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Bloodshed At Dawn
Should Commodore Barron have surrendered his ship? Should Decatur have criticised him? Their famous duel ended in … bloodshed at dawn
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
Most important of all, he was now a Commissioner of the Navy, one of the board of three responsible for the practical management of the naval forces ol the United States, and it was this board that would adjudicate upon Barren’s application for employment. Barren had been a captain again, at half-pay, since 1813. With seniority dating back to 1799 he was high up on the captains’ list, and as far as Barren could see there was no impropriety in his applying for command of a ship of the line—and that was one more sad example of the inability of an unimaginative man to realize how low lie stood in the eyes of his fellows.
Even without Decatur’s vehement opposition there would have been little chance of Barren’s reassignment; as it was there was none at all. Decatur did not believe that Barren was fit to command, and when the topic (inevitably) came up for discussion in private circles he did not hesitate to say so; just as inevitably, his opinions were reported back to Barren.
It is hard to think of anything more that could add to Barren’s mortification. Future employment as well as his present reputation were in the hands of a man ten years his junior in age and five years his junior on the captains’ list, the man he had actually instructed in his profession. Decatur had, by his own admission, strongly disapproved of Barron s actions in the Chesapeake affair. And yet Decatur, in command of the President ( in 1815, had attempted to break out through the British blockade of New York and had failed. Decatur had ordered the American flag to be hauled down to save unnecessary loss of life just as Barren had done, but in Barron’s opinion it had been a more discreditable business than had been his own surrender of the Chesapeake , for which he was convinced he had every excuse. Decatur had been a Tree agent; he himself had been the victim of ulterly unpredictable circumstances. Yet as long as Decatur’s opposition continued, Barron saw himself not merely debarred from active command, but deprived of every opportunity of rehabilitating himself in the eyes of the service and of the public. It was enough to drive any man frantic. Letters began to pass between the two men, and violent death became an imminent possibility.
It was only during the previous halt century that the practice of the formal duel had taken any root in the Linked Slates. It had been adopted wilh that excess of enthusiasm lhal might be expected of a young country, so that the inherent absurdities and inconsistencies of the system were early demonstrated. In every state the machinery for the suppression of the system already existed; to kill a man in a duel was murder, and to act as a second in a fatal duel was legally murder as well. To send a challenge was to commit a breach of the peace. Yet—at a fair estimate —out of every thousand duels not more than one was followed by a prosecution. Public opinion halted the action of the law. Although intending duellists met at the uncomfortable hour of dawn, and concealed their plans and intentions, it was not so much from fear of later prosecution or fear of being hindered by officers of the law as from a wish to escape the attentions of morbid sight-seers. Aaron Burr took his seat as President of the Senate only four months after killing Alexander Hamilton. The loss of popularity that he experienced after the duel was due not so much to the fact that he was a murderer as to the fact that Alexander Hamilton had been his victim; and when he was eventually brought to trial it was on suspicion of treason not connected with the duel at all.
The conventions of the duel were as muddled as was public opinion. The urgent question of the choice of weapons and conditions was never properly settled. A insults B, and B sends a challenge. Who has the choice of weapons: A, who has perhaps forced on the affair, or B, who has, perhaps unwillingly, to go along with it? Is the duel to be fought to prove who was in the right or to prove the duellists’ courage? Or what is it to prove otherwise? There were very few persons who still maintained that divine intervention could be expected to dictate who should die and who should live, even though that was the original idea when the medieval ordeal by battle was instituted. The strictest precautions were taken to ensure that conditions were equally favorable to the two contestants; everything had to be perfectly fair, even though this made certain that the poorer marksman would be at a disadvantage; chance was to be eliminated as far as possible.
There was no accepted formula. The duellists might be posted facing each other, or they might stand back to back and then turn after marching solemnly apart. The distance might be anything the seconds agreed upon; Decatur, at the famous duel in Malta where Midshipman Joseph Bainbridge killed the secretary of the Governor of Malta, had insisted on four yards, avowedly in order to make sure someone was killed, although at four yards the first shots both missed. Ten paces was a usual distance, occasionally twelve. The vital point (if such an adjective can be permitted) was that the contestants must be in imminent danger of death; a duel at a safe distance would bring dishonor on the seconds as well as the duellists.