Learning military justice lessons from the Lewis and Clark Expedition

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Sean Sabin
  • Staff Judge Advocate
As many of you who have visited the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center are aware, the Corps of Volunteers for North Western Discovery (Corps) was a military detachment of 23 privates, three sergeants and a few hired laborers who volunteered to serve in an expedition under the command of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Capt. William Clark to find a water and land route from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. You also may know that during a portage around the area's falls, many members of the Corps traveled over land that currently is part of Malmstrom AFB. What is less known, however, is that military justice played a critical role in ensuring the expedition's success.

The Expedition for North West Discovery was a military operation, and, as such, 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 essential to the Corps' members as they headed up the Missouri River into uncharted territory. Lewis and Clark, as commanding officers of a dangerous military expedition, had to ensure respect and obedience from their subordinates if the group was to have any chance to succeed. 

When a military rule was violated during the expedition, an 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 the first of seven courts-martial that were held during the expedition. While the punishments imposed on these individuals were not recorded in the expedition's journals, Captain Clark did annotate 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 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 Corps' 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 an extremely high number of judicial actions 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 and an artifact of a by-gone era, there are modern military justice lessons that can be taken from the Lewis and Clark expedition. 

First, the rule of law and discipline is extremely important, especially when personnel are headed into harm's way - be it an expedition into unknown territory or a convoy mission in Iraq. 

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 or a letter of reprimand. 

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 one instance of misconduct, the member's commander should take action, but he or she should consider suspending some or all of the 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.