Skip to main content

Bloodshed At Dawn

July 2024
22min read

Should Commodore Barron have surrendered his ship? Should Decatur have criticised him? Their famous duel ended in … bloodshed at dawn

No one ran he sure now of exactly where it happened, although every day thousands of motorists must drive within a lew yards of the spot, once lonely, deserted, and surrounded hy scrub. The antiquarian and the local historian ran form their own theories, and there is a marker in Anacostia River Park dose to where U.S. Route i crosses the District of Columbia line. The traveller heading toward Baltimore from Washington, D.C., can he sure (if the traffic allows him any opportunity for thought) that he is passing dose to the place where De catur fell mortally wounded hy an American bullet. It might be near the Peace Cross; more likely it is half a mile nearer Washington. Perhaps the railroad passes over the exact spot, just as a railroad passes over the spot where Alexander Hamilton, and his son before him, died in duels.

But it is with Dccatur and not with Hamilton that this article is concerned. How did it happen that Decatur came to die in that pitiful fashion? The tragedy had its origins long before, as most tragedies do. Some of the causes are known; some of them can be guessed at. We have to guess at the state of mind of Vice Admiral the Honorable Sir George Berkeley, K.B., (of His Britannic Majesty’s Navy, Commander in Chief on the North American Station) sometime in the early part of iMoy, but we can deduce mtich from the action he took at that time. He must have been in an angry mood when he took up his pen and wrote a certain order; we can be sure of that, because no responsible man would have written that order after calm thought. It was to bring the United States and Great Britain to the verge of war in iHo? and to contribute largely to starting the War of 1812; it was also, in 1820, one of the causes of the death on the field of honor (as it was called) of Stephen Decatur, a Commissioner of the United States Navy, and one of the best loved of all that Navy’s officers.

Berkeley, at his base at Halifax, had received an irritating piece of news from the British consul at Norfolk, Virginia, regarding the behavior of Captain Decatur, commanding the Gosport Yard. Application had been made to Decatur for the return of three deserters from H.M.S. Melampus , who had been enlisted into the crew of U.S.S. Chesapeake , fitting for a voyage to (he Mediterranean. Decatur had refused to take any ad ion, stating, quite correctly, that recruiting was not his responsibility. The British consul had persisted until at last his complaint had readied Commodore James Barron, who was to hoist his broad pendant in the Chesapeake . Barron decided, after inquiring, that the three men were American citizens, and he refused to give them up, and likely enough promptly forgot all about the incident in the bustle of preparing for sea.

Berkeley, on the other hand, was far too irritated to let the matter drop. On the manning of the Royal Navy depended his country’s safety in the war with the French Empire; if seamen serving in British ships of war could desert and claim the protection of a foreign power, the very roots of discipline would be weakened. So he wrote to all the caj)tains under his command specifically ordering them, should they encounter the Chesapeake at sea, to search her and reclaim the deserters.

It was a wildly reckless order; later, when the United States government protested, the British Cabinet grudgingly disavowed Berkeley’s action and transferred him to another command. The British Navy had never been very tender about the susceptibilities of other nations, and for a hundred years or more had stopped merchant vessels on the high seas in order to impress any members of the ships’ crews who might be deemed British subjects, but they had never been known to treat national ships, ships of war, in this fashion. That would be an unprecedented, an unheard-of insult. It was so unheard of that the possibility cannot have crossed Barron’s mind when the Chesapeake , having completed her crew and stores, got under way on June 22, 1807, in Hampton Roads and headed’ for the Capes and the open sea.

An absurd state of affairs already prevailed, thanks largely to the weaknesses of Mr. Jefferson’s administration. At anchor within the Capes was a British squadron, which was blockading two French ships of war lying off Annapolis, farther still into American territorial waters—one can almost find excuse for Berkeley’s action when the United States could so tamely submit to this sort of breach of American neutrality. Captain Humphries of H.M.S. Leopard had received Berkeley’s order. He could see the Cheapeake coming down, and he weighed anchor and preceded her out to sea. He must have had his doubts about the legality of the order he had received, but having decided to take action he left nothing to chance. He cleared’ for action, opened his gun ports, and made sure that he was outside American territorial waters before he hove to and waited for the Chesapeake to come within hail.

In all innocence Barron stopped to receive Humphries’ letter, and then it was too late. The Chesapeake was tinder the Leopard ’s guns, and could not possibly escape without a battle. It can be argued that even as he read Humphries’ demand for the return of the deserters, Barron did not—or could not—believe that Humphries would proceed to the ultimate extremity. British ships had been known, only too often, to fire into neutral merchant ships that were slow in obeying signals—it was their right if the ship they wished to examine endeavored to escape—but it was still inconceivable that Leopard would actually fire into Chesapeake . Barron may well have thought that the reply that he sent was a formal refusal to a formal demand, setting up a situation that the diplomats could argue about later. Having sent his refusal lie requested his captain—Master Commandant Gordon—to send his men to quarters and clear lor action; he may even have believed that this was one more formal move in a formal game, comparable with the Leopard ’s gesture in opening her ports.

Then the unbelievable happened; Leopard was close alongside, with only twenty yards separating the ships, and at that range she fired her broadside. It could have been an accident, but Barron on his quarterdeck could hear through the smoke the orders given by the Leopard ’s divisional officers and then the rumble of the gun trucks as the gun muzzles came out through the ports again, and then came another broadside, and then a third. Twenty-one members of the crew of the Chesapeake — about five per cent—were killed or wounded. The Chesapeake was in no condition to fight back. So little had been done toward clearing for action that the galley fire was still alight, and Lieutenant William Henry Alien, third of the ship, took an ember and with it fired a gun in return, the only reply that Chesapeake could make (for the powder horns for priming were not yet filled); and then Barron realized at last that the unbelievable had happened, and he hauled down his colors. A boarding party from the Leopard mustered the crew, searched the ship, and took away four deserters. Barron tried to insist that Chesapeake was a prize of war, but Humphries ignored the suggestion. He had been engaged in an ordinary police operation, and not in an act of war. Barron could only limp back to Norfolk, while the Leopard —this is not the least fantastic part of a fantastic story—quietly sailed back between the Capes and dropped anchor again in United Stales waters.


The American government was lurious about the outrage; the American Navy was lurious about the surrender. The very next day a petition signed by halt a dozen of the officers of the Chesapeake , was addressed to the Secretary of the Navy requesting Barren’s arrest and trial. By the end of the year a court-martial was assembled. The court specifically cleared Barron of all the graver charges. He was found not guilty of cowardice or disaffection, a verdict that implied that the surrender was neither unnecessary nor even premature. But Barron was found guilty of neglecting to clear his ship for action, arid as a result he was sentenced to five years’ suspension, ft was a savage sentence and a terrible humiliation, the more terrible because Barron was convinced that it was undeserved.

The verdict, and Barren’s defense, call for a little analysis. The Chesapeake had sailed from Norfolk intending to join the American squadron in the Mediterranean. That squadron was endeavoring to maintain itself without a base, and three thousand or more miles from home, in a sea fought over by warring navies. Nearly everything the squadron needed had to be sent from America, and the Chesapeake was crammed with naval stores as a result. America was neutral—almost the sole neutral in an embattled world—and her ships of war could sail without the necessity of being instantly ready for action. When Barron stood out to sea and saw that the Leopard was preceding him, what was he expected to do? Throw overboard the stores so painfully taken on board the day before? He could not believe that he would have to fight; if—only one of the two hypotheses seemed to be tenable—the Leopard was sailing on her lawful occasions, or if she was intending to make a mere formal demand, he would be laughed at as an alarmist at the subsequent inquiry. He had no reason whatever to expect violent action on the part of the Leopard . He had received no hint, no warning, from the Department of State or the Department of the Navy. Cluttered up as the Chesapeake was, she would only have experienced further useless losses if she had prolonged her resistance. Under the fire of the Leopard she could never have cleared for action; clearing for action before the Leopard ’s intentions were revealed seemed to Barron quite unnecessary.

If Barron had been a man of great perspicacity and moral courage he might perhaps have turned back on reaching the Capes, and, at anchor in territorial waters, he might have requested specific orders to clear for action before starting out again, but the delay woidd have been the subject of an inquiry as damaging as an inquiry into throwing valuable stores overboard—either action could be officially justified only if it could be proved that the Leopard was unbelievably willing to go to extremes. Barron can be excused—certainly he was excused in his own mind—for all the decisions he made.

But the mischief was done; the court had reached a verdict and agreed upon a sentence which Mr. Jefferson confirmed, and Barron found—as could have surprised none except himself—that he was now remembered not as the man who delayed clearing for action but as the man who ordered the Chesapeake ’s colors to be hauled down. He was without means; he had to earn his bread. He had many of the qualifications needed in an officer of the merchant marine, but would any American shipowner employ the most unpopular man in the United States? Barron, understandably, went to Europe to seek employment, and disappeared for years out of American history.

Now there is the other side of the story. One of the members of the court that had reached that verdict and passed that sentence was Captain Stephen Decatur. He knew Barron well; he had had even greater opportunities for knowing him than many of the offcers of the small United States Xavy. He had been a midshipman in the U.S.S. United States when Barron had been a lieutenant in the same ship; he had been acting lieutenant and lieutenant when Barron was captain, and he had been first lieutenant to Barron in the New York . Few men have any opportunity of closer observation of another man than a first lieutenant has of his captain.

The affair with the Leonard had occurred on June 22, and the court was ordered on December 7. Decatur had already announced himself by letter as prejudiced, and had so informed Barren’s counsel. Barron had the right to protest against Decatur being a member of the court, but he did not avail himself of it. There could be no clearer proof of his consciousness of innocence, so that his mortification and surprise at the verdict can be easily estimated. Decatur was by ten years the younger man; his burning of the captured Philadelphia , his bravery in the gunboat battle in Tripoli, the death of his brother, revenged by Dccatur’s own hand, had won him the admiration and the affection of the public. It is clear enough that Decatur, in addition to his good looks and his happy turn of phrase, possessed a personal charm that could not be immortalized on canvas or paper and that later generations can only guess at. He was generally liked, while on the other hand Barron, to judge by his letters and the impressions recorded by others, was something of a dry-as-dust man of small imagination and little personal appeal.

Here are factors that might well result in a mutual personal antipathy. There was little chance that the mercurial Dec atur could be a hero to die man who had known him as a boy; there was a definite likelihood that Decatur would have a small opinion of the drab character who had held over him the crushing authority of a lieutenant over a midshipman, ft hardly seems necessary to add the factor that has been hinted at in some accounts to the effect that an unguarded speech by Bairon revealed to the woman Decatur intended to marry the existence of another girl in another port. The men did not like each other, as Decatur admitted in writing.


There are conflicting accounts as to how Barren occupied himself during the long years from 1808 to 1818, when he returned home. No record exists of his having requested through official channels assistance to return to his country at the outbreak of war in i8ia. He was eligible again for a captain’s command by February, 1813; he made no application for one. Decatur was to point out that numerous ships ran the British blockade, and that it would have been quite easy for him to return to the United States in order to take part in a war in which the services of every American would be of value. But Barren did not return; it is possible that he was engaged in menial work that left him too poor to make the attempt and which he was ashamed to admit to later.

Meanwhile Decatur had become a popular hero; the capture of the Macedonian had been a brilliant teat of arms and the expedition against the Barbary pirates had been remarkably well conducted and completely successful. Decatur had been the recipient of gold medals and services of silver plate; he had been feted everywhere; his speeches were reported verbatim and his advice listened to with attention.

Most important of all, he was now a Commissioner of the Navy, one of the board of three responsible for the practical management of the naval forces ol the United States, and it was this board that would adjudicate upon Barren’s application for employment. Barren had been a captain again, at half-pay, since 1813. With seniority dating back to 1799 he was high up on the captains’ list, and as far as Barren could see there was no impropriety in his applying for command of a ship of the line—and that was one more sad example of the inability of an unimaginative man to realize how low lie stood in the eyes of his fellows.

Even without Decatur’s vehement opposition there would have been little chance of Barren’s reassignment; as it was there was none at all. Decatur did not believe that Barren was fit to command, and when the topic (inevitably) came up for discussion in private circles he did not hesitate to say so; just as inevitably, his opinions were reported back to Barren.

It is hard to think of anything more that could add to Barren’s mortification. Future employment as well as his present reputation were in the hands of a man ten years his junior in age and five years his junior on the captains’ list, the man he had actually instructed in his profession. Decatur had, by his own admission, strongly disapproved of Barron s actions in the Chesapeake affair. And yet Decatur, in command of the President ( in 1815, had attempted to break out through the British blockade of New York and had failed. Decatur had ordered the American flag to be hauled down to save unnecessary loss of life just as Barren had done, but in Barron’s opinion it had been a more discreditable business than had been his own surrender of the Chesapeake , for which he was convinced he had every excuse. Decatur had been a Tree agent; he himself had been the victim of ulterly unpredictable circumstances. Yet as long as Decatur’s opposition continued, Barron saw himself not merely debarred from active command, but deprived of every opportunity of rehabilitating himself in the eyes of the service and of the public. It was enough to drive any man frantic. Letters began to pass between the two men, and violent death became an imminent possibility.


It was only during the previous halt century that the practice of the formal duel had taken any root in the Linked Slates. It had been adopted wilh that excess of enthusiasm lhal might be expected of a young country, so that the inherent absurdities and inconsistencies of the system were early demonstrated. In every state the machinery for the suppression of the system already existed; to kill a man in a duel was murder, and to act as a second in a fatal duel was legally murder as well. To send a challenge was to commit a breach of the peace. Yet—at a fair estimate —out of every thousand duels not more than one was followed by a prosecution. Public opinion halted the action of the law. Although intending duellists met at the uncomfortable hour of dawn, and concealed their plans and intentions, it was not so much from fear of later prosecution or fear of being hindered by officers of the law as from a wish to escape the attentions of morbid sight-seers. Aaron Burr took his seat as President of the Senate only four months after killing Alexander Hamilton. The loss of popularity that he experienced after the duel was due not so much to the fact that he was a murderer as to the fact that Alexander Hamilton had been his victim; and when he was eventually brought to trial it was on suspicion of treason not connected with the duel at all.

The conventions of the duel were as muddled as was public opinion. The urgent question of the choice of weapons and conditions was never properly settled. A insults B, and B sends a challenge. Who has the choice of weapons: A, who has perhaps forced on the affair, or B, who has, perhaps unwillingly, to go along with it? Is the duel to be fought to prove who was in the right or to prove the duellists’ courage? Or what is it to prove otherwise? There were very few persons who still maintained that divine intervention could be expected to dictate who should die and who should live, even though that was the original idea when the medieval ordeal by battle was instituted. The strictest precautions were taken to ensure that conditions were equally favorable to the two contestants; everything had to be perfectly fair, even though this made certain that the poorer marksman would be at a disadvantage; chance was to be eliminated as far as possible.

There was no accepted formula. The duellists might be posted facing each other, or they might stand back to back and then turn after marching solemnly apart. The distance might be anything the seconds agreed upon; Decatur, at the famous duel in Malta where Midshipman Joseph Bainbridge killed the secretary of the Governor of Malta, had insisted on four yards, avowedly in order to make sure someone was killed, although at four yards the first shots both missed. Ten paces was a usual distance, occasionally twelve. The vital point (if such an adjective can be permitted) was that the contestants must be in imminent danger of death; a duel at a safe distance would bring dishonor on the seconds as well as the duellists.

The use of swords was frowned upon; although the long French duelling sword could go through lungs and heart (and in enlightened Europe was sometimes known to do so) a duel with swords ended only too frequently in a slight wound on the forearm, enough to make a further grip on the hilt impossible; slight wounds were looked upon askance, and no allowance was made for the fact that the thrust caught upon tense muscles of the forearm would otherwise have gone through the body. If cold steel were really insisted on, it had to be sabres as being ostentatiously more deadly; but pistols were the most usual weapon.

The odds must be in favor of death. One of the more sensible (or less insane) items of the European duelling code laid down that if a duellist stood his opponent’s fire, and then deliberately missed, the duel must at once terminate with honor satisfied—the man who had taken aim could not reasonably demand a further free shot. But in America precautions were taken against such an easy way out; it was frequently specified that the duel must continue until at least one of the duellists was incapacitated. The duel between Randolph and Clay did indeed end with a deliberate miss on the part of Randolph, but only after the two opponents had first tried to kill each other. In the monstrous multiple duel wherein Lieutenant Decatur seconded Lieutenant Somers against a whole series of other junior officers, Somers was hit in the arm, then in the leg, and had to be held up to take his shot at the third officer. He then fainted from loss of blood, thereby avoiding two or three antagonists he had not yet faced, and so survived to die a hero’s death in the explosion vessel at Tripoli.

All ranks of society fought in duels, but the most frequent contestants for obvious reasons were newspaper editors, politicians, and officers of the armed services. Among the latter the general touchiness was exaggerated by the consideration that to impugn the physical courage of a soldier or a sailor was to deny him any excuse for living at all. Moreover, an officer was ex officio a gentleman as well as brave, and an implication that he was not a gentleman—which would arise if he refused satisfaction—had the same effect as impugning his courage. Yet in military and naval life the possibilities of giving or taking offense were multiplied. It was not merely a question of living herded together in mess or wardroom, but a question of discipline. It might be a major’s duty to criticize a junior’s handling of a platoon; a captain might have to criticize a lieutenant’s tacking of his ship; but one gentleman could only criticize another at the risk of a challenge. It is hardly necessary to add that it was always a senior officer’s duty to state his opinion regarding the fitness of a junior to be given promotion —that was criticism in black and white, definitive, not to be explained away or laughed off.

And so, from the War of the Revolution to the War between the States, the duelling code was responsible for the loss of uncounted lives. At frontier posts and foreign ports dead officers were laid in graves no less permanent for being honorable. The nation was deprived of the services of its finest young men and the discipline of its armed forces was corrupted by the insidious and universal influence of the duelling code.

Decatur had played his part in several duels, but only once as a principal; in 1799 he had met, and wounded, an officer of the merchant marine after a dispute regarding the enlistment of seamen for the United States . He had acted as second to Somers in the notorious duel with the three officers, and as second to Joseph Bainbridge in the duel that resulted in the death of Sir Alexander Ball’s secretary. Commodore Morris sent Decatur and Bainbridge home after that incident, but presumably merely to keep them safe from any chance of arrest for murder by the British, because Decatur on his arrival in the United States was appointed to his first command.

The Chesapeake-Leopard incident had naturally produced a crop of duels, but neither Decatur nor Barron had been involved; in fact Barron seems never to have engaged in a duel until the fatal occasion in 1820, while Decatur made no appearance on the field of honor after the Malta duel in 1803 until 1818, when he acted as second to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in his bloodless duel with Captain John Heath of the Marine Corps. Barron had once been on the verge of a duel with Commodore Rodgers, but, illness having compelled a postponement, someone had discovered a formula which allowed the matter to drop without a meeting.

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.

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.

There was a solemn funeral, which even President Monroe attended (as well as the Chief Justice of the United States), and ten thousand people watched the procession. Yet no one took action to bring any criminal to justice. It may be added as a postscript that Barron, having survived his wound, lived on until he was past eighty, to attain the respectability of extreme old age and the distinction of being for a time the senior officer of the United States Navy. He had made his contribution to the tradition of lawlessness and physical violence that was to plague American public life for generations to come; it is even possible that the shots fired in the Maryland glade were echoed 143 years later at Dallas.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.