Dueling in the 19th Century

In the early 1800s gentlemen who felt they had been offended or insulted resorted to issuing a challenge to a duel, and the result could be gunfire in a rather formal setting.

The object of a duel was not necessarily to kill or even wound one’s opponent. Duels were all about honor and demonstrating one’s bravery.

The tradition of dueling goes back centuries, and it is believed the word duel, derived from a Latin term (duellum) meaning war between two, entered the English language in the early 1600s. By the mid-1700s dueling had become common enough that fairly formal codes began to dictate how duels were to be conducted.

Dueling Had Formalized Rules

In 1777, delegates from the west of Ireland met at Clonmel and came up with the Code Duello, a dueling code which became standard in Ireland and in Britain. The rules of the Code Duello crossed the Atlantic and became the generally standard rules for dueling in the United States.

Much of the Code Duello dealt with how challenges were to be issued and answered. And it has been noted that many duels were avoided by the men involved either apologizing or somehow smoothing over their differences.

Many duelists would merely try to strike a non-fatal wound, by, for instance, shooting at their opponent's hip. Yet the flintlock pistols of the day were not terribly accurate. So any duel was bound to be fraught with danger.

Prominent Men Participated in Duels

It should be noted that dueling was almost always illegal, yet fairly prominent members of society participated in duels both in Europe and in America.

Notable duels of the early 1800s included the famous encounter between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, a duel in Ireland in which Daniel O'Connell killed his opponent, and the duel in which American naval hero Stephen Decatur was killed.

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Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton - July 11, 1804, Weehawken, New Jersey

Burr shooting Hamilton
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The duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton was undoubtedly the most famous such encounter of the 19th century as the two men were prominent American political figures. They had both served as officers in the Revolutionary War and later held high office in the new American government.

Alexander Hamilton had been the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, having served during the administration of George Washington. And Aaron Burr had been a United States Senator from New York, and, at the time of the duel with Hamilton, was serving as vice president to President Thomas Jefferson.

The two men had clashed throughout the 1790s, and further tensions during the deadlocked election of 1800 further inflamed the longstanding dislike the two men had for each other.

In 1804 Aaron Burr ran for governor of New York State. Burr lost the election, in part due to vicious attacks leveled against him by his perennial antagonist, Hamilton. The attacks by Hamilton continued, and Burr finally issued a challenge.

Hamilton accepted Burr’s challenge to a duel. The two men, along with a few companions, rowed to a dueling ground on the heights in Weehawken, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, on the morning of July 11, 1804.

Accounts of what happened that morning have been debated for more than 200 years. But what is clear is that both men fired their pistols, and Burr’s shot stuck Hamilton in the torso.

Severely wounded, Hamilton was carried by his companions back to Manhattan, where he died the next day. An elaborate funeral was held for Hamilton in New York City.

Aaron Burr, fearing that he would be prosecuted for Hamilton’s murder, fled for a time. And while he was never convicted for killing Hamilton, Burr's own career never recovered.

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Daniel O'Connell vs John D'Esterre - February 1, 1815, County Kildare, Ireland

Daniel O'Connell
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A duel fought by the Irish attorney Daniel O'Connell always filled him with remorse, yet it added to his political stature. Some of O'Connell's political enemies suspected he was a coward as he had challenged another lawyer to a duel in 1813, but shots had never been fired.

In a speech O’Connell gave in January 1815 as part of his Catholic Emancipation movement, he referred to the Dublin city government as “beggarly.” A minor political figure on the Protestant side, John D’Esterre, interpreted the remark as a personal insult, and began to challenge O’Connell. D’Esterre had a reputation as a duelist.

O’Connell, when warned that dueling was illegal, stated that he would not be the aggressor, yet he would defend his honor. D’Esterre’s challenges continued, and he and O’Connell, along with their seconds, met at a dueling ground in County Kildare.

As the two men fired their first shot, O’Connell’s shot struck D’Esterre in the hip. It was first believed that D’Esterre had been slightly wounded. But after he was carried to his house and examined by doctors it was discovered that the shot had entered his abdomen. D’Esterre died two days later.

O’Connell was deeply shaken by having killed his opponent. It was said that O’Connell, for the rest of his life, would wrap his right hand in a handkerchief when entering a Catholic church, for he didn’t want the hand that had killed a man to offend God.

Despite feeling genuine remorse, O'Connell's refusal to back down in the face of an insult from a Protestant antagonist increased his stature politically. Daniel O'Connell became the dominant political figure in Ireland in the early 19th century, and there’s no doubt that his bravery in facing D’Esterre enhanced his image.

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Stephen Decatur vs. James Barron - March 22, 1820, Bladensburg, Maryland

Stephen Decatur
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The duel that took the life of the legendary American naval hero Stephen Decatur was rooted in a controversy that had erupted 13 years earlier. Captain James Barron had been ordered to sail the American warship USS Chesapeake to the Mediterranean in May 1807. Barron did not prepare the ship properly, and in a violent confrontation with a British ship, Barron quickly surrendered.

The Chesapeake affair was considered a disgrace to the US Navy. Barron was convicted at a court-martial and suspended from service in the Navy for five years. He sailed on merchant ships and wound up spending the years of the War of 1812 in Denmark.

When he finally returned to the United States in 1818, he tried to rejoin the Navy. Stephen Decatur, the nation’s greatest naval hero based on his actions against the Barbary Pirates and during the War of 1812, opposed Barron’s reappointment to the Navy.

Barron felt that Decatur was treating him unfairly, and he began writing letters to Decatur insulting him and accusing him of treachery. Matters escalated, and Barron challenged Decatur to a duel. The two men met at a dueling ground in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside the Washington, D.C. city limits, on March 22, 1820.

The men fired at each other from a distance of about 24 feet. It has been said that each fired at the other’s hip, so as to lessen the chance of a fatal injury. Yet Decatur’s shot struck Barron in the thigh. Barron’s shot struck Decatur in the abdomen.

Both men fell to the ground, and according to legend, they forgave each other as they lay bleeding. Decatur died the next day. He was only 41 years old. Barron survived the duel and was reinstated in the US Navy, though he never again commanded a ship. He died in 1851, at the age of 83.

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McNamara, Robert. "Dueling in the 19th Century." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/famous-duels-of-the-19th-century-1773886. McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 16). Dueling in the 19th Century. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-duels-of-the-19th-century-1773886 McNamara, Robert. "Dueling in the 19th Century." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-duels-of-the-19th-century-1773886 (accessed March 22, 2023).