Bang! Bang! You're Dead

Dueling at the drop of a hat was as European as truffles, and as American as mom's apple pie

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Many Westerners didn’t own dueling pistols and used what they did have, homelier weapons, including the wicked bowie knife that could slice off a man’s nose like butter. In Denver versus Gilbert, the weapons were rifles at murderously close range. (With rifles, if your weapon misfired you were in deep trouble.) Around the same time and place Charles Lippincott, editor of the Sierra Citizen, killed a lawyer named Tevis in a duel with double-barreled shotguns loaded with ball at 40 yards. The effect was quite gruesome.

Even as late as mid-century there were few laws against dueling, and where such laws existed they proved hard to enforce, harder to prosecute and hardest to explain to a jury. Dueling was still considered, even by the federal lawmakers, as the mark of a manly and vigorous society and necessary to keep rude tongues in check. In 1838 Congress did make it illegal to offer or accept a challenge within the District of Columbia, but that same year Gov. John Wilson of South Carolina issued his 16-page pamphlet revising and updating the Code Duello for American use, even softening the European prejudice against fighting one’s social inferiors. It was a big seller, regularly reprinted for years.

Machismo could be more safely unleashed in making money, and legions of lawyers sprang up to defend, less colorfully but more profitably, our good names in libel suits.

By 1859, eighteen states had banned dueling, with little perceptible effect. Indignant duelists—with their seconds, attending physicians and sometimes crowds of onlookers in tow—continued to troop out of town or across a state border or simply into a grove of trees to settle their differences. New Yorkers slipped across the river to New Jersey, to Hoboken or to Weehawken, where Hamilton met Burr. The dueling doctors of New Orleans repaired, like all the bloods of that mettlesome town, to a grove known as “The Oaks” to settle medical matters—surgical methods, purges, poultices and the proper treatment of typhoid—with sword and pistol.

Islands and sandbars were popular because of their ambiguous jurisdiction. Richmond duelists headed for Belle Isle in the James River. Vidalia, in the Mississippi, was favored in Natchez, in part because it was convenient for the citizens to row over and watch. Bloody Island served St. Louis. Memphis duelists often crossed the river to Arkansas to fight, while farther south, Arkansans repaired to the mouth of the White River in Mississippi. Mid-river, on a paddle-wheel steamer, was another oasis, and James Bowie killed a gambler in a duel over a card game aboard the Orleans.

Most famous of all was the more-or-less-official national dueling ground in Bladensburg, Maryland, a convenient mile or so beyond the District of Columbia line. Here, on 15 vine-choked acres, a hundred or more duels were fought. It has been described as “the court of last resort, in which weighty points of etiquette, social and political problems and questions of veracity, propriety and right were expounded by the convincing power of gunpowder.” It was here that Gen. Armistead Mason died by a shotgun slug from his cousin, Col. John McCarty. It was here that Commodore Stephen Decatur, a brave and dashing officer, fell.

The Navy had long treasured its dueling tradition; a copy of the Code Duello was in every midshipman’s handbook, and until the Civil War no niggling official rules hampered naval dueling. In 1808 Decatur sat on the court-martial board that suspended Capt. James Barron, in effect, for mishandling a confrontation with the British Navy, and Barron went abroad to brood. Decatur became the wildly popular hero of the War of 1812 and coiner of the phrase “Our country, right or wrong.” When Barron came back and asked to be reinstated, Decatur opposed him. Barron called him out, and they met at Bladensburg, eight paces apart. Decatur, 41 years old and by all accounts as sweet-natured as he was brave, died that night; Barron lived to be 89.

Around 1857 Bladensburg’s bloody ground was cleared, plowed and planted. Dueling, however, fueled by the passions of the impending Civil War, was hardly deterred. Indeed, the Civil War itself, and the Southern response to it, sometimes seems more an affair of honor than a war, involving what might be called collective personal pride more than common sense or public advantage.

The temper of the country was shifting, however. By war’s end, enough blood had been shed to give many a distaste for the deliberate gore of dueling. Public opinion, the only effective court, changed, and anti-dueling laws were enforced. The lawless territories settled into respectable statehood. Commerce flourished, and a man’s reputation came to rest more on his cash than his courage; and besides, the war had left a backlog of certified heroes who didn’t need to prove themselves under further fire.

Dueling lingered in the reckless Far West and the proud-tempered South. It wasn’t until 1893 that Joseph Bryan, Confederate hero and editor of the influential Richmond Times, rejected a challenge, calling the custom “absurd and barbarous,” and was widely applauded for his stand. The custom ground slowly to a halt.


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