Uncovering the Truth about Meriwether Lewis

Uncovering the Truth about Meriwether Lewis

by Thomas C. Danisi

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The critically acclaimed biography Meriwether Lewis, coauthored by Thomas C. Danisi, was praised for its meticulous research and for shedding new light on the adventurous life and controversial death of the great explorer who became famous through the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Now, the author, with some help from contributors, extends his groundbreaking


The critically acclaimed biography Meriwether Lewis, coauthored by Thomas C. Danisi, was praised for its meticulous research and for shedding new light on the adventurous life and controversial death of the great explorer who became famous through the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Now, the author, with some help from contributors, extends his groundbreaking studies of Meriwether Lewis with this compilation of historical essays that offers new findings based on recently discovered docu­ments, tackling such intriguing subjects as:

-The court-martial of Meriwether Lewis: Danisi’s discovery of the astonishing never-before published transcript of the entire court-martial proceedings affords him the distinction of being the first historian to mine the document for the many insights it offers into the then-untested twenty-one-year-old officer, who eloquently defended himself and won his case.

-Documentation straight from the medical ledgers of Dr. Antoine Saugrain, the physician who treated Governor Lewis, which helps to confirm that Lewis suffered from malaria prior to his celebrated trek to the Pacific Ocean with the Corps of Discovery and continuing through his service as governor of the Louisiana Ter­ritory. Was Lewis’s death, as reported, the result of suicide, or was he merely a victim of this episodic and incurable disease?

-Documentation that proves the true nature of the much-discussed Gilbert Russell State­ment given at the court-martial of General James Wilkinson. Some historians have argued that Wilkinson orchestrated Lewis’s murder, but Danisi’s research sets the record straight.

-The role of Major James Neelly in Lewis’s last days. This subject has gained much prominence through the History Channel, according to which Neelly supposedly lied to President Thomas Jefferson about his presence at Meriwether Lewis’s burial, but Danisi has evidence to the contrary.

The author presents an abundance of additional material to fill in previous historical gaps regarding the mysteries and controversies surrounding Lewis’s life and death. In doing so, he paints a vivid picture of the brilliant rise of an ambitious young man by virtue of courage, talent, and political connections, and the tragic fall of a conscientious public servant under the weight of chronic illness, bureaucratic pettiness, and the political intrigue that was ram­pant throughout America’s Wild West.

This superb contribution to Meriwether Lewis research is a must-read for students and scholars of American history and anyone with an interest in one of our nation’s most important explorers and public servants.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Don't look for the story of Lewis and Clark's exploration of the Northwest Passage here—Danisi has already published a biography (Meriwether Lewis, with John C. Jackson) and myriad articles about Meriwether Lewis and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and this book is an extension of his expansive and thorough investigation. His newest, however, focuses specifically on the contentious events of Lewis's life, from the 1795 court-martial of the 21-year old ensign (the handwritten transcripts of which Danisi consulted in toto, revealing information otherwise unnoticed by historians content to peruse the National Archives summary), to the intermittent and debilitating pain inflicted by malaria contracted the same year, to the desperate fiscal disaster of his governorship of the Louisiana Territory and the mystery surrounding his death. Danisi provides facsimiles of various documents, such as Lewis's journals, medical reports, and more. The research is so extensive that the copious notes and appendices comprise half of the volume. History buffs will find this book invaluable for its impeccable research, attention to detail, and readability. Illus. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"History is filled with mysteries, one of the most persistent of which concerns Meriwether Lewis, whose erratic behavior during his epic journey across North America followed by his controversial death soon after has baffled historians for two centuries. Scholars have long believed that ‘the truth’ or a logical explanation could never be known; otherwise it would have surfaced as a result of the extensive research that preceded the bicentennial of the expedition. At last the truth has surfaced thanks to the persistence and diligence of historian Thomas C. Danisi. Uncovering the Truth about Meriwether Lewis is a must-read for anyone interested in the Corps of Discovery and its pivotal role in the exploration of the American West."
HERMAN J. VIOLA, Curator Emeritus, Smithsonian Institution

"Danisi is a first-rate historical detective. He has discovered more new sources about the life and times of Meriwether Lewis than any researcher alive, and in this book he lays it all out. Here we meet Lewis as defendant in a trial, as a doctor’s patient, and as a harried fiscal manager. Even readers who think they know Lewis will find surprises in this book."
CAROLYN GILMAN, author of Lewis and Clark: Across the Divide

"Passionately argued and painstakingly researched, Danisi’s study of Meriwether Lewis brings new insights into the life of one of America’s most misunderstood heroes."
LANDON JONES, author of William Clark and the Shaping of the West

"Danisi’s latest work on the life of Meriwether Lewis is a gem! The book’s vignettes clarify underappreciated or controversial aspects of Lewis’s life, such as his health. Prior to Danisi’s work, historians attributed Lewis’s death to suicide as a result of lifelong depression, but Danisi hypothesized that the explorer’s untimely death was brought on by ‘the ague’ or malaria. In Uncovering the Truth about Meriwether Lewis, Danisi delivers the proof. The scholarship is backed with additional new evidence and supported with never-before published documentation. A must-read for those interested in Lewis’s controversial life and his crucial role in the assimilation of the Louisiana Purchase."
R. MARK BULLER, PHD, professor of virology, Saint Louis University

"Thomas Danisi has followed up the excellent biography Meriwether Lewis with another exhaustively researched chronicle of important turning points in Lewis’s life. Danisi uncovers truths regarding Lewis’s successful defense at his court-martial, his contested relationship with the bureaucrats in the War Department, and the little known facts surrounding his controversial death. Danisi has emerged as the Meriwether Lewis expert of this generation."
JAY H. BUCKLEY, author of William Clark: Indian Diplomat and coauthor of By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

Product Details

Prometheus Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Thomas C. Danisi

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Thomas C. Danisi
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-505-7

Chapter One

Demanding Satisfaction: The Perilous Trial of Ensign Meriwether Lewis

September 1795 found Meriwether Lewis, a young ensign (a rank later abolished by the army and called "second lieutenant" instead) stationed at Greenville, Ohio (about seventy-five miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio) with the US Army or "Legion of the United States," commanded by Gen. Anthony Wayne. Victorious over the consolidated Indian tribes of the Ohio River Valley, who fought to retain their lands in the face of intense pressure from American settlers, the legion won a great victory at Fallen Timbers in 1794 and forced native chiefs to sign a peace treaty ceding their lands in 1795. With the warfare over and the treaty signed, the legion settled into the boring routine of camp life. Soldiers groused and cursed as they went about their daily routines of fatigue duties and drill, and officers, especially junior officers like Lewis, had a difficult time keeping the men in line while fighting their own ennui. Friction was commonplace among enlisted men, between officers and enlisted men, and within the ranks of the officers themselves.

But despite this dull period in the life of the legion, and the frictions it caused, it was still somewhat surprising when a young officer, Lt. Joseph Elliot, charged Ensign Lewis with being intoxicated and for challenging Elliott to a duel. Challenging a superior officer to a duel fell under the charge of "conduct unbecoming an officer," which led to Lewis's court-martial trial in November of that year.

Lewis's indictment came from an officer who was highly respected. Lt. Elliot's credentials alone seemed to spell disaster for Lewis. In August 1795, Gen. Wayne commended Elliot for providing a great firework display, probably before the signing of the Greenville Treaty.

Head Quarters, Green Ville, 9th August 1795 The Uniform industry, and Professional Knowledge of Lieutenant Elliott, of the Corps of Artillery & Engineers, have not escaped the Notice and Grateful Approbation of the Commander in Chief. The ingenious formation, Judicious Arrangement, and Brilliant display of the fire Works, on the Evening of the 7th Instant, cannot fail of making an indeliable impression upon the Minds of the Savages, not only of the Day, but also of the Principles and Conditions upon which the UNITED STATES of America gave Peace to all the Hostile Tribes of Indians, North West of the Ohio—and adopted them as Children.

A year earlier, Elliot had charged an enlisted man—a Sgt. Chase—with disobeying orders. This charge landed the sergeant before a court-martial; the verdict stripped Chase of his rank and demoted him to a private sentinel.

Then, in late September 1795, Elliot charged Ensign Lewis with intoxication and issuing a challenge to a duel.

Head Quarters, GreenVille 16th November 1795

At the General Court Martial whereof Maj. Shaylor is President, begun on the 6th, and continued by Adjournment untill the 12th Instant, inclusive—Ensign Merriweather Lewis, of the 4th Sub Legion, was tried upon the following Charges exhibited against him by Lieut. Elliott, Viz't—

1st Charge—A direct, open and contemptious Violation of the first and Second Articles of Seventh Section of the Rules and Articles of War—

Specification. 1st. In presuming on or about the 24th of September last to use provokeing Speeches and Gestures to Lt. Elliott in his own House

Specification. 2d. In presuming on the same Day to send Lieut. Elliott a Challenge, to fight a Duel—

2d Charge—Conduct unbecoming an Officer & a Gentleman to Lieut. Elliott on the 24th September.—

Specification. In abruptly, and in an Ungentleman like manner, when intoxicated, entering his (Lieut. Elliotts) House on the 24th September last, and without provocation insulting him, and Disturbing the Peace and Harmony of a Company, of Officers whom he had invited there

Which being stated to him, he Pleads that he is not Guilty thereof—.

It was probably a mixture of honor, intelligence, and mortification that caused Lewis to vigorously deny the charges, but it was the fact that he was ready to defend himself and refute the charges that showed tenacity.

The proceedings of Lewis's military court case file had never been located and were presumed to be lost. What has existed for scholars to examine is a summary document from the National Archives, which briefly describes the specifications and charges of Lewis's misconduct. Furthermore, in the absence of more expansive data, historians have unkindly and critically speculated about Lewis's actions, which have become for them the precursor or template of his alleged moody and intemperate behavior.

Fortunately, after years of intense research, the original court-martial case has been found among the Anthony Wayne Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. 8 The court-martial transcript is about forty handwritten pages and contains a tremendous amount of new material regarding the young Lewis. One can only imagine the stress of this event on the young officer, who was arrested and put in confinement—the court record does not state where he was confined, but undoubtedly, as an officer, this arrest embarrassed and shamed him. The Meriwether Lewis who later led a successful transcontinental exploration and administered a territory a third the size of the modern continental United States emerges in his ability to surmount obstacles—he took advantage of the time to prepare his defense, preserve his honor, and save his career.

Beginning his military career as a volunteer in the Virginia militia, Lewis was so impressed with the "mountains of beef and oceans of whiskey," that he continued serving in the military. But when the twenty-one-year-old joined the Legion of the United States as an ensign on May 1, 1795, due to what he called a "Quixotic disposition," his mother already knew that he would forego his duties to oversee the family's Charlottesville farm. Joining the legion in peacetime was supposed to be easy, but there was inner turmoil among the ranks of officers, a hatred and contempt possessed by Gen. James Wilkinson toward his commanding officer, Gen. Anthony Wayne, and the fort was rampant with illness at various times of the year.

Since William Clark was also serving, as a lieutenant in the Legion of the United States at this period, there has been a lot of speculation by historians about how his presence might have affected the outcome of the trial and whether he and Lewis had yet become friends. Descriptions of fort life at Greenville are numerous and have been compiled from journals, diaries, military orderly books, and court-martial papers. While some diary entries contain information about William Clark, and Clark kept his own diaries, none mention Meriwether Lewis. One of the more puzzling questions in Lewis and Clark literature concerns when the two men first met. Clark accepted a position as quartermaster in the Fourth Sub-Legion in August 1794, right before the decisive Battle of Fallen Timbers, and Lewis joined the regular army, in the Second Sub-Legion, on May 1, 1795.

The summary document of the court-martial at the National Archives states that on November 16, 1795, Ensign Lewis was an officer of the Fourth Sub-Legion. Historian Stephen Ambrose suggested in Undaunted Courage that the sub-legion transfer (from Second to Fourth) occurred because Lewis "quite obviously could not continue to serve in the same outfit as Lieutenant Elliot," and thus, Gen. Wayne transferred Lewis to Clark's Chosen Rifle Company to avoid friction between the two men between the time Elliot brought the accusations and the date of the trial. That made perfect sense as a speculation, but records show that on September 24 Elliot was an officer in the Third Sub-Legion. The answer instead lies somewhere between May 1 and September 9, 1795, when Lewis transferred to another battalion. The court-martial transcript dated November 6, 1795, shows that Ensign Lewis was already in the Fourth Sub-Legion by that date. Lewis and Clark had to have met prior to September 9, because on that day, Clark received orders for a secret assignment that would keep him occupied and away from Greenville until the very eve of the court-martial. On September 10, Clark and seventeen men departed Fort Greenville on a reconnaissance mission to meet with Spanish officials and demand an end to intrusions on American soil. Clark reported back to Greenville on November 4, and Lewis's trial commenced two days later. In all probability, the battalion transfer occurred because of Lewis's keen expertise in shooting a rifle, which caught Clark's attention.

Gen. Wayne, as commander in chief of the legion at Fort Greenville, perused every court-martial trial verdict and sometimes changed the court's decision based on preference or using the officer's reputation to teach the enlisted men a lesson. Wayne was irritated with officers who used the court-martial system to settle personal disputes instead of working it out among themselves, and some abused the system repeatedly, according to military law historian Bradley Nicholson, because of their "personal malice and resentment—and without any regard to the benefit of the service, or to the Honor of the Legion." Lewis would specifically remind the court of this mandate during his trial:

The Commander in Chief further observes that he hopes in future the times of the Officers will not be taken up, or their feelings tortured by hearing and recording charges and proceedings, which only tend to disgrace the orderly books of the Legion. Can any doubt, but what the Commander in Chief, was induced to make those observations from the most noble motives truly worthy of himself ... the good of the service.—The reputations of the Officers of his Corps. An anxiety that they should distinguish themselves as gentlemen, men of honor, men who are ever as willing to unsheath the sword in redress of private injuries, as public rongs. Also that the records of this noble Tribunal, a Tribunal which ought to be held sacred to honor and justice among military men, should not be disgraced with charges fostered by malice and dictated by spleen.

Lt. Elliot had caught Ensign Lewis on a technicality, that he had violated the officers' honor code. That was a serious problem that military historian Bradley Nicholson clarified: "Behavior unbecoming an officer and gentleman served as a vague catch-all for undesired behavior by officers." Nicholson pointed out that "the Articles of War never defined conduct unbecoming an officer" and, by keeping the term undefined, "effectively left regulation of officer's behavior up to self-definition and self-enforcement." What seemed like an open-and-shut case against Lewis was now showing cracks.

Prior to the first day of the trial, Lewis requested that four members of the court be removed. These members had some conflict of interest with Lewis that he felt could jeopardize his reputation.

Ensign M. Lewis had objected to four members of the Gen. Court Martial appointed to try him, viz Capt. Marts, Lieut. Sterett, Lieut. Webster and Lieut. Bissell—The Commander in Chief was made acquainted with the circumstance and directed that four other members should be detailed to supply their places on the Court.

Courts-martial were governed by the Articles of War, familiar to each soldier because they were read to every man as part of his enlistment procedure and once again four times annually to the assembled companies on the parade ground. The Articles of War specified two types of courts-martial, a general and a regimental. A general court-martial was formed to hear cases of a capital nature—that is, cases for which the death penalty might be invoked, or, in the case of Lewis, a case in which he might be cashiered from the service. It was composed of from five to thirteen commissioned officers, with the Articles stressing the necessity of having the full complement of thirteen officers serve if at all possible. Only a general court-martial could hear cases involving commissioned officers. At this time, there was no jury in a general court-martial; the officers appointed to hear the case were the judges and jury, making the composition of the court extremely important to what the verdict might be.

For a man who had, as far as we know, no experience in a military court, the young Lewis showed great skill. He served as his own defense attorney, assembling his case, calling witnesses, and preparing his summary arguments. His first act of legal diplomacy came in bumping potentially hostile officers from the court and then smoothing the waters:

I hope none of the gentlemen I have objected to have felt themselves hurt on the occasion—I also feel myself disagreeably situated to be obliged to make my objections known which respect the last members which I have objected to—But I trust they will excuse me knowing my reputation is at stake and the obligation is from the order of the Commander in Chief and not from myself.

Far from blemishing Lewis's record, as some historians have maintained, the full trial record shows instead that Lewis was a young man of great resourcefulness and intelligence in the handling of his case.

Once the trial started, Elliot's witnesses told their version of the events of September 24, 1795. On that evening Elliot was hosting a convivial party for a small group of officers in his quarters. Lewis arrived during the course of the party accompanied with a Mr. Rand, interrupting the group with his knock at the door and requesting a private conversation with one of the attendees. Lt. Diven said that Lewis asked to speak to him on the porch of the officer's quarters:

[T]hey stepped aside, opened a door which leads to a platform projecting towards the Park—they left the door on a jar perhaps about half open—Doctor Carmichael got up and pushed too the door with his foot—Mr Elliot replied,—that was perfectly right, as he or they (alluding to the Company) did not wish to hear their conversation—in a short space of time the conversation of the gentlemen on the platform became so loud that we heard the sound of their voices.—Mr Elliot rose saying "this is wrong" and opened the door and addressed himself to Mr Diven "Sir you are my guest you were invited here pray do take your seat gentleman (addressing himself to the others) I am sorry that you came to my house to settle your disputes"—Mr Lewis turned into the house and appeared to be very much hurt and answered Mr Elliot "that he did not come to his house to settle his disputes nor had he any dispute with Mr Diven that he wished to settle"—more conversation of this kind perhaps past on both sides ... and Mr Elliot mentioned that he wished them to sit down and take a glass of brandy and water and say no more on the Subject.

Elliot confronted Lewis in a roompacked with his guests and embarrassed the ensign.

Mr Elliot warmly said that his house should be sacred that he would not suffer any disputes to be settled in it while he was master of it ... but that his favor would be open to any gentleman officer at any time in a respectable decent way—Mr Lewis and Mr Rand in consequence of the second conversation immediately went down stairs—In a few minutes Mr Lewis came up the stairs again—the company were seated round the table—Mr Lewis stepped up towards Mr Elliot and addressed himself ... "Sir I am now perfectly cool I consider myself to have been insulted in your house and by you Sir—as an officer and a gentleman I wish for Satisfaction, in two hours I will see you"—Mr Elliot replied "Very well Sir"—Mr Lewis then descended the stairs again.


Excerpted from UNCOVERING the TRUTH ABOUT MERIWETHER LEWIS by Thomas C. Danisi Copyright © 2012 by Thomas C. Danisi. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Thomas C. Danisi, an independent scholar and freelance writer, is the coauthor of Meriwether Lewis (with John C. Jackson) and the author of numerous articles on the history surrounding Meriwether Lewis and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

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