Bladensburg Dueling Grounds

     When the hotheaded politicians of Washington, DC wanted to fight each
other, they all knew that the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, just over the
Maryland line,was the best place to meet their adversary. On the day of a
duel, the men would set out in the wee hours of the early morning. They had
to travel down a dirt road and over a small bridge to an area about one mile
from the town of Bladensburg. The bridge ran over a stream nicknamed "Blood
Run. Narrow paths ran through waist high weeds. Dense willows and sycamores
crowded out the sky. Many prominent men met their deaths there, and others
were mentally crippled for life.
     Over fifty known duels were fought. The earliest seem to be the one
that occured in February of 1819 between former Virginia senator Armistead
T. Mason and his cousin Colonel John M. Mcarty. It is believed that Mcarty
challenged Mason either over a woman or over Mcarty's right to vote in a
Virginia election. Mcarty had all kinds of crazy challenges for Mason. He
wanted to fight with daggers or jump from a lighted keg of powder. The two
finally settled on dueling with muskets.
     The opposing factors met at Bladensburg, each bringing their own
supporters. Soon Mcarty and Mason were set up at twelve paces apart. When
the shots were fired, Mason was killed instantly. Mcarty was shot in the
hand, and in a bizarre twist of fate the bullet traveled up his arm and out
his shoulder.
     Mcarty lost the ability to use his right arm. He also lost his mind. He
never recovered from murdering his cousin. Mcarty stopped shaving, cutting
his hair, and even bathing. After he died, people reported his disheveled
ghost wandering around the weed choked area where he killed Armistead Mason.
     Stephen Decatur was a Naval hero who had distinguished himself in three
different wars, but he too was murdered on the fields of Bladensburg. In
1820 Decatur was living the quiet life. He settled on Lafayette Square in
Washington, DC with his wife. This was the worst time for Commodore James
Barron to challenge him to a duel.
     There had been bad blood between Decatur and Barron for a long time.
Barron had been put on trial to be court-martialed after an incident at sea.
  A British ship commander had insisted that Barron turn over some Americans
that he believed were British deserters. Barron refused, and the British
ship fired on Barron's, killing three men and wounding eight. The British
then seized the suspected deserters. This led not only to Barron's
suspension for five years, but to the War of 1812.
     When Barron applied for reinstatement in the Navy Decatur was
outspokenly opposed, and he had the power to keep Barron out. The two men
corresponded for several years, with Barron growing increasingly bitter.
Finally, with Decatur in the same town as he, Barron challenger Decatur to a
duel at eight paces with pistols.
     The night before the fight Decatur shut himself in his bedroom and
spent hours at the window gazing at his property. When dawn came the next
morning Decatur slipped out of the house with the black box containing his
dueling pistols. It was March 18, 1820.
     According to the rules, no man could fire before the count of one, or
after the count of three. Two shots were fired at the count of three. Barron
took a bullet in his hip. Decatur was struck in the right side. His
supporters carried him back to his home on Lafayette Square, where he died.
     Some believe that Decatur is one of the ghosts lurking around the old
dueling area, but he has been spotted more frequently at his home. One year
after he was killed he was seen gazing mournfully out of his window, just as
he did on the night before he died. His wife was so upset that she ordered
the window walled up, but he still appears.
     Another spirit known to wander underneath the overgrown trees is Daniel
Key, one of the sons of Francis Scott Key. In June of 1836 Key and his
friend John Sherborne were returning home aboard  a ship. All the way home
the two young men argued about the speed of two steam boats. When they
arrived in DC, they met at Bladensburg. Key was killed at age 20.
     During the period  when Key was killed the public began to get upset
over the bloodshed at Bladensburg. Unless they had a fight to go to, people
avoided the area. tales of ghostly moans and groans circulated. Others saw
apparitions wandering around. Dueling was outlawed in Maryland, but this did
not affect residents of DC. Washington lawmakers did not want an antidueling
law because so many of them believed in the codes associated with it.
     Congress had no choice but to act after February 1838 when Maine
representative John Cilley was killed by Congressman William Graves. Graves
was a stand in for James W. Webb, a New York newspaper editor. Webb was
offended by some of the remarks Cilley made in the House. He assigned the
duel to Graves, who was his friend as well as a noted marksman. Cilley was a
hard working man who preferred to spend time with his family. He didn't even
really know the men who were challenging him. Cilley quietly went about his
business while Graves practiced his shooting.
     At dawn on the appointed day Graves showed up with a more powerful
rifle that Cilley, but he was allowed to use it. When ready, the men fired.
No one was hit. They fired at each other a second time, but still no one was
hit. The seconds and spectators tried to end the confrontation but Graves
wouldn't consent. The third time Cilley was hit in the leg. Because a main
artery was severed he quickly bled to death in front of some of Washington's
most prominent citizens and politicians. Cilley's confused ghost still
wanders around the area when he died.
     Cilley's death finally led to the outlawing of dueling in Washington,
DC. Men didn't heed the regulations and they still murdered each other in
the fields after dark. Finally, the Civil War put an end to dueling in the
area. Everyone had had enough of the bloodshed and violence.
     People avoided the area because of the history and the ghosts. One day
a boy saw a figure among the trees. The spirit had his head down and was
dressed in black. When the boy approached the figure, it disappeared. The
ghost could have been anyone of the hundreds of men whose lives were changed
there. Not much of the old dueling fields are left now. There are some
trees, many weeds, and a lot of ghost stories.


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