This week we read that on 22 March 1820, Commodore Stephen Decatur, hero of the “Old Navy” for his daring exploits against the Barbary pirates, met Commodore James Barron on the infamous dueling field at Bladensburg, Maryland (now the town of Colmar Manor), just outside Washington DC. The dispute appears to have arisen over Decatur’s role in opposing Barron’s re-entry into the Navy five years after a Navy Board (upon which Decatur sat) ejected him from the Navy. Barron’s offense had been the ignominious but quite proper surrender of his ship Chesapeake after brief but futile combat with the British ship Leopard early in the War of 1812. According to duel witnesses’ descriptions(1), both men fell, seriously wounded. Two surgeons were nearby – Bailey Washington and Samuel R Trevett – but we have no details of any treatments given. Barron recovered from his wounds; Decatur died 12 hours later.
Dueling as a quasi-judicial means of dispute settlement appears to have emerged in Europe after the fall of Rome. Even as more formal court proceedings replaced judicial dueling, the institution – complete with precise regulations governing the giver of injury, the aggrieved and their representatives (“seconds”) – reached full development in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Originally, dueling served as an honorable way to settle grievances among royalty and high gentry. Later, any man with social aspirations saw the proof of his mettle in private combat as a way of advancing his status. Arthur Krystal, writing in the New Yorker, notes “[a]lthough English gentlemen did not duel with the fervor of their French counterparts, duelling remained a good career move in Britain into the early nineteenth century.”(2) In democratic America, while “gentlemen” were seen to fight the majority of duels, a more egalitarian spirit prevailed. A man of any social stratum might see the combat of honor as socially beneficial. Politicians, perhaps because they are a contentious lot, seem to have been particularly susceptible to a challenge to duel.(3)
Early regulations – the Codes Duello – did not specify the presence of medical attendants during the proceedings, though it seems reasonable that the parties would deem such presence to be prudent. Later Codes, for instance, “THE CODE OF HONOR; or RULES FOR THE GOVERNMENT of PRINCIPALS AND SECONDS in DUELLING by John Lyde Wilson (published in 1838; Wilson was Governor of South Carolina) specified in Chapter Six, “Who Should Be on the Ground”, that besides the principles and their seconds, there should be “one surgeon and one assistant surgeon to each principal; but the assistant surgeon may be dispensed with.”(4)
Mark Twain, in his very funny tongue-in-cheek description of a duel between contentious French legislators describes this conversation between himself, the second for one of the principles, and his counterpart:
“If agreeable to you, your chief surgeons and ours shall proceed to the field in the same carriage as is customary.”
“It is entirely agreeable to me, and I am obliged to you for mentioning the surgeons, for I am afraid I should not have thought of them. How many shall I want? I supposed two or three will be enough?”
“Two is the customary number for each party. I refer to ‘chief’ surgeons; but considering the exalted positions occupied by our clients, it will be well and decorous that each of us appoint several consulting surgeons, from among the highest in the profession. These will come in their own private carriages. Have you engaged a hearse?”(5)
So, while the surgeon’s role at the duel was commonplace enough to find its way into satire, that is not the whole story. Surgeons were fairly common duellers themselves, despite their frequent protestations against the custom as protectors of life. Disputes over the proper management of a particular case seems to have been a fairly common inducement for single combat.(6)
In the old Navy, Paulin records no fewer than 8 surgeons or surgeon’s mates (junior surgeons) as dueling principles in 82 duels recorded between 1799 and 1850. Three surgeons died, one was wounded; one surgeon killed his opposite, another wounded his; outcomes in the rest weren’t reported. Navy regulations, a culture opposing the dueling tradition, and, perhaps, more important things to do, all conspired to bring this sordid business to an end in our Navy.
In the last recorded old Navy duel, Lieutenant Charles F Flusser met an unnamed opponent in Rio de Janiero. Both men were wounded. The surgeons’ actions have not come down to us.(1) Paulin, Charles Oscar, “Dueling in the Old Navy”, Reprinted from the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 35, No. 4, Whole Number 132, pp 1182-83, http://books.google.com/books?id=rV0vAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false accessed 28-29 March 2012. (2) Krystal, Arthur, “En Garde!” – The History of Duelling”, New Yorker, March 12, 2007, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2007/03/12/070312crbo_books_krystal#ixzz1qXVGwWwx, accessed 28-29 March 2012. (3) PBS American Experience: “The History of Dueling in America”, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/sfeature/dueling.html, accessed 28, 29 March 2012. (4) The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Code of Honor, by John Lyde Wilson, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6085/6085-h/6085-h.htm#2HCH0006, accessed 29 March 2012. (5) From Chapter VIII, “The Great French Duel” in “A Tramp Abroad”, originally published in 1880; converted to HTML by Alan Eliasen for the Mark Twain Library, http://futureboy.us/twain/tramp/tramp.html, accessed 29 March 2012. (6) Keane, MD, James R, “Dueling Doctors: Physician Duels” posted online at “Medscape Family Medicine News”, 9/1/2000, from South Med J. 2000;93(9) © 2000 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/410621, accessed 28, 29 March 2012. ©2012 Thomas L Snyder