Year of Leadership: Lewis and Clark leadership lessons

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Sean Sabin
  • 341st Missile Wing Staff Judge Advocate
Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; [it] procures success to the weak and esteem to all.
- Col. George Washington, then 25 years old, in a 1757 letter to the captains of the Virginia regiments 

Discipline was key to the expedition's success

As I wrote in an editorial last year, the Lewis and Clark expedition provides an excellent example of the critical role discipline plays in the success of a military mission. The expeditionary unit, officially called the Corps of Volunteers for North Western Discovery, was a military detachment of 23 privates, three sergeants and a few hired laborers who volunteered to serve under the command of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Capt. William Clark. They were charged with finding a water and land route from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean.

Since the expedition was a military operation, its members were required to comply with military rules and regulations contained in two documents - Articles of War and Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. These documents, precursors to today's Uniform Code of Military Justice, were as important as any other gear brought on the expedition. Captains Lewis and Clark, as commanding officers of a dangerous military expedition, had to ensure respect and obedience from their subordinates if the operation was to have any chance to succeed.

When a military rule was violated during the expedition, administrative action often was taken against the transgressor. If such an action did not reform the soldier, however, the commanding officers would not hesitate to convene a court-martial. For example, in March 1804, Captain Lewis issued a withering 452-word reprimand to six soldiers who had not performed guard mount, had been disorderly, and/or had been absent without leave. Later that month, when two of these soldiers again disobeyed orders, Captain Clark convened a court-martial. While the members' findings and the punishments they imposed were not recorded in the expedition's journals, Capain Clark annotated that the experience appeared to have a positive effect on the two members, and that both asked for forgiveness and promised to do better in the future.

The next court-martial occurred in May 1804 when four enlisted soldiers served as court-martial panel members on a case involving two privates who were accused of being AWOL and one private who was accused of being AWOL, behaving in an unbecoming manner and responding disrespectfully when informed of orders issued by Captain Clark. The first two privates pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 25 lashes to their backs. These sentences were suspended, however, based on their previous good conduct. The third private, who had contested some of the allegations, was found guilty of all charges by the panel and was sentenced to receive 50 lashes to his back in the presence of the expedition's members.

One of the most serious courts-martial of the expedition occurred in July 1804 when Alexander Willard was charged with sleeping at his post while serving as sentinel, an offense punishable by death. Given the serious nature of the crime, both commanding officers participated in Willard's court-martial. The court-martial panel found him guilty of the charge and sentenced him to 100 lashes to be administered publicly over four days, with 25 lashes administered each day.

In total, seven courts-martial were convened during a nine month period as the expedition headed west. While this may seem to be a high number given the small size of the expedition, it actually was less than the norm from a metrics standpoint. In fact, it was not uncommon during that era for a unit to have an annual ratio of courts-martial to soldiers of 1:1.

While lashing someone as punishment thankfully is incongruous to today's sensibilities, there are modern disciplinary lessons that can be taken from the expedition.

First, the rule of law and discipline is extremely important - whether a unit is on an expedition into unknown territory, executing a convoy mission in Iraq or ensuring the strategic defense of the United States and its allies.

Second, supervisors should seek to impose a graduated pattern of discipline against their subordinates. If a letter of counseling can adequately address a member's misconduct, that administrative tool should be used. If that member again engages in the same misconduct, however, a more severe action should be taken, such as a letter of admonition, a letter of reprimand or non-judicial punishment.

Third, a member's entire record should be considered when deciding what action to take in response to a disciplinary infraction. If an Airman who has had an otherwise spotless record engages in misconduct, the member's chain of command should take action, but it should consider suspending a portion of any imposed punishment in recognition of the member's one-time failure.

Finally, all Airmen are an important part of the military justice system. Today an enlisted member can serve on a court-martial panel just as in 1804. Such service is critical to the successful administration of military justice, and all Airmen, both enlisted and officers, should be ready and willing to perform such important duty.

A wingman failure resulted in tragedy

Unfortunately the lessons that can be learned from this historic journey do not end with the unit's completion of its mission. As is often the case, there is a second part of the story that is far less known and discussed - Captain Meriwether Lewis's suicide.

After completing the expedition, President Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis to serve in St. Louis as governor of the Louisiana Territory. Unfortunately, his tenure as governor was not successful and he battled depression. Rather than seeking treatment for his condition - I doubt there were many treatment options in early 18th century St. Louis - he often turned to alcohol for solace. He also contracted malaria and frequently self-medicated with a combination of opium and morphine to deal with the physical pain. Further, he was lonely and under tremendous personal stress: two successive relationships with women ended due to his condition, and the media and political opponents alleged that he had authorized illegitimate governmental expenditures.

Ignoring his poor physical condition and mental health, Gov. Lewis decided to travel to Washington, D.C., to explain why he had approved the questionable authorizations. Given his condition, he should never have been permitted to leave St. Louis. He drank heavily as he traveled, and twice along the way to present-day Memphis, Tenn., he attempted suicide, once by jumping into the Mississippi River in an attempt to drown himself. From Memphis, he began the overland portion of the trip to Washington, D.C., but he did not make it very far. On October 11, 1809, he was found dead at a tavern near Nashville, Tenn., with slashed wrists and gunshot wounds to his head and chest.

It is quite possible that Gov. Lewis would have committed suicide even if efforts had been undertaken to get him the help he needed, but there is no indication that anyone took any steps to ensure his mental well being. The signs of his distress where obvious - a painful physical malady, substance abuse, relationship problems, and, perhaps most significantly, tremendous stress caused by accusations of financial misconduct. Despite all this, it appears no one stepped in and said, "Gov. Lewis, you need help."

If you are supervising an individual who is being investigated for alleged misconduct, be cognizant of the stress that individual is experiencing. That does not mean investigations should not be completed and appropriate discipline should not be administered, but it does mean that the individual should have a wingman to look after him or her and strong spiritual and mental health support should be ready to provide assistance whenever needed.

In his eulogy for Gov. Lewis, President Jefferson said, "His courage was undaunted; his firmness and perseverance yielded to nothing but impossibilities."

I believe the remarkable success of the Lewis and Clark expedition was a by-product of strong leadership forged with strict discipline. I also believe the country prematurely lost a great leader because, at that time, there was no system for identifying someone struggling with difficult times and providing him support.