- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2020

When things turn nasty in Washington today, members of Congress snipe with each other in 140-character blasts on Twitter.

Two centuries years ago, it was pistols at dawn — and Bladensburg dueling grounds was the place, just across the District line and safe from federal officials’ reach, to which the city’s powerful retreated to shoot it out.

At least 50 duels at Bladensburg were reported and 26 recorded in news accounts, and who knows how many more took place without public notice.

Sunday marks the 200th anniversary of the dueling grounds’ most notorious affair, where war hero Commodore Stephen Decatur was mortally wounded by fellow Navy man James Barron, sending the city and the nation into deep mourning.

It’s less known now, but at the time it rivaled the 1804 duel in New Jersey that cost Alexander Hamilton his life. Decatur’s funeral was the largest gathering the still-new city of Washington had ever seen to that point, and was such an event that the House of Representatives adjourned for the day so members could attend.

“A hero has fallen!” blared the headline of the National Intelligencer.

The 1820 Decatur duel also helped make Bladensburg the most famous dueling grounds in the country, so much so that 59 years later, The Washington Post reported that when the Baltimore & Ohio train drove through the area and the conducted announced the Bladensburg stop, “all the passengers throw up the windows and lean out and ask where the dueling grounds is.”

Today, the spot, now inside the boundaries of the town of Colmar Manner, is a shadow of its history. A roadside marker near a heavily-trafficked road notes the location, but only a small field remains. The thickets that shielded the duelists from interlopers have been torn down, replaced by Fort Lincoln Cemetery to one side and an IHOP restaurant on the other.

In its day, though, the dueling grounds made national news.

Harper’s Monthly dedicated a 10-page report to the “celebrated” dueling grounds in 1858, calling it “a locality known all over America,” and papers across the nation dutifully reported showdowns.

Why Bladensburg?

It’s all about location. Look at a map of the city. Unless you want the hassle of crossing a river, it’s the closest spot to the Capitol that puts the duelists outside the district lines — very important for avoiding legal entanglements with federal authority.

The first duel was recorded in 1808, supposedly by two members of Congress who’d intended to fight in Montgomery County, but found themselves hounded by attention and in need of an alternative spot. Other members of Congress soon followed, bringing Capitol Hill’s disputes to what became known as “the dark and bloody ground.”

Dueling for honor has roots dating at least to medieval times, but enjoyed a heyday in the U.S. in the antebellum south.

It was a time when honor meant more than just a word. It was how things got done, says John Peter Thompson, president of the Prince George’s County Historical Society.

“If you had a reputation of honor, a handshake was good,” he said. “What happens when you are dishonored — when you are ‘dissed?’ Your honor is called into question, and dueling becomes a way of settling important matters of honor.”

It wasn’t even important to kill the opponent — or, in some cases, even to shoot. What mattered was being willing to stand in the line of fire.

“The point of a duel was to prove that you were willing to die for your honor,” says Joanne B. Freeman, a professor at Yale University who has written histories of dueling and of Hamilton. “By far, most of the duels that happened, the people were not killed … This is about people proving their honor and reputation.”

The need to defend honor, Harper’s speculated in its 1858 piece, might have been one reason why Bladensburg saw so much action: So many prominent figures from every different culture the young nation had to offer, hashing out the big public policy questions of the day, was bound to mean friction in Washington.

In Decatur’s case the feud had roots years earlier, when Barron surrendered the ship he was captaining to the British Navy in 1807 — an incident that helped spark the War of 1812.

Decatur was a member of the court of inquiry into the surrender, then sat on the court martial that suspended Barron from the Navy. Barron thought it unfair that Decatur sat on both.

And when, after the war, Decatur repeatedly opposed Barron’s application to have his suspension lifted, it led to pistols.

Decatur seemed a reluctant combatant, forced onto the field by his circumstance.

“I should regret the necessity of fighting with any man; but in my opinion, the man who makes arms his profession is not at liberty to decline,” he wrote.

Ms. Freeman said that was common among duelists, many of whom disliked the practice, but felt compelled. Hamilton, for one, said he had to fight, lest the loss of honor drag him so low that he would be unable to pursue his statesmanship.

Decatur and Barron stood eight paces apart, which is closer than usual. Some historians see that as evidence of a plot to leave Decatur at a disadvantage, making his death more likely.

Whatever the intrigues, the result was both men fired, and both were struck. As they lay on the ground, Barron suggested they make amends before dying; Decatur said he’d never considered Barron an enemy in the first place.

“Would to God you had said thus much yesterday!” Barron replied, according to the Harper’s article.

Decatur was carried from the field to his home in Washington, where he died that night. Barron recovered, and was eventually readmitted to the Navy.

States had laws against dueling, but they varied widely.

Ms. Freeman said Massachusetts punished dueling with public humiliation, while Rhode Island only issued a fine. For Massachusetts men of honor, crossing into Rhode Island made plenty of sense.

Getting out of your own jurisdiction was also a good idea because it was tougher to pursue a case against you. If two Marylanders had fought at Bladensburg and one died, the family could seek an indictment against the other duelist, Mr. Thompson said.

He said Maryland men who wanted to square off would use a sandbar in the Potomac River alongside Virginia, south of Alexandria.

Bladensburg itself had multiple dueling spots.

The place where Decatur fell was different than the spot where Armistead T. Mason, a grandnephew of George Mason, died in a duel a year earlier.

Decatur’s death spurred a debate in Congress over whether it could, and should, take steps to outlaw dueling nationally.

But although public sentiment against dueling grew, those efforts in Congress foundered and Bladensburg continued to see its share of death.

Daniel Key, a midshipman at the Naval Academy and son of “Star Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key, was killed in a duel in 1836 by a fellow midshipman. They were supposedly at odds over the speed of a steamboat.

Two years later, Reps. William Graves of Kentucky and Jonathan Cilley of Maine met on the grounds.

Cilley — pronounced like “silly” — thought the idea of a duel preposterous, and knew his northern constituents would find it abhorrent that he fought one, Ms. Freeman said. But, like Hamilton, he felt compelled.

“If you’re going to be a political leader, if you’re going to be a community leader, you really had to defend your honor and your reputation,” Ms. Freeman said.

Cilley and exchanged one round from rifles. Both missed. Their friends attempted a reconciliation between the men, but failed.

They shot again, and missed. Another attempt at reconciliation failed. So they shot a third time, and Cilley was killed.

Ms. Freeman said the duel spurred Congress to investigate, and a year later lawmakers passed the Anti-Duelling Act, making it illegal for anyone within the District of Columbia to give or accept a challenge to fight a duel. Even arranging to leave the city in order to make a challenge was outlawed.

The penalty was up to 10 years of “hard labor in the penitentiary.”

Two decades later Harper’s Monthly reported the thickets had been trimmed away and the field put under the plow, depriving the spot of its signal virtues for dueling.

Yet Harper’s Weekly, in the exact same month, reported that yet another duel had in fact taken place at Bladensburg. Two Army lieutenants got into a scuffle at a barber’s shop and it led to a challenge.

One of the men shot through the other’s hat, and the opponent fired his own pistol into the snow. Both combatants left the field alive.

The same Harper’s Weekly item, though, noted three other dueling challenges that same week that petered out before they reached Bladensburg. One ended in an apology, another challenger earned a court martial for his offense, and the third challenger was arrested for breach of peace.

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