, made a long leap which brought him upon the gun and gave him the honor of the prize."5 Here is a weapon not just for defensive parry and thrust or for signaling, but also for pole vaulting directly onto the enemy.

Wayne's insistence on the weapon was shared by the Commander-in-Chief. Washington mentioned it in his General Orders, which roll across Wayne's ranks and throughout the Continental Armies. They provide a bill of particulars about the weapon which helps us understand why Lewis carried one westward a generation later:

Valley Forge, December 22, 1777: As the proper arming of the officers would add considerable strength to the army and the officers themselves derive great confidence from being armed in time of action, the General orders every one of them to provide himself with a half-pike or spear, as soon as possible; firearms when made use of with drawing their attention too much from the men; and to be without either, has a very aukward and unofficerlike appearance. That these half-pikes may be of one length and uniformly made, the Brigadiers are to meet at General Maxwell's quarters to morrow at 10 o'clock in the forenoon and direct their size and form .6

Valley Forge, January 17, 1778—The Brigadiers and Officers commanding Brigades are to meet this evening at Genl. Varnum's Quarters to . . . critically review and examine into the State and condition of the Arms in their respective Brigades; . . . The General desires that they will . . . agree upon the most proper and speedy measure to have all the Officers in the Brigades furnish'd with half Pikes agreeable to the General Order of the 22nd. of December last .7

That the Quarter Master General be directed to cause Espontoons or Pikes made for the Officers, the Staff six feet and one half in length, and one inch and a quarter in diameter in the largest part and that the iron part be one foot long.

The Commander in Chief accepts and approves the above Report and orders it to take place in every respect.8

Moore's house, October 12, 1779: Such officers of the line whose duty it is to act on foot in time of an engagement and who are not already provided with Espontoons are to use their utmost exertions to get them, and it is expected from commanding officers of Corps that they will use every means in their power to complete them with bayonets; In a word, they will take care that their corps are in the most perfect order for actual service.9

Morristown, April 4, 1780: ALL Battalion officers, to captains inclusively are, without loss of time, to provide themselves with Espontoons, they are to apply in the first instance to the Quarter Master General for such as may be in his possession, and if not furnished there, to the Field Commissary of Military Stores. Those who have been already supplied by the public, and are now destitute, are to provide themselves.

None are to mount guard or go on detachment without being armed with Espontoons, to which the officers of the day will be particularly attentive; nor after a reasonable time being allowed to procure them, is any officer to appear with his regiment under arms, without an Espontoon, unless he can shew that he has not been able to obtain one.10

Washington, like Lewis under Wayne, must have had the importance of the espontoon ingrained in him during his earlier years as a younger military officer. He was then subject to the orders of King George, and would have been responsible for knowledge of regulations established by His Majesty's "War Office," July 27, 1764. These regulations specified requirements "for the colours, clothing, etc. of Our marching regiments of foot."11 Orders were issued under these regulations February 19, 1776, requiring "the battalion officers to have espontoons." Thomas Simes, author of The Military Guide for Young Officers (1776), and The Military Medley (1768), tabulates a list, with which Washington would have been familiar (and perhaps Lewis also at a later date), of all "things necessary for a Gentleman to be furnished with, upon obtaining his first commission in the Infantry[:] . . . regimentals, shoes, stockings, boots, spatterdashes" and, prominently listed among other necessaries, an espontoon.12

5. George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels and Redcoats (New York: World Publishing Col, 1957), 431-432, quoting Henry Lee, The Campaign of 1781 in the Carolinas (Philadelphia, 1824), 97-97.

6. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799. Prepared under the directions of the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission and published by authority of Congress, John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1934. 10:190.

7. Ibid., 147.

8. Ibid., 314. See also Harold Leslie Peterson, The Book of the Continental Soldier (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1968), 98-100 for further description; and C. Keith Wilbur, Picture Book of the Continental Soldier (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1969) for illustrations.

9. Ibid., 16:458.

10. Ibid., 18:214-215.

11. Thomas Simes, The Military Guide for Young Officers , 2 vols. (reprint, Philadelphia: Humphreys Bell and Aiken, 1776).

12. Ibid., 370.