October 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 5
Meriwether Lewis was brilliant. He was an able leader who prepared and launched the expedition. He proved to be a gifted amateur physician, an excellent student of nature who advanced scientific knowledge, an inventive and resourceful field officer, an honest and observant journalist, and a fine navigator, and in addition to all that, he understood what he had seen and achieved and was able to put his discoveries in perspective.
Yet something wasn’t right. There was his moodiness, his occasional harshness toward his men, his underlying distaste for other people, his condescension toward the tribes he met along the way, extreme even by the racist standards of the day. There was also, as Clay Straus Jenkinson described in a piercing monograph, a strange and twisted quality in his relationships with women (who correctly perceived trouble and rebuffed his advances).
As long as the stable and levelheaded William Clark was on hand to provide ballast, the expedition proceeded without catastrophe, but whenever Lewis was commanding alone, he was more prone to trouble, as when he fell into a deadly confrontation with the Blackfeet. My instinct is that if Clark had been sole commander of the expedition, it would have succeeded, whereas if Lewis had commanded alone, it would have met with disaster.
Lewis’s underlying imbalance swiftly surfaced after his return. He was unable to edit and publish the expedition journals. His long-delayed governorship of Upper Louisiana was marked by acrimony, deteriorating health, and questionable judgment. In that period he speculated foolishly, fell into debt, made enemies, alienated his superiors in Washington, and dug his own grave. Dr. Reimert Thorolf Ravenholt has brilliantly argued that Lewis contracted syphilis during his early contact with the Shoshones in 1805 (when he was apart from Clark) and that this disease rapidly bloomed into a full-blown neurosyphilis that was ruining Lewis’s judgment and stability and would ultimately destroy his reputation when he could no longer conceal it. That was the source of the depression that led Lewis to commit suicide.
Whatever the case, Lewis’s life was a disaster after his return from the West, and his tragic decline ruined what should have been the triumph of his career. He was a man of genius and natural courage, who deserves our esteem. But he also merits a tender understanding of his failure.
For generations Maj. Marcus Reno has been blamed for the disaster at the Little Bighorn in which Sioux and Cheyenne warriors overwhelmed George Custer and his five companies of the 7th Cavalry. Reno was accused of cowardice, of timidity, of bad judgment in the field, of doing nothing while Custer’s command perished.
Reno asked for a court of inquiry. It exonerated him, but in language so bland that he could scarcely count it a victory over his detractors.
Meanwhile, Reno deteriorated. He was not a likable man. He had barely scraped through West Point but had proved a solid, if undistinguished, cavalry officer during the Civil War, rising to brigadier general of volunteers. After the war he served with distinction. But once the accusations of cowardice began raining down on him after the Custer battle, he became combative, getting into brawls with fellow officers. He turned to alcohol and increasingly lost control of himself. He was finally cashiered from service for conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman. In 1967 a military board revised the court-martial sentence and granted Reno an honorable discharge. That permitted his reburial at the national cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Reno deserves respect for his conduct at war. At the Little Bighorn, he did all that a capable and experienced field officer could do against overwhelming odds, and he managed to save part of the 7th Cavalry by reaching defensible high ground. The fruits of Custer’s ill-planned attack should be laid to Custer himself. By employing good judgment and tactics in the field, Reno prevented the destruction, by detail, of the entire 7th Cavalry.
To this day there are usually flowers at Marcus Reno’s grave at the Little Bighorn. The next time I go there, I will add my own.