Death In Maryland: The Bladensburg Dueling Grounds

From Harpers Magazine 1858

From Harpers Magazine 1858

“Let’s continue this elsewhere.” It wasn’t so long ago that those words weren’t understood as a suggestion to go lie together on an unsheeted twin mattress and do things our pastors warned us about; before the Civil War, those words were universally recognized as an invitation to go out to Bladensburg, Maryland, and try to shoot each other in the face with muskets.

Now part of the Anacostia River Park in the town of Colmar Manor in PG County, the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds was an overgrown wilderness, sheltered on three sides by hills and on the fourth by a wall of jungle. When the gentlemen of DC couldn’t settle their differences, this is where they went to put the argument to rest. (This was before you could just block someone on Facebook.) Why Bladensburg? Well, it was just outside the District, and in that bygone era of ironclad “states rights,” a citizen of DC couldn’t be prosecuted in DC for crimes committed in Maryland. (Keep that in mind at Thanksgiving when your crazy uncle who thinks 9/11 was faked by the same people who staged the moon landing rails on about how the federal government is trampling states rights.) So you could literally hop across the border, commit cold-blooded (albeit consensual) murder, and hop right back across to escape legal consequences. Military officers and even sitting Congressmen went there to duel, and made the dueling grounds famous. The phrase “Bladensburg Dueling Grounds” served the same function in the 19th century American vernacular that “Worldstar!” does today; when it was invoked, something gory (and yet weirdly hypnotic) was sure to follow.

You’d think a famous dueling ground would be a picturesque open meadow, but according to a Harper’s article from 1858, “rank vegetation had overspread the place in savage exuberance … a heavy growth of brambles wound themselves in impenetrable masses.” With little room to maneuver, the shooters assembled in a trampled stretch of grass created by cattle going from a nearby pasture down to the creek to drink. Legend says there were over fifty duels fought here, but how many more were cancelled when the aggrieved parties looked around and were like, “Forget this, I’m not going to die on a freakin’ cowpath”? You really have to be motivated, to go through with a duel in a place like that.

Motivation often came from sources other than the two principals; many times, controversy was exaggerated or even fabricated whole cloth, by third parties who, I guess, were bored and wanted to see two dudes shooting at each other. In a famous case, the “second” of one duelist (your second was a friend entrusted with checking your gun and delivering terms to the other duelist) so aggressively pressed the other duelist to accept his boss’s challenge that a fistfight erupted between them. In that same case – Mason versus McCarty – the man who delivered the initial challenge, Mason, only did so because General Stonewall Jackson, eventual President of the United States, was like, “You ain’t gonna let him talk to you like that, are you, bro?” Talk about peer pressure. Mason was so serious about the duel – how could you not be when the future president is egging you on? – that he quit his job to concentrate on it full time. The other guy, McCarty, thought the whole thing was ridiculous, and tried to derail things by proposing ridiculous terms: a simultaneous leap from the dome of the Capitol, fighting on top of a huge barrel of gunpowder, a fight to the death with swords. Mason wasn’t having it, and finally they agreed to shoot at each other with muskets, from twelve feet apart. McCarty blew Mason to pieces, killing him instantly, while taking a non-lethal shot to the arm. I wonder if President Jackson felt guilty about egging him on? Or maybe he did it to get rid of a intra-party rival? Too bad there wasn’t Reddit back then, the conspiracy theorists would’ve gone wild. At any rate, the guy who started the fight got the worst of it, which is usually how it goes.

The dueling in Bladensburg continued for the next couple decades, usually over trifles. Two former best friends – one of them the son of Francis Scott Key, composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – killed each other there after an argument about how fast a steamboat could go. (Don’t ever let anyone tell you that people are getting stupider; people have always been stupid.) But finally, a particularly gory duel turned public sentiment. It was between Stephen Decatur and James Barron, both decorated naval officers. Decatur was the best duelist in the country, able to “call his shots” before a duel – he once said he would wound his opponent in the hip, and then did so, while also dodging the other man’s shot. He was challenged by Barron, who was mad because Decatur wouldn’t give him a good job reference. (We’ve all been there.) Barron was terrible with a pistol, and nearsighted, but was able to get favorable terms; only eight paces apart, and they’d both raise their pistols, aim, and shoot only when given the command by a referee. They fired at the exact same time, mortally wounding each other, and then as they lay on the ground dying, made up and forgave each other. The sheer pathos of this scene provoked a national outcry against dueling, which led to the passage of stricter anti-dueling laws. On or near the site of this heart-rending human drama, there’s now an IHOP. (Decatur’s house on Lafayette Square, where he expired later that day, is now a White House museum.)

Dueling at Bladensburg tapered off, and after the interruption of the Civil War, never resumed. The institution of dueling had deteriorated to farce at that point anyway; even if you bought into the idea that “honor” could be “defended” by shooting at each other, that idea was seriously undermined by the increasing employment of stand-ins. Towards the end, fat lawyers and newspaper editors would pay professional soldiers to take their places at Bladensburg, the surrogates taking deadly aim at each other on the dueling grounds as the “men of honor” watched from the sidelines. Usually the richer man was able to hire the better shooter, and subsequently “won.” Man, capitalism ruins everything. One is tempted to wonder, though, what our politics would be like today if dueling was still the norm. There’d be a line around the block of people trying to challenge Trump; at the very least, the prospect of this would probably make him temper his rhetoric. Still, even back then people pretty much knew that, apart from the romanticism, dueling didn’t settle much, or give much satisfaction even to the winners. According to contemporary accounts, McCarty, the reluctant duelist who blew away Mason, the man who’d been egged on by the future President (and who was, in fact, McCarty’s cousin), “bitterly repented” his part in the duel, and wished for the rest of his life that he’d just refused to participate.

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