"Oh, Bainbridge, you're going ashore with us, aren't you?"
At these words a young man who was walking up and down the frigate's
quarter-deck turned quickly. He was dressed in the same uniform as the
one who had just asked the question,--that of a midshipman of the
"Not if you are starting at once, Raymond," he replied. "I won't be off
duty for a quarter of an hour. Is the boat ready?"
"Not yet--maybe you will have time--have you asked for leave?"
"I have that right enough, but I can't be in two places at once. I'd
like to go, though, if I could."
"It's too bad; all the fellows were counting on your coming." And
Midshipman Raymond left the quarter-deck, and strolled forward to the
mast, where five or six other middies were waiting, all dressed in
their best uniforms, with rows of polished brass buttons, and neat
little dirks swung at their left hips by slender chains. They were
impatient at the delay. Every one wished to be ashore, as it was the
intention to dine together and afterwards to attend a concert at the
Malta Theatre; for the Constitution was lying at anchor just off
the town, and not far from the walls of the heavy fortifications
that make the island England's greatest stronghold in the Eastern
Mediterranean--second in importance among her possessions only to the
"I hear Carlotti is going to sing to-night," observed one of the
midshipmen knowingly, interrupting the chorus of grumblings at the
slowness of the shore boat in returning. "She's great," he added.
"How do you know?" asked a short tow-headed reefer; "you never heard
"No, but Bainbridge has, and he told me."
"Wish Bainbridge was going with us----"
"So do we all," was the chorus to this, and just at this moment the
ship's bell clanged the hour, and the one to whom they referred ran
past them. He paused at the head of the ladder.
"I'll be up in a minute; don't you fellows go without me."
With these words he jumped below, and running into the steerage, he
slammed open the lid of his chest and shifted into his best uniform in
"presto change" fashion. He was just in time to hasten down the ladder
and leap into the boat as she shoved off from the side. There were two
lieutenants going ashore, and they don't wait for tardy midshipmen.
"Quick work, Joseph," said Middy Raymond, laying his hand on
"Rather," was the panted reply. "Do I look shipshape? Feels as if I'd
"All ataunto--far as I can see."
Joseph Bainbridge was a younger brother of Commodore William
Bainbridge, and like him he had gifts of popularity. He possessed a
magnetic personality that attracted to him the notice of both officers
and men, and a bold, adventurous spirit that won their admiration.
Added to this was the fact that he was tall and strong, and conceded to
be the handsomest young officer in the service.
When the boat drew up at the pier, the middies flocked off by
themselves, and the two young lieutenants fell behind.
"You didn't hear the lecture,--the lecture the old man gave us while
you were below, Bainbridge," said Midshipman Raymond. "Phew! but he
piled it on thick in telling us how to behave ourselves. Any one might
think that we were going ashore to offer challenges right and left to
all the British army."
"What do you mean?" asked Bainbridge, slipping his arm through his
friend's, and looking down at him, for he stood head and shoulders
above the other youngsters.
"Why, just this," was the response. "The old man" (in this manner was
the Commodore referred to) "says that there are plenty of fire-eating,
snap-shooting 'eight-paces' chaps, just longing for a chance to pick a
quarrel with a Yankee officer; and as he told us it took two to make
trouble, he said he would hold us responsible if there was any row. We
will have to mind our tacks and sheets. He expects us to be blind to
all ugly looks, and deaf to all remarks, I suppose. Besides, we are all
under promise to return by the last boat, that leaves at eleven
"Well," observed the tall midshipman, laughing, "there seems to be no
great hardship in that; we have some hours before us. Let's turn in
here and get our grub--then, ho for the theatre!"
The crowd of laughing young fellows entered a cafe, and seated
themselves quietly at a corner table. But their entrance had been
observed. A group of officers, in scarlet coats and gilt braid and
shoulder knots, gazed insolently at them.
"Young Yankee puppies," observed one, turning to his companions.
"Rather airy,--I should say breezy," was the rejoinder.
Before long, the fun grew fast and furious at the middies' table;
laughter and even the snatch of a song broke from them. Pretty soon one
of the English officers arose--the one who had first noticed their
presence. He walked over to their table, and rapped on the edge with
the hilt of his sword.
"Less noise, less noise here!" he said.
Bainbridge was about to spring to his feet, when Raymond restrained
him. "Have a care," he said softly.
No one noticed the Englishman's presence, and slightly abashed he
returned to his seat. But he covered his confusion with an air of
bravado. "Taught 'em a lesson," he sniggered.
In a few minutes the whole party had adjourned to the play-house.
Carlotti sang her best, every one was enjoying the music and anxious
for more, when the curtain fell on the first act. The Constitution
lads applauded so long that one might have thought they wished to have
the whole thing over again, which they would have liked exceedingly.
But seeing at last that the prima donna would not respond,--she had
been out five times,--the lads arose and strutted into the lobby in a
"There's that officious Britisher," said Bainbridge, nodding his head
toward a group of scarlet coats that stood blocking up a doorway.
"Oh, I just heard about him," put in one of the smallest reefers. "He's
Tyrone Tyler, the dead shot,--I overheard some one pointing him out.
He's killed eleven men, they say."
The officer in question was tall and exceedingly slender, and he might
have been called good-looking if it were not for the insolent eyes, the
leering mouth, and arrogant chin that made him so conspicuous. He made
some remark that caused the others to laugh as he put up his eyeglass
and stared into the faces of the Yankee middies. Some reddened and
dropped their glances, but Bainbridge returned the stare with interest.
The Englishman frowned and let his glass fall from his eye.
"Care for cub-hunting, Twombly?" he inquired of a red-faced man at his
elbow. "Here's a chance for you!"
The midshipmen heard this, but said nothing, and soon they were all
lost in the theatre crowd.
During the next intermission all kept their seats but Raymond and
Bainbridge, who again strolled out. The taller lad, who looked some
years older than his age, which was but nineteen, attracted some
attention; many looks of admiration were thrown at him as he passed
through the lobby. Suddenly he collided with somebody, who pushed him
"Beg pardon," said Bainbridge, making way.
There was no reply, and the lad's handsome brows contracted as he saw
the evil face of Captain Tyrone Tyler smiling sneeringly at him. In the
course of a few minutes they met again, and once more came together.
"Beg pardon, sir."
The words had a peculiar intonation this time. They were spoken in the
tone of voice one uses when compelled to move something that may
disturb another. Bainbridge lifted the infantry captain past with a
firm grasp on both his elbows. He moved him as easily as one might lift
a lashed hammock to one side.
"Beg pardon, sir," said he again.
The officer grew livid, and had it not been that some one grasped his
arm, he would have struck the midshipman across the face. But
Bainbridge and Raymond moved quickly away.
As they turned to leave the hall after the performance was over the
word was brought that Tyler and three others were waiting at the
entrance. After a consultation it was agreed that it would be best to
remain, and avoid a meeting if possible. So talking in low voices, the
midshipmen stayed on until warned by the dimming lights that the place
was being closed. At last a plan was settled on. Bainbridge, who was
eager to go out first, was persuaded to remain with Raymond, and follow
shortly after the others had left. They singled out, and when the last
two stepped past the door, Tyler was still waiting.
"Now for the training," said he, stepping forward. As he spoke he put
one elbow in Bainbridge's face, and with the other grasped for his
But he reckoned wrongly. The middy ducked quickly and picked up his cap
that had been pushed off by the blow. Then he straightened himself.
"You are a cowardly bully," he said calmly. "But I understand you. My
card, sir; I am at your service."
As he spoke, he extended a bit of engraved pasteboard. Captain Tyler
took it, handed it to one of his friends, and gave his name, adding:--
"I trust that you will meet me on the beach under the west fort
to-morrow morning at nine o'clock."
"Can you make it earlier?"
"Certainly; at eight, then."
The Englishman laughed as he moved off with his companions.
"Be on hand, my young monkey jacket; I should hate to be turned out so
early for nothing."
"Never fear," was Bainbridge's return.
"Oh, Joseph, what have you done?" wailed little Raymond, suddenly.
"They will never let you off the ship, and we've broken orders, and are
in a frightful mess."
"I'm not going on board again, Sammy; I'm to meet that bully, and I
will do it. It's either disgrace or death, and I'm reckless now. But
run along, you; leave me to myself."
"I shall stay if you do," replied Raymond, stoutly. "It will never be
"Come, young gentlemen, 'tis about time you were making for the boat.
Commodore Preble's orders were very strict; don't forget them."
The speaker was a tall, graceful young man, wrapped in a long
watch-cloak. It was Stephen Decatur, the First Lieutenant, and the idol
of the ship. He descended the few steps from the entrance to the lobby,
and continued as he acknowledged the midshipmen's salute:--
"Come, let's all be moving--stir your stumps now, Mr. Raymond."
As they reached the archway of the pier, Bainbridge held back.
"Come, Mr. Bainbridge, a word with you," said Decatur, taking the lad
kindly by the arm. He was but five or six years the senior, but his
manner was almost fatherly. "Have you anything to tell me?"
"Yes, sir. I have broken orders."
"I observed it," said the Lieutenant. "Have you anything else to say."
"Yes, sir; unless you insist, I'd rather stay on shore to-night."
"You will return to the ship."
"Very good, sir."
In silence the party was rowed back, and in silence they climbed the
side and came on deck.
Then the First Lieutenant spoke. "Mr. Bainbridge, wait on deck here
until my return."
"What's up, Raymond?" asked the lads as soon as they had gone below to
the steerage where they swung their hammocks. "Did Bainbridge have a
row, after all? What's going to happen?"
"Don't ask me," was the reply; "you know as much as I do." Raymond
concluded that it was best to keep mum on the subject, and with this he
tumbled into his hammock.
Bainbridge waited up on deck for half an hour. He had not the least
idea what was going to be done with him. But he was grieving bitterly.
If he did not meet the Englishman, he was disgraced,--his name was
known, "he owed it to the honor of the service"; for that was the way
the code was established. But how could he have disobeyed the order of
Decatur to proceed on board ship? That would have been impossible,
also. Yet, strange to say, he did not regret his action, and he had not
once felt a thrill of fear. True, Tyler was a noted man-killer, but
that did not worry Bainbridge in the least. He may have been a
fatalist, but that was not the only reason: he knew without bragging
that he was a good shot.
Suddenly he heard some one approaching. He lifted his despondent head
out of his hands. Was he going to be called into the cabin to take a
rating from the fiery tongue of the Commodore. Could he stand that!
"Commodore Preble's orders are for me to go on shore to-morrow at seven
thirty in the morning. By the way, you will go with me----"
"Oh, thank you, sir," interrupted the midshipman, his voice breaking;
"I shall attend to everything, if you will allow me the honor."
Bainbridge put out his hand; Decatur took it without a word.
The next morning, on a narrow stretch of beach, there was a curious
little gathering, or, better, two separate groups: one composed of five
men talking together, and at a few paces' distance two silent figures.
The five men were conversing in whispers.
"Nevertheless, I intend doing it," said the tall slender man who was in
the centre. "Do you see the button at his throat? A Yankee more or less
does not count."
"Are you ready, gentlemen?"
The others stepped back, and there stood two tall figures fronting one
another: each held a long heavy pistol in the right hand. The faces of
the men were pale, but the midshipman was just as cool as his
experienced opponent; a determined gleam was in his light blue eyes.
The officer who had last spoken began counting, and then there came a
flash and one report. The pistols had been discharged at the same
Bainbridge reeled slightly, and passed his hand about his throat.
"I am all right," he said calmly.
"Thank God! Then let's be off," was Decatur's sole return.
Lying on the sand was Tyler "the dead shot," the surgeon fumbling at
his chest. Decatur and the midshipman raised their hats as they passed
* * * * *
So much for the first duel; now for the sequel. In this modern day we
can scarcely imagine the complaisant attitude assumed by press and
public towards such happenings as this. Were they less careful of human
life, or did they view matters in such a different light that their
perceptions were altogether blunted? No, not that exactly; many men
fought duels who did not believe in the resort to arms at all. They
were compelled to by the deluded custom of the times. Few men were
brave enough to refuse a challenge. But one thing, a man who was
known to have figured on the field of honor, sooner or later found
himself there again, and generally it was once too often.
The second duel to be told about here, has a slight connection with the
first, and yet belongs more properly to history. Commodore William
Bainbridge, who was one of Decatur's most intimate friends, was
grateful indeed for the manner in which he had stood by his brother,
and when Decatur stood in need of some one to do the same thing by him,
it was but natural that he should turn to Bainbridge.
But now to get back to history: Stephen Decatur had, against his will,
been one of the members of the court martial that had sentenced
Commodore Barron to suspension from the navy for five years because of
the affair of the Chesapeake and the Leopard. Barron had gone
abroad, and was in England when the War of 1812 was declared. His
period of suspension ended shortly after the declaration, but he did
not return to America until over a year had elapsed; and then
presenting himself without explanation, he demanded the command of an
important ship. Decatur used every effort to prevent his securing
active employment, taking the ground, as he explained in a letter
written to Barron himself, that the latter's conduct "had been such as
to forever bar readmission into the service." He disclaimed any feeling
of personal enmity, but was firm in his opposition. For years this was
the state of affairs; the correspondence between Barron and Decatur
grew more bitter and ironical, and at last it culminated thus:--
Writes Barron on the sixteenth of January, 1820, dated Norfolk:--
SIR: Your letter of the 29th ultimo, I have received. In it you say
that you have now to inform me that you shall pay no further
attention to any communications that I may make to you, other than
a direct call to the field; in answer to which I have only to reply
that whenever you will consent to meet me on fair and equal
grounds, that is, such as two honorable men may consider just and
proper, you are at liberty to view this as that call. The whole
tenor of your conduct to me justifies this course of proceeding on
my part. As for your charges and remarks, I regard them not,
particularly your sympathy. You know no such feeling. I cannot be
suspected of making the attempt to excite it.
I am, sir, yours, etc.,
To this, Decatur replied as follows:--
WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 1820.
SIR: I have received your communication of the 16th, and am at a
loss to know what your intention is. If you intend it as a
challenge, I accept it, and refer you to my friend, Commodore
Bainbridge, who is fully authorized to make any arrangements he
pleases as regards weapons, mode, or distance.
Your obedient servant,
And so the fatal meeting was arranged. Captain Elliot, Barron's
representative, and Bainbridge chose Bladensburg, a beautiful spot
within driving distance of the Capitol, as the duelling ground. Letters
describing contemporary events give such vivid pictures of past scenes,
that it is well to quote entire the letter of Samuel Hambleton, one of
Decatur's closest friends, who was present. This letter was written
shortly after the meeting had taken place.
WASHINGTON, March 22, 1820.
... This morning, agreeably to his request, I attended Commodore
Bainbridge in a carriage to the Capitol hill, where I ordered
breakfast at Beale's hotel for three persons. At the moment it was
ready, Commodore Decatur, having walked from his own house, arrived
and partook of it with us. As soon as it was over he proceeded in
our carriage towards Bladensburg. At breakfast he mentioned that he
had a paper with him that he wished to sign (meaning his will), but
that it required three witnesses, and as it would not do to call in
any third person for that purpose he would defer it until we
arrived at the ground. He was quite cheerful, and did not appear to
have any desire to take the life of his antagonist; indeed, he
declared he would be very sorry to do so. On arriving at the valley
half a mile short of Bladensburg we halted and found Captain Elliot
standing in the road on the brow of the hill beyond us. Commodore
Bainbridge and myself walked up and gave him the necessary
information, when he returned to the village. In a short time
Commodore Barron, Captain Elliot, his second, and Mr. Lattimer
arrived on the ground, which was measured (eight long strides) and
marked by Commodore Bainbridge nearly north and south, and the
seconds proceeded to load. Commodore Bainbridge won the choice of
stands, and his friend chose that to the north, being a few inches
lower than the other.
On taking their stands, Commodore Bainbridge told them to observe
that he should give the words quick--"Present; one, two, three,"
and they were not, at their peril, to fire before the word "one"
nor after the word "three" was pronounced. Commodore Barron asked
him if he had any objections to pronouncing the words as he
intended to give them. He said he had not, and did so.
Commodore Barron, about this moment, observed to his antagonist
that he hoped, on meeting in another world, they would be better
friends than they had been in this; to which Commodore Decatur
replied, "I have never been your enemy, sir." Nothing further
passed between them previous to the firing. Soon after Commodore
Bainbridge cautioned them to be ready, crossed over to the left of
his friend, and gave the words of command precisely as before; and
at the word "two" they both fired so nearly together that but one
report was heard.
They both fell nearly at the same instant. Commodore Decatur was
raised and supported a short distance, and sank down near to where
Commodore Barron lay; and both appeared to think themselves
mortally wounded. Commodore Barron declared that everything had
been conducted in the most honorable manner, and told Commodore
Decatur that he forgave him from the bottom of his heart. Soon
after this, a number of gentlemen coming up, I went after our
carriage and assisted in getting him into it; where, leaving him
under the care of several of his intimate friends, Commodore
Bainbridge and myself left the grounds, and, as before agreed to,
embarked on board the tender of the Columbus at the Navy Yard. It
is due to Commodore Bainbridge to observe that he expressed his
determination to lessen the danger to each by giving the words
quick, with a hope that both might miss and that then their quarrel
might be amicably settled.
Commodore Bainbridge told of hearing the following conversation as
Decatur and Barron lay beside each other bleeding on the ground.
"Barron," said the Commodore, "we both, I believe, are about to appear
before our God. I am going to ask you one question. Answer it if you
feel inclined.... Why did you not return to America upon the outbreak
of hostilities with England?"
Barron was suffering great agony, but he turned and spoke clearly in a
low tone. "Decatur, I will tell you what I expected never to tell a
living man. I was in an English prison for debt!"
"Ah, Barron," returned Decatur, "had I known that, had any one of your
brother-officers known it, the purse of the service would have been at
your disposal, and you and I would not have been lying here to-day."
"Had I known you felt thus," answered Barron, "we would have no cause
to be here."
Sad words these, sad unfortunate words, because they came too late.
Poor Decatur! he died at half past ten o'clock that night. When he was
struck by the ball which lodged in his abdomen, he is said to have
spoken thus, "I am hurt mortally, and wish that I had fallen in defence
of my country." Yes, that was his great sorrow; he saw the uselessness
of it all.
So much for the code duello, so much for false pride and extreme ideas
of what should touch one's honor. Can we think that such things really
happened, and so short a time ago! Have we not reason to rejoice that
it is all over? That people no longer start at the sound of shots in
shady lanes, run across tragedies on lawns or in tavern courtyards?
There is just another word or so to add that points a stronger moral
and rounds up the chapter: Joseph Bainbridge fell also in a duel. He,
alas, had many of them; but like all the rest, there was a last one.
The public mourned many times because good men were lost for causes in
which the nation had no interest and that could have been passed by
with a wave of the hand. A sad history that of "the field of honor."