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A Duel with Rifles

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Several years ago, I came across a reference in the Congressional Globe to some sort of crime which seemed to have been committed by a member of Congress.  I was intrigued and being an avid mystery reader, wanted to discover who had done what to whom!

Hon. Jonathan Cilley

The entry which originally caught my eye appeared on April 25, 1838 in the House of Representatives.  The House began work on that day by continuing its consideration of “the report of the committee appointed to investigate the causes which led to the death of the Hon. Jonathan Cilley, late a member of the House … ” What, I wondered, had happened to Rep. Cilley?  The debate on the report had actually begun on the previous day, April 24, 1838 and the relevant section was entitled “The Late Duel.”  This vigorous debate in the House had initially focused on the committee’s report regarding the duel and the proper breadth of its powers.  The debate was focused on the issue as to whether or not the House committee had transcended its powers: “the committee had nothing to do with trying the individuals implicated, or making an argument to prove they were guilty, but merely, as grand jurors, to turn if there was sufficient cause to put them upon their trial.”  The debate continued with references to expelling members and impeachment but what was this farrago about?

To expedite my research I decided to refer to the Congressional Globe Index and look up Rep. Cilley.  I quickly found an entry for Jonathan Cilley of Maine with a number of entries including an announcement of his death by Rep. Fairfield on page 199 of the Congressional Globe for 1838.  Rep. Fairfield announced that Mr. Cilley’s death had taken place on “Saturday last near this city.  One hour we saw him in full life, standing in the midst of us in the pride and vigor of manhood; the next, a helpless, inanimate corpse.”  Rep. Fairfield went on to eulogize his colleague as a man of “uncommon talents” with a “strong, vigorous, well stored, and well disciplined mind”  and deplored “his abrupt and tragical removal.”  Based on this report, one was inclined to believe some unexpected and tragic accident had carried off the strong minded Rep. Cilley but the reference to a duel belied this conclusion.  The index references for Rep. Cilley directed me to the committee’s report.  This report described the duel itself and the occasion which had led to it.

Rep. Cilley had died in a duel with Rep. Graves, a member from Kentucky.  This duel had taken place near the boundary line between the District of Columbia and Maryland and had been fought with rifles.   The root of the disagreement between Rep. Cilley and Rep. Graves lay in remarks made by Rep. Cilley on February 12, 1838 when he questioned an anonymous newspaper report which had charged a member of Congress with corruption.  A resolution had been proposed to appoint a select committee to investigate the allegation but Rep. Cilley had spoken against the resolution and had as well raised questions about reliability of said newspaper.  On February 21st, the editor of this newspaper, James Watson Webb, had asked Rep. Graves to deliver a note to Rep. Cilley.  Rep. Cilley had declined to receive this note.  Reps. Cilley and Graves exchanged further notes in which Rep. Cilley initially stated he did not wish to be drawn into a controversy on Col. Webb’s character nor did he intend any disrespect to Rep. Graves.  Unfortunately, matters quickly devolved and Rep. Graves issued a challenge to Rep. Cilley on February 23rd.  Rep. Cilley’s second, Gen. Jones made the arrangements for the duel and designated the weapons as rifles which would be fired at a range of 80 yards.  Interestingly enough Mr. Wise, who was second for Rep. Graves, characterized the terms of the duel as “unusual and objectionable.”  The time for the duel was in fact delayed by Rep. Graves’ difficulties in locating a rifle – in the end Gen. Jones had to provide the weapon.  The opponents met at 3 p.m. and both discharged their rifles and missed.  An attempt was made by the seconds to settle this matter amicably.  The report notes that the combatants were “without animosity towards each other” but were “fighting merely upon a point of honor.”  The opponents again discharged their weapons without hitting each other and their seconds again met to try and settle the matter.  On the third round, Rep. Cilley was shot: “[he] was shot through the body … put both his hands to his wound, fell and in two or three minutes expired.”

To the modern mind, the cause for this duel makes little or no sense.  The House Committee found that this issue arose out of Rep. Cilley’s refusal to receive Colonel Webb’s note from Rep. Graves and further his refusal to explain whether he had refused to receive the note  “on the ground of any personal exception to him as a gentleman of honor.”  That this would somehow impugn Rep. Graves’ honor as a friend of Col. Webb seems pretty incomprehensible to me and Rep. Cilley’s quick acceptance of the challenge and refusal to settle the issue would not characterize him as someone with a well disciplined mind today.

Although the incident occurred between House members and was investigated by a select House committee, a bill to ban dueling was actually introduced in the Senate.  Senator Prentiss of Vermont introduced a bill on March 2, 1838 to prohibit the giving or acceptance of a challenge to duel in the District of Columbia.  Mr. Prentiss claimed he was not acting from a “mere impulse of overwrought sensibility” brought out by the “very recent and lamentable event” but because such a practice would ultimately inhibit the freedom of debate within Congress itself.  The Senate received numerous petitions from various cities and states asking Congress to ban dueling and in many cases to ban anyone who had dueled from being eligible to be seated in Congress.  Although this bill did not pass, Mr. Prentiss introduced a similar bill, S.2 in the 3rd session of the 25th Congress which did become law: An Act to Prohibit the giving or accepting, within the District of Columbia, of a challenge to fight in a duel, and for the punishment thereof.  However, anyone who was determined to settle their differences by dueling could simply go over the state line into Maryland!

Comments (3)

  1. To my amazement, there is a whole lot to learn on this issue. It wouldn’t be a wise choice in this era.
    much has been learned from that experience, hopefully.
    It was great to learn about our early government.

  2. Jonathan Cilley was a member of the House of Representatives in Maine and served as speaker. His house still stands in Thomaston where he and his family are buried. Many letters exchanged between he and his wife during his time in Washington are at the Thomaston Historical Society. The letters give details leading up to the duel. Why this tragic event has never been made into a movie is no doubt an oversight.

  3. Dueling was already illegal in the District of Columbia, which is why this duel was fought just over the line in Maryland. So duelists were already simply going over the state line to avoid the DC dueling ban. The point of the new law was to prohibit giving or accepting a challenge to a duel while in DC. So even if the duel were held outside of the District, there was a chance of prosecuting the participants if it could be shown that the challenge was made or accepted in the District (as happened in the case of the Graves-Cilley duel). Effectively, the new law was designed precisely to get at DC residents who evaded the older dueling ban by arranging to duel outside the District.

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