10 Sept 15
“When you don’t design your own life’s plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s. And, guess what they have planned for you?
Popular American naval legend and hero of the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812, Steven Decatur Jr, dashing, daring, good-looking, and who had miraculously survived many close-range battles on-board ships, died painfully, at the relatively young age of forty-one, with a brilliant career behind him and a promising one ahead of him that may well have included a successful run for president.
Decatur’s long-time detractor, antagonist, and fellow Naval Officer, James Barron, challenged Decatur to a pistol duel in 1820. Barron, though himself badly wounded in the duel, nonetheless survived and lived on until his death in 1851, dying (natural causes) at the age of eighty-two. As noted above, Decatur died (excessive blood loss) later the same day as a result of an abdominal wound received at Barron’s hands during the duel. As noted, it took several agonizing hours for him to finally expire.
As both men collapsed, both badly wounded, they complemented each other with apologetic and forgiving rhetoric, almost as if they had suddenly become fast friends!
Barron had been accused by Decatur of “unpreparedness” during the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair of 1807, an engagement that resulted in the capture of Barron’s ship. Barron’s smouldering resentment crystalized in the famous duel of 1820.
Dueling, at the time, was the direct cause of untimely deaths of many military officers. The practice claimed the lives of Decatur, as noted above, as well as Alexander Hamilton and many others less well-known.
In fact, it was such a problem that the War Department actively discouraged the practice, and “duels” themselves were thus often designed so that anyone actually getting hurt was unlikely!
When an “aggrieved” party confronted the defendant, a (mostly ceremonial) “slap” to the face was followed by an emphatic reiteration of the tort involved, and then a climactic “… and I demand satisfaction”
From that point forward, the antagonists were not on speaking terms, but they appointed “seconds,” who would, in turn, hire a “referee” to make all appropriate arrangements.
At the appointed time and place, the referee would confront the two antagonists and say something like:
“Gentlemen, I presume you are here with regard to a matter of honor.
I am here to assure that it is settled honorably
Attend to your weapons and commence at my mark”
Dueling pistols were usually flintlock (single-shot) and identical. Antagonists would “pace off” the prescribed distance, which commonly put them twelve to fifteen meters apart.
At the signal, both parties were free to fire their one shot.
In reality, it was common for neither party to fire, or for only one to fire, the other deliberately declining to take his shot. When both fired, it was common for neither shot to connect!
After this first “exchange,” the referee would call the (usually uninjured) parties back together and direct his first comments to the defendant:
“Sir, are you now prepared to apologize?”
When he answered in the affirmative, which he usually did (with wobbly voice), not wanting to face that bullet a second time, the referee then turned to the plaintiff and said:
“Sir, do you accept his apology?”
When the response was also affirmative, the “duel” was over?
Both antagonists then agreed to put the matter behind them and go their way, unmolested. In fact, it was not uncommon for the whole group to let out a collective breath of relief, retire to a local tavern, and have a party!
The foregoing was the relatively “happy ending” of many, probably most, “duels.”
When the defendant refused to apologize, or he did offer an apology, but plaintiff refused to accept it, the duel would go a second round.
When no one was injured, a second time, the referee would then insist the apology, when offered, be accepted. He would indicate to the plaintiff that he already had two chances at “satisfaction” and that he was required to accept the apology, his “honor” now being “satisfied.”
In Decatur’s case, his first choice of a second was his good and trusted friend, Thomas Macdonough. However, Macdonough was personally opposed to dueling and, of conscience, regretfully declined the job. Decatur’s second choice was a poor one!
William Bainbridge was neither a close friend, nor an admirer, of Decatur’s. When he conferred with Barron’s second, Jesse Elliott, the two arranged for the duel to take place at a much closer range than “normal.” The result was that both duelists were struck in the abdomen, one fatally, the other seriously but ultimately not fatal. As noted above, this is the exact opposite of what most seconds tried to arrange!
For years afterward, Decatur’s wife, Susan, who was only informed of the duel after it took place, accused both seconds of arranging for the “murder” of her husband. Decatur left her with a sizeable sum to live on, but she never recovered and died impoverished, and probably mentally ill, in 1860
As noted, dueling was quite a scandal, particularly within the US Navy in the 1700s and 1800s. Washington himself urged officers to refuse such challenges. But, the practice hung on, particularly in southern states, until after the Civil War.
In the latter half of the 1800s, formal dueling was gradually banned, at least in America, as public sentiment turned against it.
I don’t think many of us would like to see it return, but there are some advantages to living in a society where there is dueling:
1. Everyone is polite! You think twice about saying something unkind about someone else, at least loud enough to be overheard!
2. Threats, bluster, “righteous” indignation, and bravado quickly shrivel-up when one is obligated to put his fanny where his mouth is! When faced with cold steel, or hot lead, most blow-hards promptly shut-up and find something else to do!
3. Disputes settled on “the field of honor” tend to stay settled! Once you face a pistol muzzle in the quivering hands of someone who really doesn’t like you, for what he is persuaded are good reasons, you’re not anxious to do it again!
“Is that all you’ve got? A few tricks and quick feet? That’s no way to enforce your bold tongue!”
TA Miles, from his book, “Six Celestial Swords”