Meriwether Lewis's Coded Review of Officers

One of Meriwether Lewis's first jobs as the President's personal secretary was to help Jefferson decrease the size of officer corps of the United States Army, a task with political ramifications that Jefferson hoped to avoid through the use of a coded rating system. At Jefferson's request, the War Department supplied the President's Office with a roster of all commissioned officers, dated July 24, 1801. The roster lists nearly 300 officers, ranging in rank from Brigadier General to Lieutenant, and was originally broken into four columns -- Names, Rank, Date of Commission, and State. The title for the fifth column, Remarks, is in a different hand (compare the "R"s in Rank and Remarks), and historians believe that Lewis added this column to hold his coded notations. He returned the list to Jefferson along with a key to decipher his codes. Among the eleven symbols in the code are six that relate the political opinions of each officer, such as the "+++++o%" symbol (see key to codes below) that Lewis used to indicate that four members of the Army's General Staff were "opposed most violently to the Administration and still active in its vilification."

The image above is excepted from a portion of the roster concerning the First Regiment of Artillerists and Engineers (the entire document is available from The Library of Congress). Using the key (see below) Lewis provided to his codes, Jefferson would have read the following:

  • Samuel Fowle, a Lieutenant commissioned on February 22, 1799, from Massachusetts, was unknown to Lewis
  • James House, a Lieutenant commissioned on February 22, 1799, from Pennsylvania, was "an officer of the first rank" whose "political opinions are not positively ascertained"
  • Ebenezer Beche, a Lieutenant commissioned on February 22, 1799, from Connecticut, was "an officer of the first rank" who was "opposed to the Administration [more] decisively"

According to what is known about Jefferson's handling of the effort, neither Lt. Fowle, nor Lt. House, nor Lt. Beche would have been affected by the reduction of the army.

Click here to see a full transcription of the excerpt above and key below.

Key to Lewis's Coded "Remarks"

Click here to see a transcription of the excerpt and key above.

Images courtesy the Library of Congress: Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence: 1651-1827 --- War Department, July 24, 1801, List of Army Officers.

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