- Historic Sites
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
The encounter was as surprising as the terms. When the two men first fired, Cochran missed entirely and Bainbridge’s bullet drilled a hole in the Englishman’s hat. If two nervous young men had ever proved their courage, these two had, and, after all, the only real issue between them was national pride. Yet their seconds failed in their earnest attempt to persuade them to call it quits. Thereupon, Cochran and Bainbridge again took their places. This time Cochran fell dead with a bullet in his forehead, while Bainbridge lived to become a commodore.
A few years earlier, during the undeclared war with France, Stephen Decatur had become a second in a most peculiar fashion. A fellow lieutenant, Richard Somers, made some teasing remark about Decatur’s clothes. Decatur, equally teasingly, called him a silly fool, and neither of them thought any more about it. But to Somers’ astonishment his fellow officers of the wardroom later refused to drink with him because he had failed the code of an officer and gentleman by not challenging a man who had called him a fool. No matter that Somers protested Decatur was his best friend and there was absolutely no quarrel between them—he was still in a state of ostracism.
Desperately Somers took his dilemma to Decatur, who cheerfully offered to give a dinner for all concerned at which he would make it clear that he had never had any intention whatever of giving offense. Somers appreciated the offer but said it wouldn’t solve the problem. People would think that Decatur was simply trying to bail him out—and that he was letting himself be bailed out.
Perhaps there was some logic in this reasoning, considering the stiffnecked attitude already demonstrated by the other officers, but it is hard to find the logic in Somers’ solution of the problem; only extreme emotional stress and perhaps anger can explain it. He decided to turn the tables on those who were questioning his honor; he would put their honor on the line by challenging the whole kit and caboodle of them. Somehow he managed to persuade Decatur to be his second in this madcap scheme. Certainly Decatur’s gesture should have proved that all the trouble was founded on sheer nonsense. Nevertheless the other lieutenants accepted the challenge, and the ship’s captain made no recorded move to stop what amounted to an internal war when he had plenty of Frenchmen to fight. Captains were as mesmerized by the code as the lesser ranks.
At the traditional dawn Somers’ first adversary’s bullet hit his shooting arm but without disabling it. Lieutenant Number Two drilled Somers in the leg. Decatur knelt beside his fallen friend and beseeched him to let him take on the rest, but Somers would have none of it.
“Hold me up and steady my arm,” he gasped. To do this meant that Decatur would be equally in the line of fire with Somers. Yet he did it, and he must have done it well, because Somers’ ball wounded his third opponent. At this point the other lieutenants were kind enough to state that Lieutenant Somers had proved his valor and that all good things must come to an end. Somers lived to die a particularly heroic death on a volunteer mission in the war with the Barbary pirates, which is certainly not surprising.•
•All of these gentlemen, Decatur, Bainbridge, and Somers, had destroyers named for them, operating in World War II. The Navy must have thought well of them.
Duels at this time were fought with flintlock smoothbore pistols that were prone to misfire, and a misfire counted as a shot. As a result a man might have to stand helpless while his opponent calmly shot at him. Fortunately this dreadful situation occurred rather infrequently. Sometimes the opponent was unable to bring himself to shoot a defenseless man, but more often he had already fired at approximately the same instant at which the other weapon had misfired. The essence of duelling was speed. Usually the signal was “Fire! One, two, three!” spoken very fast. A man had to shoot by the count of three or not at all. Even when no time limit was specified, speed ordinarily was the safest course. Prior to the signal pistols were held at present, which could be either muzzle up or muzzle down as agreed, so there was no opportunity for prior aim. When he took position, a good duellist fixed his eye upon some definite part of his opponent’s body—buttons were highly favored—and kept it there until he had pulled the trigger.
In the movies most duels are staged with the opponents placed back to back, walking the prescribed distance, then whirling and firing. This is dramatic to watch and historically accurate, but the vast majority of duels were fought with the men standing in place, facing each other at distances from ten to twenty paces. The pistols were very large caliber, and medical knowledge and practice were primitive; abdominal wounds were almost invariably fatal (usually the surgeon made no effort to treat them), and infection made even minor wounds highly dangerous. It was always a matter of debate whether to stand sideways or squarely facing your opponent. Sideways you presented a more slender target, but a bullet could drill through more of your vital organs.