When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off up the Missouri River on May 14, 1804, they led an exploring party with sights set on the Pacific Ocean. However, while Lewis and Clark planned to enter territory unseen by American eyes, they did not allow the unknown to displace military order and the expectation that chains of command be followed. In other words, the Corps of Discovery was a military operation.
Multiple instances throughout the journey illustrate this point, including the Corps of Discovery’s time at their first winter camp, Camp Dubois. For example, five “Detachment Orders” were issued to govern daily life as Lewis and Clark readied the men for the journey west.
The Detachment Orders stem from the absence of Lewis and Clark from Camp Dubois. Tasked with ensuring the Corps of Discovery had adequate supplies, the two captains spent a considerable amount of time during the winter of 1803 through 1804 in St. Louis. Because of their absence, the Detachment Orders ensured a continued line of military authority. 1
The first detachment order is dated February 20, 1804. Understanding the need to maintain military order, Lewis appointed Sergeant John Ordway as commander of Camp Dubois “during the absence of himself and Capt. Clark from Camp.” In this role, Ordway was tasked with maintaining good order and ensuring that the various camp tasks were performed. 2
First among these duties was the maintenance of a daily guard. While some occupations were exempted from this duty, the February 20 orders illustrate the importance that every man must bare his share of this burden. Further illustrating the military nature of life at Camp Dubois is the daily shooting contests ordered by Lewis. Supervised by Ordway, each day’s winner received a “gill of extra whiskey.” 3
While Lewis’ February 20 orders are relatively clear and consistent with military expectations, some members had difficulty complying. These failures necessitated a second set of Detachment Orders on March 3, 1804. Designed to make clear the chain of command, Lewis’ second Detachment Order affirmed Ordway’s authority and admonished Reubin Fields and others. Apparently, Fields, urged on by John Shields, refused to serve his designated guard duty. Learning of the incident, Lewis was “mortifyed [sic] and disappointed” with Fields’ “disorderly conduct.” 4
Fields was not alone in taking advantage of Lewis and Clark’s absence from Camp Dubois. Four other enlisted members took advantage of hunting privileges to visit “a neighbouring [sic] whiskey shop.” Disappointed, Lewis confined these four men to camp for ten days. 5
Lewis’ March 3 Detachment Order must have had its desired effect. Other Detachment Orders dated April 7, April 21, and May 1 do not reference the conduct experienced in the wake of the February 20 order. Rather, each order simply reaffirms Ordway’s position of command in the absence of Lewis and Clark. 6
Not all Detachment Orders issued while at Camp Dubois, however, focused on military discipline. On April 1, 1804, Lewis and Clark issued a Detachment Order confirming the men who would accompany them on the westward journey. In addition to selecting these men, the April 1 order appointed Charles Floyd, John Ordway, and Nathaniel Pryor as sergeants with “equal Power.” The order concluded by organizing the men of the Corps of Discovery into three squadrons. 7
These Detachment Orders are key to understanding the successes obtained by the Corps of Discovery. While simple in form, they reinforce military order and discipline. So far from the educated masses in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Boston, the success of the Corps of Discovery depended on its men abiding to the chain of command. The early punishment of Fields and others set an example of order that allowed Lewis and Clark to trust their men and ensure that the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean.