Lewis's Fateful Misstep

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Meriwether Lewis had learned one Section of the Articles the hard way. As a 21-year-old ensign (a "subaltern," the counterpart of a second lieutenant today) he had trod perilously close to an early end of his military career, one way or another, in late September of 1795. While intoxicated, he crashed a party at the house of a Lieutenant Eliott, engaged in an argument over politics, insulted the host, and "disturbed the peace and harmony of a Company of Officers" gathered there. He was thrown out, and in return challenged the lieutenant to a duel. He was arrested, and charged with "a direct, open & contemptuous Violation of the first & second Articles of the seventh section of the Rules and Articles of War," at a general court martial with General Anthony Wayne presiding.

Article 1 of the 1776 code stated, "No officer or soldier shall use any reproachful or provoking speeches or gestures to another, on pain, if an officer, of being put in arrest." Article 2 of the same Section 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." That is, dismissed from the Army. At the inevitable court martial, Lewis was found "not guilty of the charges exhibited against him." What is more, he was "acquitted with honor." Evidently the case was an unusual one, judging from Wayne's closing comment: "The Commander in Chief confirms the foregoing sentence of the General Court Martial, and fondly hopes, 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."1

In one of the most surprising twists of destiny in American history, General Wayne transferred Lewis to the new Chosen Rifle Company of his Legion, placing him under the command of Captain William Clark—at least until Clark resigned his commission six months later and went home to Clarksville, Indiana. That six-month period was long enough for the two men to bond to such a degree that Lewis's choice of a co-commander of the government's expedition to explore "the interior of the continent of North America, or that part of it bordering on the Missourie & Columbia rivers" could have fallen upon no one else. "If," the 29-year-old Lewis wrote to 33-year-old Clark on 19 June 1803, "there is anything...in this enterprise, which would induce you to partricipate with me in it's fatiegues, it's dangers and it's honors, believe me there is no man on earth with whom I should feel equal pleasure in sharing them as with yourself."2

1. Eldon G. Chuinard, "The Court-Martial of Ensign Meriwether Lewis," We Proceeded On, Vol 8, No. 4 (November 1982), 12-15.

2. Jackson, Letters, 1:60.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.