Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Decatur’

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.”


Decatur House on Lafayette Square

In 1820, Stephen Decatur, Jr., a U.S. Naval Officer notable for his long and celebrated career, was shot during a duel with another officer, Commodore James Barron.  A long-time rival, Barron bore a grudge against Decatur for his role in Barron’s court-martial and ouster from the Navy years earlier.  Attempting to solve the issue, Decatur accepted Barron’s challenge to a duel. Decatur shot and wounded Barron, as was his intention, and was prepared to let the matter drop. Barron, however, had other plans. He mortally wounded Decatur and exacted his revenge. Decatur was taken to his home, where he didn’t die straight away, however.  It took him two days of agonizing pain to finally succumb to the gut-shot.

It’s notable that their duel occurred during a time period when duels between officers were so common that it was creating a shortage of experienced officers, forcing the War Department to threaten to discharge those who attempted to pursue the practice.

Washington society, as well as the entire nation, was shocked upon learning that Decatur had been killed in a duel with a rival navy captain.  His funeral was attended by Washington’s elite, including President James Monroe and the justices of the Supreme Court, as well as most of Congress. Over 10,000 citizens of Washington and the surrounding area also attended his funeral to pay their last respects to the national hero.

On today’s bike ride I went by Decatur’s former home. Located at 1610 H Street in northwest D.C. (MAP), the house is one of the oldest surviving homes in D.C., and one of only three remaining houses in the country designed by neoclassical architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the “father of American architecture.” In D.C., Latrobe also designed St. John’s Episcopal Church (also known as the President’s Parish) and parts of The White House.  The Decatur House was built with the prize money Decatur was awarded for his naval conquests in the War of 1812.  The couple moved into their grand house in 1819 and spent the first several months cementing their social prominence in Washington by hosting a number of extravagant parties. Prominently located on Lafayette Square just north of the White House, the house was later the home of a number of other famous people, including President Martin Van Buren, who rented it from Decatur’s widow.

Despite leaving her financially well-off at the time of his death, his widow was eventually forced to sell the home due to overwhelming debt.  The subsequent owner built an addition onto the house – a large two-story dependency building at the rear of the property.  This was used as quarters for the numerous enslaved individuals in his household.

Sometimes referred to as a house of slavery and death, Decatur House is considered among paranormal enthusiasts to be one of D.C.’s most haunted. Those who have been in the house frequently claim to have seen Stephen Decatur walking the halls, his expression one of bleak sadness. He has been sighted throughout the house. And though he is often seen looking out windows or walking the halls, he is not the only phenomenon to take place. There are also reports of a mournful weeping and wailing sound that comes from empty rooms or is heard after hours. While no one is certain just who it is, most people believe the voice to belong to Decatur’s widow, Susan. The most palpable phenomenon is the feeling of sadness and heaviness that comes from the room on the first floor where Decatur died.

As with many historical homes, the house is now a museum and houses The Decatur House National Center for White House History, a repository for all things having to do with the home of the President. It is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  It is also open for historic tours of the house as well as self-guided tours of exhibits and even cell phone tours in which visitors are guided by calling the museum’s tour number. Additionally, the house is also available to host weddings and other special events, keeping in the tradition that Stephen and Susan Decatur started almost 200 years ago.

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