Just after nine o’clock – 186 years ago this very morning – two men armed with dueling pistols faced each other on an isolated field in Bladensburg, Maryland. The field, known as the “Valley of Chance,” was located just off the main Baltimore-Washington stage route.
Both men were celebrated Naval officers. One was Commodore James Barron, whose successes at sea had been tarnished by a court martial in which he was found guilty of “negligence” prior to his ship’s ill-fated action with a British frigate in 1807. The other was Commodore Stephen Decatur; hero of Tripoli, a U.S. Naval officer often compared to the Royal Navy’s legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson, and the author of the famous aphorism, “Our country, right or wrong.” Decatur had served on the court martial that convicted Barron, and a post-trial series of accusations and caustic letters between the two officers had led both to this place in time.
The two were accompanied by their “seconds” – representatives for the duelists who were responsible for loading weapons, ensuring compliance with the rules of conduct for dueling, and calling-out the countdown to fire. The seconds were Commodore William Bainbridge (for Decatur) and Captain Jesse Duncan Elliot (for Barron).
In his book, A Rage for Glory, author James Tertius de Kay describes the final moments before shots rang out: “The two men stepped to their marks and faced each other. Bainbridge [Decatur’s second] went over the details one last time. He explained that he would first give the order to ‘present,’ that is, to cock their weapons and take aim, then he would count out the numbers ‘one-two-three.’ The duelists were instructed not to fire before hearing the word ‘one,’ or after hearing the word ‘three.’”
An eerie silence washed over the field.
Bainbridge prepared to issue the first command, “Present!” when in an unexpected interruption, Barron said, “I hope, Commodore Decatur, that when we meet in another world, we shall be better friends than we have been in this.”
Decatur replied, “I have never been your enemy, sir.”
It was a stunning exchange of words that violated the code of conduct for dueling, but starkly illustrated the respect the men truly felt toward one another. At this point, however, they were caught up in a deadly proceeding for which there was no honorable way out.
The seconds had the authority to stop the engagement. The exchange of words was clearly an opportunity to move toward possible reconciliation, but neither Elliot nor Bainbridge had any intention of preventing the tragedy about to take place.
The next words were Elliot’s: “Gentlemen, your places.”
Then Bainbridge’s: “Present!”