MS. REBECCA SHEIR
And in the 19th century, one way of doing that among certain sectors of society was by dueling. Dueling actually was outlawed in D.C. 172 years ago this Sunday on February 20, 1839. But until then and as we're about to hear, actually, even after, the local dueling spot of choice was along Maryland Route 450, not too far from the Maryland/D.C. border at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds. Word has it more than 50 duels were fought there, including an infamous dispute between Commodores James Barron and Stephen Decatur.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So I knew a little bit about this corner of history when we planned this whole getting even theme, but admittedly, I didn't know a whole lot, which is why I turned to "Metro Connection's" resident historian, Paul Dickson. We met up recently outside the Decatur house on the northwest side of Lafayette Square, right near the White House where Paul told me the first really major duel at Bladensburg happened in 1838.
MR. PAUL DICKSON
Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Maine had just been elected to the Congress and he made some remarks that a congressman from Kentucky named Graves, William J. Graves, took offence to and challenged him to a duel. And they went out there to Bladensburg and this duel was conducted. For those of you who haven't seen a duel, a duel is -- you're back to back, you go out a certain number of paces, nine was traditional here, nine strides. You would turn and you would have a second to make sure you were -- everything was going fair and they would count to -- they usually count one, two, three and on two, you would fire.
MR. PAUL DICKSON
Well, when Cilley and Graves had their duel, they were using rifles and they kept missing each other. So finally on the third round, the third time these guys are shooting each other from close range and Cilley is killed instantly. And immediately, there's this huge public outcry, an anti-dueling outcry. Andrew Jackson is president and he said, we've got to avenge the blood of Cilley and that the House of Representatives is tainted with his blood.
MR. PAUL DICKSON
And they finally do pass a piece of legislation that outlaws dueling and even Graves actually argues for it. He says that the most courageous thing you can do in a duel is refuse. But then, of course, everybody calls you a coward. So the revenge component in this thing is really bizarre and almost unthinkable in our present way of thinking about things.
Was the ban effective? Did people, in effect, stop dueling?
No. It kept going and the last death at Bladensburg was 1869, which was well after the Civil War. But it was part of the 19th century culture and it's unfathomable today because, well, I mean, we're sitting here at the Decatur House. I mean, Stephen Decatur was a great American naval hero, early Secretary of the Navy and Decatur builds this magnificent home right across from the White House, hires the best architect and a year later, he's dead.
What happened? Can you tell us the story of the duel?
There was a commodore in the War of 1812, Commodore James Barron, and Barron was removed from his command in the navy because he did not have his ship prepared for action in a battle and he was considered unfit for duty. So they took his commission away, his title and his command for five years. After five years, he petitions for getting his commission back and is blocked somehow and he starts to get the feeling that it was Decatur, who was the most powerful man in the navy, who is blocking him.
And finally, in 1819, Decatur actually sends him a note saying -- or letter saying, yes, indeed it is me that is blocking you. So Barron challenges him to a duel. And this duel is interesting because Barron takes a bullet. It goes right through his thigh and he immediately forgives Decatur. He said, I hope you'll forgive me. And he thinks he's mortally wounded. He thinks he's dying. He doesn't. He doesn't die. He lives.
Decatur is shot through the abdomen and when he goes down, according to the most reliable report I was able to find, he says something to effect of, I'm mortally wounded. I only regret that I didn't die in the service of my country. And then they drag him back here and he's in terrible pain overnight and dies in the morning.
So before you mentioned, you know, this concept of revenge through dueling, we couldn't imagine that happening today. But back in the 19th century, wasn't it also an honor thing, sort of a code of honor being a gentleman?
It was a code of honor, which of course you see replicated in the western movies, in "High Noon," where they draw and the two guys pull a gun at the same time and shoot each other. And what's amazing about it is in the 19th century in America, well, I guess all over Europe, it was done on these flimsiest of things, sometimes a rumor or somebody thinks they've insulted their girlfriend or something. I'll tell you what I would have done.
What would you have done, Paul Dickson?
I would have moved out. I would have gone somewhere else. I mean, life is too precious to waste it on some silliness. I guess that's very 20th century of me.
Twenty-first century now...
I know, but I mean, my values were formed in the 20th. Don't run with scissors and no dueling.
Words to live by. Well, Paul Dickson, as always, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for coming out in the cold and talking with me today.
Paul Dickson is co-author of "On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C." He'll be back next month to tell us about the luck and curse of the Hope Diamond so stay tuned.
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