Location: Bladensburg, Maryland
The duel that took the life of the legendary American naval hero Stephen Decatur was rooted in a controversy that had erupted 13 years earlier. Captain James Barron had been ordered to sail the American warship USS Chesapeake to the Mediterranean in May 1807.
Barron did not prepare the ship properly, and in a violent confrontation with a British ship Barron quickly surrendered.
The Chesapeake affair was considered a disgrace to the US Navy. Barron was convicted at a court martial and suspended from service in the Navy for five years. He sailed on merchant ships, and wound up spending the years of the War of 1812 in Denmark.
When he finally returned to the United States in 1818, he tried to rejoin the Navy. Stephen Decatur, the nation’s greatest naval hero based on his actions against the Barbary Pirates and during the War of 1812, opposed Barron’s reappointment to the Navy.
Barron felt that Decatur was treating him unfairly, and he began writing letters to Decatur insulting him and accusing him of treachery. Matters escalated, and Barron challenged Decatur to a duel.
The two men met at a dueling ground in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside the Washington, D.C. city limits, on March 22, 1820.
The men fired at each other from a distance of about 24 feet. It has been said that each fired at the other’s hip, so as to lessen the chance of a fatal injury. Yet Decatur’s shot struck Barron in the thigh. Barron’s shot struck Decatur in the abdomen.
Both men fell to the ground, and according to legend they forgave each other as they lay bleeding.
Decatur died the next day. He was only 41 years old. Barron survived the duel and was reinstated in the US Navy, though he never again commanded a ship. He died in 1851, at the age of 83.
Five U.S. Navy ships have been named USS Decatur in his honor, along with numerous locations. Numerous schools also bear his name.
An engraved portrait of Decatur appears on U.S. paper money on series 1886 20.00 silver certificates.
Forty-six communities in the United States have been named after Stephen Decatur, including:
Decatur Township, Indiana
Once located just northeast of the city of Washington was a place called the Bladensburg. Dueling Grounds. It lies just across the border of the District of Columbia and for many years in the early days of American history, men fought duels of honor here.... and their deaths left many ghosts behind.
The dueling grounds are but a memory now, the only remaining presence noted by a historical marker along Route 450 in Maryland.... but the events that took place here many years ago have left an indelible impression on the area. Ghosts still walk here today, victims of the 50 duels that were fought on these grounds and men like Stephen Decatur have left phantoms behind in their place, doomed to walk these grounds in an endless replay of events now forgotten. Death seemed to linger at the dueling grounds, long after the dying was over. The duelists who managed to walk away were often scarred forever by what had happened at Bladensburg. In those days, a question of honor was often settled at gunpoint and such was the case in February of 1819.
A former Virginia senator, General Armistead T. Mason, was challenged by his cousin, Colonel John M. McCarty. The duel was to be fought over the honor of a woman. McCarty felt that the only way to settle the dispute was in a way that neither could escape. He proposed jumping from the new Capitol building or both of them sitting atop a lighted keg of gunpowder... but, not surprisingly, Mason refused. Finally, it was settled that they would fight at 10 paces with muskets, each loaded with a single ball.
The next morning, at sunrise, the duel took place and Mason was killed. McCarty was wounded in the hand and he lost the ability to use his right arm. In the years that followed, he never forgot that horrible morning and eventually he lost his mind.
It is believed that he has returned to haunt the dueling grounds, never having recovered from murdering his cousin.
Another of the ghosts who haunts the place is that of Daniel Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, author of the "Star-Spangled Banner". Key was in an argument with a friend, John Sheburne, over the speed of two steamboats. The argument festered over a long sea voyage and when they reached Maryland, they agreed to a duel on the field of honor.
Daniel Key was killed with a single shot in June of 1836.
As more and more blood was spilled in Bladensburg, the stories grew about the ghosts and apparitions that were seen haunting the grounds. The stories spread and these stories, in turn, began to cause concern about the continuation of this legal killing. The problem was that Maryland laws did not apply to citizens of Washington.... so even if a law was passed it would have no effect over those who used the dueling grounds most frequently. Finally, in 1838, an incident took place that caused such a public outcry that Congress was forced to act.
A popular congressman from Maine named Jonathan Cilley was shot to death by another congressman named William Graves from Kentucky. Graves had been a stand-in for a New York newspaper editor named James W. Webb. Cilley had called Webb corrupt and Graves, being a friend of the editor, took the remark personally. Graves, knowing weapons quite well, challenged the inexperienced Cilley to a duel. Cilley believed the whole thing foolish and never expected the duel to actually take place. But on the morning of the duel, he found himself at Bladensburg with a rifle in his hand. The two men took up positions 80 yards apart and both fired.... but no one was struck. The shots were repeated and still, no one was hit. They agreed to take one more shot each and this proved fatal for Cilley. His leg was shot out from under him, cutting away an artery and he died in a matter of seconds on the cold ground. He left a wife and three small children behind.
Cilley had just been laid to rest when the public outcry began. The next session of Congress was forced to make dueling, or accepting or making a challenge, a criminal offense. The law appeased the public, but it did not bring an end to the dueling. The challenges were declared in secret and the duelists met in at Bladensburg under the cover of darkness. It would not be until the Civil War before the "sport" of dueling would die out completely.
In the years since, many changes have come to the area. The small inn, where so many duelists and their "seconds" met for a toast or some liquid courage, has long since vanished and urban growth has swallowed all but a small portion of the grounds. A few trees remain, as does the nearby river that was once called "Blood Run" but now is called "Eastern Branch". Few people come to this area anymore, but occasionally, when someone does, they get the surprise of seeing dark, but not transparent, figures walking across the area...... specters from another time and place.
Bladensburg is located northeast of Washington, on Highway 202 in Prince Georges County. The former dueling ground is located near Fort Lincoln Cemetery and a historical marker is located in front of the grounds on Route 450.