South American Fights and Fighters - Cyrus T. Brady

Some Famous American Duels

We are accustomed to regard our country as peculiarly law-abiding and peaceful. This, in spite of the fact that three presidents have been murdered within the last forty-five years, a record of assassination of chief magistrates surpassed in no other land, not even in Russia. We need not be surprised to learn that in no country was the serious duel, the combat a l'outrance, so prevalent as in the United States at one period of our national development. The code of honor, so-called, was most profoundly respected by our ancestors; and the number of eminent men who engaged in duelling—and of whom many lost their lives on the field—is astonishing. Scarce any meeting was without its fatal termination, perhaps owing to the fact that pistols and rifles were generally used, and Americans are noted for their marksmanship.

There has been a revulsion of public sentiment which has brought about the practical abolition of duelling in America. Although the practice still obtains in continental European countries, it is here regarded as immoral, and it is illegal as well. For one reason, in spite of the apparent contradiction above, we are a law-abiding people. The genius of the Anglo-Saxon—I, who am a Celt, admit it—is for the orderly administration of the law, and much of the evil noted comes from the introduction within our borders of an imperfectly assimilated foreign element which cherishes different views on the subject. Another deterrent cause is a cool common sense which has recognized the futility of trying to settle with blade or bullet differences which belong to the courts; to this may be added a keen sense of humor which has seen the absurdity and laughed the practice out of existence. The freedom of the press has also been a contributing factor. Perhaps the greatest deterrent, however, has been the development of a sense of responsibility for life and its uses to a Higher Power.

As General Grant has put it, with the matchless simplicity of greatness: "I do not believe I ever would have the courage to fight a duel. If any man should wrong me to the extent of my being willing to kill him, I should not be willing to give him the choice of weapons with which it should be done, and of the time, place, and distance separating us when I executed him. If I should do any other such a wrong as to justify him in killing me, I would make any reasonable atonement within my power, if convinced of the wrong done."

With this little preliminary, I shall briefly review a few of the most noted duels in our history.

A Tragedy of Old New York

On Wednesday, the 11th of July, 1804, at seven o'clock on a bright, sunny, summer morning, two men, pistol in hand, confronted each other on a narrow shelf of rocky ground jutting out from the cliffs that overlook the Hudson at Weehawken, on the Jersey shore. One was a small, slender man, the other taller and more imposing in appearance. Both had been soldiers; each faced the other in grave quietude, without giving outward evidence of any special emotion.

One was at that time the Vice-president of the United States; the other had been Secretary of the Treasury, a general in command of the army, and was the leading lawyer of his time. The Vice-president was brilliantly clever; the ex-Secretary was a genius of the first order.

A political quarrel had brought them to this sorry position. Words uttered in the heat of campaign, conveying not so much a personal attack as a well-merited public censure, had been dwelt upon until the Vice-president had challenged his political antagonist. The great attorney did not believe in duels. He was a Christian, a man of family; he had everything to lose and little to gain from this meeting. Upon his great past he might hope to build an even greater future. He was possessed of sufficient moral courage to refuse the meeting, but had, nevertheless, deliberately accepted the other's challenge. It is believed that he did so from a high and lofty motive; that he felt persuaded of the instability of the Government which he had helped to found, and that he realized that he possessed qualities which in such a crisis would be of rare service to his adopted country. His future usefulness, he thought—erroneously, doubtless, but he believed it—would be impaired if any one could cast a doubt upon his courage by pointing to the fact that he had refused a challenge.

Thirty months before, his son, a bright lad of eighteen, fresh from Columbia College, had been shot dead in a duel which he had brought upon himself by resenting a public criticism of his father. He had fallen on that very spot where his father stood. I think that the tragedy must have been in the great statesman's mind that summer morning.

The word was given. The two pistols were discharged. The Vice-president, taking deliberate aim, fired first. The ex-Secretary of the Treasury, who had previously stated to his second that he did not intend to fire at his adversary, discharged his pistol in the air. He had been hit by the bullet of his enemy, and did not know that as he fell, by a convulsive movement, he had pulled the trigger of the weapon in his hand.

Hamilton and Burr Duel


That was the end—for he died the next day after lingering agonies—of Alexander Hamilton, the greatest intellect and one of the greatest personalities associated with the beginning of this Government. It was also the end of his successful antagonist, Aaron Burr, for thereafter he was a marked man, an avoided, a hated man. When abroad in 1808, he gave Jeremy Bentham an account of the duel, and said that he "was sure of being able to kill him." "And so," replied Bentham, "I thought it little better than a murder." "Posterity," the historian adds, "will not be likely to disturb the judgment of the British philosopher."

Andrew Jackson as a Duellist

Comparatively speaking, the next great duel on my list attracted little more than local attention at the time. Years after, when one of them who took part in it had risen to national fame, and was a candidate for the Presidency, it was revived and made much of. On Friday, the 30th of May, 1806, Charles Dickinson, a young man of brilliant abilities, born in Maryland and residing in Tennessee, met Andrew Jackson, of the latter state, near the banks of a small stream called the Red River, in a sequestered woodland glade in Logan County, Ky., a day's ride from Nashville.

Unwittingly, and with entire innocence on the part of both parties, Andrew Jackson had placed his wife in an equivocal position by marrying her before a divorce had separated her from her husband. Absolutely no blame, except, perhaps, a censure for carelessness, attaches to Jackson or his wife, and their whole life together was an example of conjugal affection. However, his enemies—and he had many—found it easy to strike at him through this unfortunate episode. There did not live a more implacable and unforgiving man, when his wife was slandered, than Andrew Jackson.

Dickinson, who was a political rival, spoke slurringly of Mrs. Jackson. He apologized for it on the plea that he had been in his cups at the time, but Jackson never forgave him. A political difference as an ostensible cause of quarrel soon developed. Dickinson sent a challenge which was gladly accepted. The resulting duel was probably the most dramatic that ever occurred in the United States. Dickinson was a dead shot. So, for that matter, was Jackson, but Dickinson was remarkable for the quickness of his fire, while Jackson was slower. The arrangements stipulated that the combatants should be placed at the close distance of eight paces; that the word "fire!" should be given, after which each was to fire one shot at will. Rather than be hurried and have his aim disturbed, Jackson determined to sustain Dickinson's fire and then return it at his leisure.

"What if he kills you or disables you?" asked his second.

"Sir," replied Jackson deliberately, "I shall kill him though he should hit me in the brain!"

This is no gasconade or bravado, but simply an evidence of an intensity of purpose, of which no man ever had a greater supply than Andrew Jackson.

Dickinson fired instantly the word was given. A fleck of dust arose from the loose coat which covered the spare form of the General, but he stood apparently untouched. Dickinson, amazed, shrank back from the peg indicating his position. Old General Overton, Jackson's second, raised his pistol.

"Back to the mark, sir!" he thundered, as the unhappy young man exclaimed in dismay.

"Great God! Have I missed him?"

Dickinson recovered himself immediately, stepped back to the mark, and folded his arms to receive Jackson's fire. The hammer of the Tennesseean's pistol stopped at half-cock. He deliberately re-cocked his weapon, took careful aim again, and shot Dickinson through the body. Seeing his enemy fall, Jackson turned and walked away. It was not until he had gone one hundred yards from the duelling ground and was hidden by the thick poplar trees, that his second noticed that one of his shoes was filled with blood. Dickinson had hit the General in the breast, inflicting a severe wound, and might have killed him had not the bullet glanced on a rib. The iron-nerved Jackson declared that his reason for concealing his wound was that he did not intend to give Dickinson the satisfaction of knowing that he had hit his enemy before he died.

Twenty-two years after, as Jackson stood by his dead wife's body, he "lifted his cane as if appealing to heaven, and by a look commanding silence, said, slowly and painfully, and with a voice full of bitter tears:

"'In the presence of this dear saint I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy!'"

The Killing of Stephen Decatur

The idol of the American Navy was Stephen Decatur. James Barron, a disgraced officer under suspension for his lack of conduct during the famous affair between the British ship Leopard and the American ship Chesapeake, had taken no part in the war of 1812, for causes which afforded him sufficient excuse; but subsequently he sought re-employment in the navy. Decatur, who had been one of the court which tried and sentenced him before the war, and who was now a naval commissioner, opposed his plea. The situation brought forth a challenge from Barron. Decatur was under no necessity of meeting it. As commissioner, he was in effect, Barron's superior, and Washington had laid down a rule for General Greene's guidance in a similar case that a superior officer is not amenable to challenge from a junior officer whom he has offended in course of duty. The principle is sound common sense, as everybody, even duellists, will admit. Nevertheless, such was the state of public opinion about questions of "honor" that Decatur felt constrained to accept the challenge.

The two naval officers met on the duelling ground at Bladensburg, "the cockpit of Washington duellists," on the 22nd of March, 1820. Barron was near-sighted, and insisted upon a closer distance than the usual ten paces. They were placed a scant eight paces apart. Decatur, who was a dead shot, did not wish to kill Barron; at the same time he did not deem it safe to stand his adversary's fire without return. Therefore he stated to his second that he would shoot Barron in the hip. Before the duel, Barron expressed the hope that if they met in another world they might be better friends. Decatur replied gravely that he had never been Barron's enemy. Under such circumstances it would appear that the quarrel might have been composed without the shedding of blood.

At the word "two" the men fired together, Decatur's bullet struck Barron in the hip, inflicting a severe but not mortal wound. At the same instant Barron's bullet passed through Decatur's abdomen, inflicting a wound necessarily fatal then, probably so, even now. As he lay on the ground the great commodore said faintly:

"I am mortally wounded—at least, I believe so—and I wish I had fallen in defence of my country."

He died at ten o'clock that night, regretted by all who love brave men the world over.

An Episode in the Life of James Bowie

Of a different character, but equally interesting, was an encounter in August, 1829, which has become famous because of one of the weapons used with deadly effect. On an island in the Mississippi River, opposite Natchez, which was nothing but a sand bar with some undergrowth upon it, a party of men met to witness and second a duel between a Dr. Maddox and one Samuel Wells. The spectators were all interested in one or the other combatant, and had taken part in a neighborhood feud which arose out of a speculation in land.

The two principals exchanged two shots without injury, whereupon the seconds and spectators, unable to restrain their animosity, started a free fight. Judge Crane, of Mississippi, was the leader on one side; James Bowie, of Georgia, the principal man on the other. Crane was armed with a brace of duelling pistols; Bowie had nothing but a knife. Bowie and a friend of his, named Currey, attacked Crane after the Maddox-Wells duel had been abandoned. Crane was wounded in the left arm by a shot from Currey; he thereupon shot Currey dead and with his remaining pistol he wounded Bowie in the groin. Nevertheless, Bowie resolutely came on. Crane struck him over the head with his pistol, felling him to the ground. Undaunted, Bowie scrambled to his feet and made again for Crane.

Major Wright, a friend of Crane's, now interposed, and thrust at Bowie with a sword cane. The blade tore open Bowie's breast. The terrible Georgian, twice wounded though he was, caught Wright by the neck-cloth, grappled with him, and threw him to the ground, falling upon him.

"Now, Major, you die," said Bowie coolly, wrenching his arm free and plunging his knife into Wright's heart.

The knife had been made by Bowie's brother Rezin out of a blacksmith's rasp. It was shaped in accordance with his own ideas, and James Bowie used it with terrible effect. It was the first of the celebrated "Bowie knives" which played so great a part in frontier quarrels.

In the general melee which followed the death of Wright and Currey, six other men were killed and fifteen severely wounded. Bowie was a noted duellist in his day, and died heroically in the famous siege of the Alamo.

On one occasion he was a passenger on a Mississippi steamboat with a young man and his bride. The young man had collected a large sum of money for friends and employers, which he gambled away on the boat. Bowie kept him from suicide, took his place at the gaming-table, exposed the cheating of the gamblers, was challenged by one of them, fought him on the hurricane deck of the steamer, shot him into the river, and restored the money to the distracted husband.

Brief reference may be made to an affair between Major Thomas Biddle, of the United States Army, and Congressman Spencer Pettis, of Missouri, on August 27, 1831. The cause of the duel was a political difficulty. The two men stood five feet apart, their pistols overlapping. Both were mortally wounded. This was nothing less than a double murder, and shows to what length men will go under the heat of passion or the stimulus of a false code of honor.

A Famous Congressional Duel

On February the 24, 1838, at a quarter after three o'clock on the Marlborough Road in Maryland, just outside the District of Columbia, two members of Congress, Jonathan Cilley of Maine, and William J. Graves of Kentucky, exchanged shots with rifles at a distance of ninety yards three times in succession. At the third exchange, Cilley was shot and died in three minutes. Of all the causes for deadly encounters, that which brought these two men opposite each other was the most foolish. Cilley, on the floor of the House, had reflected upon the character of a newspaper editor in the discussion of charges which had been made against certain Congressmen with whom he had no personal connection. The newspaper editor, whose subsequent conduct showed that he fully merited even more severe strictures than Cilley had passed upon him, sent a challenge to the gentleman from Maine by the hand of Congressman Graves.

Cilley took the justifiable position that his language had been proper and privileged, and that he did not propose to accept a challenge or discuss the matter with any one. He assured Graves that this declination to pursue the matter further was not to be construed as a reflection upon the bearer of the challenge. There was no quarrel whatever between Cilley and Graves. Nevertheless, Graves took the ground that the refusal to accept the challenge which he had brought was a reflection upon him. He thereupon challenged Cilley on his own behalf. Efforts were made to compose the quarrel but Cilley was not willing to go further than he had already done. He positively refused to discuss the editor in question. He would only repeat that he intended no reflection upon Mr. Graves, whom he respected and esteemed, by refusing the editor's challenge. This was not satisfactory to Graves, and the duel was, accordingly, arranged.

During its course, after each fruitless exchange of shots, efforts were made to end the affair, but Graves refused to accept Cilley's statement, again repeated, that he had no reflection to cast upon Mr. Graves, and Cilley refused to abandon the position he had taken with regard to the editor. Never did a more foolish punctilio bring about so terrible a result. Aside from accepting the challenge, Cilley had pursued a dignified and proper course. Graves, to put it mildly, had played the fool. He was practically a disgraced man thereafter. The Congressional committee which investigated the matter censured him in the severest terms, and recommended his expulsion from Congress. Perhaps the public indignation excited by this wretched affair did more to discredit duelling than any previous event.

The Last Notable Duel in America

The last notable American duel was that between United States Senator Broderick, of California, and ex-Chief Justice Terry, of the Supreme Court of the same state, on September 13, 1859. This, too, arose from political differences. Broderick and Terry belonged to different factions of the growing Republican party, each struggling for control in California. Broderick was strongly anti-slavery, and his opponents wanted him removed. Terry was defeated in his campaign for reflection largely, as he supposed, through Broderick's efforts. The two men had been good friends previously. Broderick had stood by Terry on one occasion when everybody else had been against him and his situation had been critical. In his anger over his defeat, Terry accused Broderick of disgraceful and underhand practices. Broderick was provoked into the following rejoinder:

"I see that Terry has been abusing me. I now take back the remark I once made that he is the only honest judge in the Supreme Court. I was his friend when he was in need of friends, for which I am sorry. Had the vigilance committee disposed of him as they did of others, they would have done a righteous act."

He alluded to Terry's arrest by the Vigilantes in August, 1856, charged with cutting a man named Sterling A. Hopkins, in the attempt to free from arrest one Reuben Maloney. Had Hopkins died, Terry would probably have been hung. As it was, it took the strongest influence—Masonic, press and other—to save him from banishment.

Terry, after some acrimonious correspondence, challenged Broderick. A meeting on the 12th of September was stopped by the Chief of Police of San Francisco. The police magistrate before whom the duellists were arraigned, discharged them on the ground that there had been no actual misdemeanor.

Next day the principals and the seconds met again at the foot of Lake Merced, about twelve miles from San Francisco. About eighty spectators, friends of the participants, were present. The distance was the usual ten paces. Both pistols had hair triggers, but Broderick's was more delicately set than Terry's, so much so that a jar might discharge it. Broderick's seconds were inexperienced men, and no one realized the importance of this difference.

At the word both raised their weapons. Broderick's was discharged before he had elevated it sufficiently, and his bullet struck the ground about six feet in front of Terry. Terry was surer and shot his antagonist through the lung. Terry, who acted throughout with cold-blooded indifference, watched his antagonist fall and remarked that the wound was not mortal, as he had struck two inches to the right. He then left the field.

When Broderick fell, one of the bystanders, named Davis, shouted out:

"That is murder, by God!"

Drawing his own weapon, he started for Terry, exclaiming: "I am Broderick's friend. I'm not going to see him killed in that way. If you are men you will join me in avenging his death!"

Some cool heads in the multitude restrained him, pointing out that if he attacked Terry there would be a general melee, from which few on the ground would escape, and they finally succeeded in getting him away.

Broderick lingered for three days.

"They have killed me," he said, "because I was opposed to slavery and a corrupt administration."

Colonel Edward D. Baker, who was killed at Ball's Bluff in the Civil War, received his friend's last words.

"I tried to stand firm when I was wounded, but I could not. The blow blinded me."

Terry was tried for murder, but by influence and other means he was never convicted, and escaped all punishment save that inflicted by his conscience.

In judging these affairs, it must be remembered that many of the most prominent Americans of the past—Benton, Clay, Calhoun and Houston among them—fought duels. And it is well known that only Abraham Lincoln's wit and humor saved him from a deadly encounter with General James Shields, whose challenge he accepted.