The Infamous Bladensburg Dueling Grounds

The Infamous Bladensburg Dueling Grounds

On a recent excursion I rode to the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds.  They were the busiest dueling grounds in America during their time, even after the laws against dueling were tightened in 1839.  The grounds are located just on the other side of the northeastern D.C. border, on 38th Avenue in Colmar Manor, Maryland (MAP). The small strip of land is adjacent to Dueling Creek, formerly known as Blood Run, which is a tributary of the Anacostia River.

In 1839, Congress passed legislation barring the practice of dueling in D.C.  The passage of the law was inspired by a duel the previous year in which a Congressman was killed in a duel with another Congressman.

In February of the previous year, a Congressman from Kentucky named William Graves killed Jonathan Cilley, a Congressman from Maine, at the infamous Bladensburg Dueling Grounds.  Graves was a stand in for James W. Webb, a New York newspaper editor who was offended by some remarks Cilley made in the House.  He assigned the duel to Graves, who was his friend as well as a noted marksman.  At dawn on the appointed day, Graves showed up with a more powerful rifle than Cilley, but he was allowed to use it.  When ready, the men fired.  No one was hit.  They fired at each other a second time, but still no one was hit.  Those present tried to end the confrontation, but Graves would not consent.  The third time Cilley was hit in the leg.  Because a main artery was severed he quickly died, bleeding to death in front of some of D.C.’s most prominent citizens and politicians.

The House, choosing not to censure the surviving Graves or two other Congressmen who were also present at the duel, instead presented a bill to “prohibit the giving or accepting within the District of Columbia, of a challenge to fight a duel, and for the punishment thereof.”

Beginning in 1808, the grove witnessed approximately fifty duels by gentlemen, military officers, and politicians, settling “affairs of honor.”  Despite the passing of the law outlawing duels in 1839, the last known duel was fought there in 1868.  A formalized set of rules dealing with dueling etiquette referred to as a Code duello was usually enforced by the duelers and their seconds, even though dueling was illegal in D.C., and in most American states and territories.

There is an historic marker at Bladensburg Dueling Grounds.  The inscription on the marker reads:  “On this site, now part of Anacostia River Park, more than 50 duels were fought during the first half of the 19th century.  Here, on what became known as “the dark and bloody grounds”, gentleman of Washington settled their political and personal differences.  One of the most famous disputes was that between commodores Stephen Decatur and James Barron which was settled here on March 22, 1820.  Commodore Decatur, who had gained fame as the conqueror of the Barbary pirates, was fatally wounded by his antagonist.  Although Congress passed an anti-dueling law in 1839, duels continued here until just before the Civil War.”

  1. Well, I see that the icon left by my “like” is suddenly different. Must be due to having just changed some settings in my own blog. Anyway, this was a pretty interesting post. Now back to my drawing board to fix the problem with my icon.


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