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Pistols For Two … Coffee For One
“It is astonishing that the murderous practice of duelling should continue so long in vogue,” said Benjamin Franklin. Yet continue it did, often with peculiarly American variations
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
If the ending seems anticlimactic, it illustrates one difference between a duel and the after-school fistfight—the presence and importance of seconds. The Code Duello, also called the Code of Honor, specifically charged the seconds of both parties with the duty of trying to arrange a peaceful settlement right up to the last moment. In this case they did their duty well, but all too often the seconds seemed more bloodthirsty or pigheaded than the principals and made any compromise impossible.
The English-language Code Duello originated in Ireland in 1777 but was, of course, a compilation, clarification, and legitimization of many long-established practices. Much of it dealt with the preliminaries, and though its effect was to make duelling mandatory for what to us seem frivolous grievances, it had occasional lapses into sanity. One was that any exchange of correspondence between the offended party and the offender be couched in polite, even vague, language that left open the possibility of a reconciliation. This principle was violated in the Shields-Lincoln affair. Shields’s note to Lincoln was so blatantly a challenge that Lincoln had scarcely any choice but to accept it.
The Irish Code was revised for American conditions by Governor John Lyde Wilson of South Carolina in 1838; as might be expected, the Wilson Code tended to be more democratic than its Irish counterpart. It did not insist upon equality of social position between antagonists, and it even permitted, if reluctantly, an exchange of blows at the time of the original altercation. However, though you might flatten your opponent, this didn’t relieve you from the obligation of trying to shoot him later.
Though not mentioned in the Wilson Code, Americans made another contribution to the local duelling scene in direct contradiction of the Irish Code’s attempt to keep challenges polite, secret, and hopefully negotiable. This new development was known as posting and began as early as 1807. If some fire-eater couldn’t entice his enemy to the duelling ground in any other way, he would name him as a villain and a coward in pamphlets or advertisements in the newspapers. This vicious practice put literally every male citizen of anystanding in the community in constant peril of public scorn or unwanted bloodshed. It was especially prevalent in the South, and for many a man it must have dulled the fragrance of the magrolia blossoms. Posting was eventually outlawed in most places, but far too many generations lived under its threat of humiliating publicity.
Seldom were the many provisions of the code followed with great exactitude, as it was agreed that men who were going to risk their lives had the right to some freedom of choice in the details; but the duties of the seconds followed a common pattern. From the moment of their appointment they were in charge, and the principals remained in the background until the final moment. The job had its dangers. Where duelling was illegal, the seconds were liable to prosecution along with the principals. More serious was the fact that if the challenger’s second delivered the challenge in person and it was refused on the grounds that the challenger was no gentleman or in any other way unworthy, the second was then duty-bound to do the fighting himself.
Upon arrival at the field of honor the seconds were responsible for measuring the ground, loading the pistols, and policing the proceedings. Sometimes a neutral referee gave the signal to fire. More often the seconds tossed a coin for the privilege. If a duellist fired before the signal, then his opponent’s second was entitled to shoot him on the spot. Fortunately this was an extremely rare occurrence.
One second who took his duties seriously indeed was Stephen Decatur of War of 1812 fame. Decatur, who was destined to die in a duel of his own, previously recounted in these pages [see “Bloodshed at Dawn,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, October, 1964], proved his devotion on two grim occasions, both at the turn of the nineteenth century.
While the tiny United States Navy was engaged with the Barbary pirates the British Navy looked on with a disdain that it made apparent whenever possible. Decatur was serving as a lieutenant aboard the frigate New York , and far down on the list of officers was a midshipman named William Bainbridge. At Malta young Bainbridge went ashore to attend the theatre. There a young Englishman, James Cochran, made slurring remarks about the United States Navy at every intermission and finally deliberately bumped into Bainbridge, who promptly knocked him down. Cochran sent a challenge the next day.
Bainbridge had never been in a duel before, and Decatur offered to be his second. Discovering that Cochran was a veteran duellist, Decatur met with his second and specified that the distance be four paces, a scant twelve feet, which meant that the pistol muzzles would be little more than six feet apart. The astonished Englishman very rightly protested that this would be mutual murder. Decatur blandly replied that if the distance was not acceptable, he himself would gladly fight Cochran at ten paces. Lieutenant Decatur was not a large man, but there must have been something very formidable about him, because Cochran’s second decided he preferred Bainbridge and the deadly four paces.