We have previously written about the practice of dueling among members of Congress prior to the Civil War. We also discussed a book in the Library of Congress Special Collections Division that prescribes the rules governing a duel with pistols. Today, we visit the spot where many of those infamous duels took place – the Bladensburg Dueling Ground. Bladensburg was a popular spot for duels, since Congress outlawed dueling in the District of Columbia in 1839, and Bladensburg is located just outside of the boundaries of the District in Maryland. It was on this “dark and bloody ground” that naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur, Congressman Jonathan Cilley, and Francis Scott Key’s son, Daniel Key, were among those who met early deaths by losing a duel.
The general reason for dueling was almost always the same–a man in public life felt that his honor and ability to command respect in public life had been impugned, leading him to believe that the only way to defend this reputation was to challenge his antagonist to a duel. The particular insults ranged from the mundane to the ridiculous: Stephen Decatur was challenged to a duel by James Barron after he helped court-martial Barron and later opposed Barron’s reinstatement, while Daniel Key was killed by fellow midshipman John Sherborne after a dispute over the speed of a steamboat. Today, the dueling ground, or at least a portion of it, is a park that is located within the boundaries of Colmar Manor, Maryland. The infamy of the dueling ground led to it becoming a tourist attraction, and several historical photos of Bladensburg appear in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Catalog. I recently visited the site and took several photographs.