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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
This declaration may perhaps provide the explanation of the curious fact that no effort, not even a formal one, was made by the seconds to effect a reconciliation. An excellent opportunity—although an unusual one—presented itself at this last moment, when Barron announced to Decatur that he hoped that they would be better friends in the next world, and when Decatur replied, “I have never been your enemy, sir.” Such announcement and reply constituted shocking breaches of the etiquette of the duel; once a challenge had been given and accepted, each principal was bound to make no acknowledgment whatever of the other’s existence except by taking aim at him. But with the ice once broken, especially in that form, it would surely have been possible for one of the seconds to have asked, “Then why are we here at all?” But the opportunity passed; nothing was allowed to deflect etiquette from its set course.
The pistols pointed to the ground until Bainbridge (as the agreement had laid it down) gave the necessary command, which he had already rehearsed aloud so the principals could become accustomed to it. “Presentone-two-three.” Neither man was to fire before the word “one,” for obvious reasons, nor after the word “three,” for reasons which are not quite so apparent. The pistols went off at the same moment. Barron had also aimed at the hip; a tiny difference between the points of impact decided the question of life or death. The bullet that Barron fired was deflected by the bone sideways into Decatur’s groin, while the bullet Decatur fired was deflected downward into Barren’s thigh. Decatur had achieved his objective: inflicting a disabling wound; but he himself received a fatal one.
There followed a period of considerable confusion, which was not alleviated by the arrival of Commodores Rodgers and Porter, who had earlier refused to act as Decatur’s seconds. That they appeared at this very moment is of course proof that they knew beforehand of the agreed time and place of the duel; it also seems likely enough that they had been waiting close at hand until the sound of the shots told them that the duel had been fought. Perhaps these two highly placed officers came merely to see if they could be of assistance; that is the most likely as well as the most charitable explanation. They found Barron and Decatur both lying wounded but apparently deep in a new argument regarding Barron’s absence from the United States during the war that had begun eight years earlier. Accounts of what was actually said differ, but according to one of them Barron ended the discussion with the words, “Let us not dispute now,” which hardly seems in character. Then the surgeons fell to their grisly work of probing for the bullets, and the wounded men exchanged no further words for a time.
Meanwhile Elliott, Barron’s second, had been guilty of the most extraordinary behavior; his actions are almost beyond explanation. He had fled from the scene —in Barron’s own carriage; he must have been in the wildest panic. Presumably he feared arrest; possibly he may have thought that, being generally regarded as an instigator of the affair, he was in the greatest danger both if civil proceedings were taken and if public feeling occasioned a riot. So there was only one carriage left; it was proposed that both wounded men should be put into it, but Barren gallantly refused; they would have been horribly crowded. Eventually Decatur was borne away, calling a feeble farewell to Barron, who in return asked God to bless him.
Porter had ridden after Elliott, overtaken him, and insisted on his returning, and had then galloped back to the duelling ground. Now he found himself the only person with any initiative left there; Barron was lying helpless under his friends’ overcoats. Since Elliott and Barron’s carriage still did not appear, Porter stopped another carriage, saw that Barron was lifted into it, and headed once more toward the capital. Here came Elliott at last, returning unwillingly enough; it can only be guessed that he was trying to spin out time so that the situation would be cleared up before he could be again involved. Porter would have none of it; he practically dragged Elliott out of the one carriage and forced him into the other, so that against his will Elliott had to drive into Washington with his wounded principal. They transferred themselves from Beale’s Hotel to the house of a friend, where Barron recovered slowly and where they were safe until it became clear that there was no chance of prosecution.
Decatur came back to his fine house on Lafayette Square still conscious, and ordered himself laid out on a couch. After hours of agony and many protracted farewells, he died. The hero, the man who had coined the great phrase, “my country … right or wrong …,” was forty-one. His wife was crazed with grief. Yet no indictment followed his death. It is worth recording that there was at least a feeble protest raised against the practice that had occasioned the tragedy; in the House of Representatives Mr. Randolph of Roanoke moved that out of respect for the memory of Decatur the House should adjourn until after the funeral and should wear mourning bands for the rest of the session, but he was compelled to withdraw the motion when a representative from New York pointed out that Decatur had met his death while engaged in a violation of the law. Eventually, on the day of the funeral, both houses carried motions for adjournment, but neither so much as mentioned Decatur by name.