Bladensburg Duelling Grounds, Maryland, USA
The idea of a duel seems somewhat strange, doesn’t it? It seems so final, so uncompromising, and so unjust.
It doesn’t leave room for mediation, for discussion of alternative solutions, or acceptance that there might be more to a situation than a simple right versus wrong dichotomy.
And I wonder if it is even fulfilling. Certainly, if the duel does according to plan, one person will end up dead. But who is to say the right person will die?
If an argument is started by one person being in the wrong, then surely that person should be punished – not an equal chance given to the survival of either party.
And if the argument is mutual and inconclusive, how do a couple of bullets judge which side is correct?
Still, duelling was the way that, for many years, men solved a dispute. I say ‘men’ not just because women were rarely, if ever, involved in duel, but because this kind of dispute resolution goes to the heart of masculine pride.
With the mercilessness of a gun, a man was able to prove his machismo to all.
In the capital of the United States, there are probably more arguments than in most cities. Washington DC, after all, was built so people could quarrel.
It’s no surprise then that one of the most famous duelling grounds of American history is right near the city.
It’s actually located in Maryland, just a short stroll over the border from the District of Columbia, because duelling was illegal in DC.
The stretch of grass is called the ‘Bladensburg Duelling Grounds’, named for the town it was once situated in.
These days it’s in a town called Colmar Manor, but seeing as there hasn’t been a duel held since the town names changed, there’s been no reason to change its title.
The last fight-to-the-death was held on this here land in 1868. After the Civil War, duelling had become less popular (and had become illegal in 1839). Perhaps everyone had had enough of settling disputes with guns.
But between that last duel and the first in 1808, it’s estimated there were about 50 contests of honour.
The most famous duel was in 1820 when two of the top officers in the US Navy finally decided to bring a long-held animosity to a head.
Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore James Barron made the short journey beyond the DC border to Bladensburg and stared each other down, guns in hand.
All duels are ultimately a matter of pride but you can only imagine how important that was for these two great military leaders.
The shots were fired. Both men were hit. Barron would go on to survive his wound and live. Decatur would die two days later from his.
One of America’s greatest naval heroes was ultimately killed on land, his own land, by own of his own countrymen.
The idea of a duel seems somewhat strange doesn’t it?
Visiting the dueling grounds
There isn’t much to see at the site, these days. No pistols strewn in the grass or blood stains upon the ground.
There’s a sign on the side of a main road and there’s still some greenery where the arguments were settled. At least it hasn’t been developed and covered with buildings.
Still, in the shadows of Washington DC, it’s interesting to remember how gentlemen, politicians and military officers once settled their disputes.
You wonder whether things are much better these days…