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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
But even though both Barron and Decatur had been known to display moderation, a duel between them was becoming practically inevitable. Decatur talked unguardedly about Barron, and Barron persisted in those attempts at self-rehabilitation that caused Decatur to talk. Barron continued his requests for employment, forcing Decatur to give in writing his reasons for refusing it, and a glance at the correspondence reveals a dozen phrases, all of them “fighting words.” There was the suggestion, already mentioned, that Barron could have run the blockade back to America in 1813, and the flat Statement that every captain in the Navy except one had declared that Barron should not be employed; and, finally, when a duel was actually being suggested, the gibe that Barron would have been better employed fighting the British in 1813 than fighting Decatur in 1820. By the terms of the duelling code Decatur had offered insults in plenty which could only be wiped out in blood; and when Barron accused Decatur (also in writing) of trying to eliminate him from the service in order to accelerate his own ascent up the captains’ list, he was inviting a challenge.
It was Barron who challenged. Decatur had already declared that he did not believe that fighting duels raised any man’s reputation, nor was even a sure proof of personal courage, and yet Decatur accepted. It is hard to understand why he did; certainly no one could doubt his personal courage, and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry had already made a precedent of refusing to fight a duel over a service matter. From recorded fragments of conversation it seems as if Decatur had grown so weary of receiving insulting messages from Barron that he would rather have been shot at than continue to have to read them. It might be said he was goaded into accepting, though allowance must be made for the infuriating things he had written back.
Decatur experienced a momentary difficulty in finding a second. John Rodgers and David Porter, his fellow Commissioners, both refused to act, but Commodore William Bainbridge, newly appointed to the command of U.S.S. Columbus , agreed, and received Barren’s second, Jesse Elliott,∗ on board his ship, and the conditions of the duel were drawn up in the lawyers’ language that simple minds might suppose made legal an illegal act.
This officer, incidentally, had vainly sought an encounter with Perry over a dispute about his behavior as captain of the Niagara during the Battle of Lake Erie.
No one took any steps to prevent it. Two very senior captains U.S.N. had the best of reasons for knowing that a breach of the peace was contemplated, and there were a dozen ways in which they could have forestalled it, but they took no action—although they must have realized that a duel would be not merely a crime but a blunder. Even in the eyes of a tolerant public neither principal would gain stature by being shot at or by killing his opponent, or even by being killed, and yet Rodgers and Porter allowed the tragic folly to go on.
The agreement was signed on March 8, 1820, fixing the duel for the twenty-second, so that for two weeks at least eight people—including seconds, principals, and doctors—were aware of the approaching breach of the law. It was a singularly successful conspiracy of silence, culminating in the famous reception given by the Decaturs in their new house in Washington, after which Decatur had to escape from his home unobserved by his wife, who would certainly have disapproved of what he was going to do. He walked to Beale’s Hotel, breakfasted with his second and Samuel Hambleton, and then the three of them drove off in a hired carriage down the Bladensburg road. A very short distance into Maryland, beyond the District line, they stopped the carriage where Elliott was waiting for them and walked down toward the Anacostia River to a glade that lay hidden from both the highway and the port.
Barron and Decatur were posted at eight paces’ distance; it seems to have been Bainbridge who had suggested such a short range; he knew that Barron was myopic. The duelling pistol with its polished bore was singularly accurate up to a dozen yards, provided the bullets were carefully molded and the powder charge was left small to give the bullets a barely lethal velocity—so they would not fly wide under the disturbing influence of the residual inequalities in the barrel. The principals stood sideways to each other in order to present the smallest possible target. In that attitude the center of the target, the bull’s-eye, was the hipbone—in anatomical parlance the crest of the ilium. To aim at that point was to allow the greatest possible margin for error, both vertically and horizontally. Decatur had declared to Rodgers and to Porter his intention of aiming at the hip in the desire to inflict merely a disabling wound and put an end to the nuisance of Barron’s letters once and for all.