Bloodshed At Dawn

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The use of swords was frowned upon; although the long French duelling sword could go through lungs and heart (and in enlightened Europe was sometimes known to do so) a duel with swords ended only too frequently in a slight wound on the forearm, enough to make a further grip on the hilt impossible; slight wounds were looked upon askance, and no allowance was made for the fact that the thrust caught upon tense muscles of the forearm would otherwise have gone through the body. If cold steel were really insisted on, it had to be sabres as being ostentatiously more deadly; but pistols were the most usual weapon.

The odds must be in favor of death. One of the more sensible (or less insane) items of the European duelling code laid down that if a duellist stood his opponent’s fire, and then deliberately missed, the duel must at once terminate with honor satisfied—the man who had taken aim could not reasonably demand a further free shot. But in America precautions were taken against such an easy way out; it was frequently specified that the duel must continue until at least one of the duellists was incapacitated. The duel between Randolph and Clay did indeed end with a deliberate miss on the part of Randolph, but only after the two opponents had first tried to kill each other. In the monstrous multiple duel wherein Lieutenant Decatur seconded Lieutenant Somers against a whole series of other junior officers, Somers was hit in the arm, then in the leg, and had to be held up to take his shot at the third officer. He then fainted from loss of blood, thereby avoiding two or three antagonists he had not yet faced, and so survived to die a hero’s death in the explosion vessel at Tripoli.

All ranks of society fought in duels, but the most frequent contestants for obvious reasons were newspaper editors, politicians, and officers of the armed services. Among the latter the general touchiness was exaggerated by the consideration that to impugn the physical courage of a soldier or a sailor was to deny him any excuse for living at all. Moreover, an officer was ex officio a gentleman as well as brave, and an implication that he was not a gentleman—which would arise if he refused satisfaction—had the same effect as impugning his courage. Yet in military and naval life the possibilities of giving or taking offense were multiplied. It was not merely a question of living herded together in mess or wardroom, but a question of discipline. It might be a major’s duty to criticize a junior’s handling of a platoon; a captain might have to criticize a lieutenant’s tacking of his ship; but one gentleman could only criticize another at the risk of a challenge. It is hardly necessary to add that it was always a senior officer’s duty to state his opinion regarding the fitness of a junior to be given promotion —that was criticism in black and white, definitive, not to be explained away or laughed off.

And so, from the War of the Revolution to the War between the States, the duelling code was responsible for the loss of uncounted lives. At frontier posts and foreign ports dead officers were laid in graves no less permanent for being honorable. The nation was deprived of the services of its finest young men and the discipline of its armed forces was corrupted by the insidious and universal influence of the duelling code.

Decatur had played his part in several duels, but only once as a principal; in 1799 he had met, and wounded, an officer of the merchant marine after a dispute regarding the enlistment of seamen for the United States . He had acted as second to Somers in the notorious duel with the three officers, and as second to Joseph Bainbridge in the duel that resulted in the death of Sir Alexander Ball’s secretary. Commodore Morris sent Decatur and Bainbridge home after that incident, but presumably merely to keep them safe from any chance of arrest for murder by the British, because Decatur on his arrival in the United States was appointed to his first command.

The Chesapeake-Leopard incident had naturally produced a crop of duels, but neither Decatur nor Barron had been involved; in fact Barron seems never to have engaged in a duel until the fatal occasion in 1820, while Decatur made no appearance on the field of honor after the Malta duel in 1803 until 1818, when he acted as second to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in his bloodless duel with Captain John Heath of the Marine Corps. Barron had once been on the verge of a duel with Commodore Rodgers, but, illness having compelled a postponement, someone had discovered a formula which allowed the matter to drop without a meeting.