Stephen Decatur was only a teenager when he wrapped his arms around a fellow midshipman who was too injured to raise his pistol or even stand to help him continue a duel. The midshipman had faced two opponents and was wounded by both, but insisted on fighting the other men he believed had insulted him.
With Decatur’s help, the midshipman aimed carefully and fired, wounding his opponent. Convinced that insults to his honor had been avenged, the duelist collapsed, and his opponents, all fellow midshipmen, nursed him back to health.
Decatur fought his first duel a year later, when he was 20. He was a fourth lieutenant then, gathering men in Philadelphia for service aboard the heavy frigate United States, when the captain of an Indiaman offered his seamen higher wages and the men abandoned Decatur’s ship. Because the men had signed contracts, Decatur prevailed legally, but the insults exchanged with the Indiaman’s captain drove him to consult with his father, an officer from the Revolutionary War, about whether a duel was necessary to keep his honor.
His father told him it was. Decatur issued the challenge, and it was accepted. He proclaimed his intent merely to wound his opponent, who was less proficient with arms. Decatur’s first duel ended well. He wounded his opponent and was unhurt himself.
By 1800, the Navy was losing many men to duels, two-thirds as many as were lost in sea battles. The Code Duello set forth the rules for dueling on the Continent and in America.
In 1777 a group of Irishmen wrote the first official rules; the rules were tweaked by the Americans, defined for the Navy by Commodore Stephen Decatur and re-codified for the public in 1838 by John Lyde Wilson, a former governor of South Carolina. The rules explained, for example,
That the challenged party could choose the location of the duel and that the challenger could end the duel by apologizing.
Each duelist, also called a principal, chose a “second” through whom the details of the duel were discussed.
The seconds were also supposed to try to resolve the dispute without resorting to the duel.
The seconds made sure the duel was fair and the weapons were equal. They were to fetch help if their principal got injured, and to assure that the principals fought with honor.
Dueling came to the United States from Europe as a gentleman’s tradition and a way to protect one’s honor. It’s no wonder that the Navy took so readily to dueling, as the strict hierarchy resembled its own aristocracy within the new democratic country.
John Paul Jones, the Navy’s first hero of the Revolutionary War, was reluctant to duel. Although he was easily offended and often provoked, he never fought a duel. When Jones was in the Navy, however, duels were usually fought with swords. Jones, a gardener’s son, never learned the art of fencing, and he may have avoided duels out of self-preservation — he knew his swordsmanship was inadequate.
As time passed, American military men and civilians alike began to duel with pistols instead of swords. Proficiency with a sword takes years, and only the nobility had the time to devote to the art. Guns were easy to master, inexpensive and easy to obtain. Americans rejected nobility for meritocracy and in the process rejected the trappings of nobility. They usually used large-caliber smoothbore flintlock pistols with limited accuracy, though duelists sometimes chose shotguns, carbines or rifles.
Most duels involving naval officers used pistols, as they were common to the officers. The emphasis was on courage, not on killing. Naval officers lived and often died by virtue of their bravery and pride. Ducking an affront was considered cowardly, whether it was a verbal insult at a social gathering or a cannon barrage from an enemy ship — the officers stood on deck, and to flinch at the incoming lead was to lose face. So, to succeed in a duel, one needed to show up and not flinch at the sound of gunfire and the possibility of being wounded or killed.
Decatur was involved in his fair share of duels as a young officer. In 1802 he served as a second to his sister’s husband, a Marine captain. The Marine died in the duel. As a lieutenant, Decatur volunteered as second for one of his midshipmen who was provoked into an unfair duel. The stunned midshipman accepted. Decatur demanded a fight with pistols leveled at a distance of four paces, far closer than the standard distance of