What’s the duel? Making sense of 19th century men

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, March 3, 2018

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After researching two men – Henry Wise and Stephen Decatur – for the Messenger’s Wise As It Was page, I could not fail to notice that duels played a part in each man’s story.

Henry Wise fought one duel and challenged two others in his lifetime. Stephen Decatur died as the result of a duel he accepted.

Joy Carrico

Dueling plays a pretty big role in our history. We all know that Alexander Hamilton died as the result of his duel with Aaron Burr. Andrew Jackson is notorious for participating in duels.

Even Abraham Lincoln found himself in the duel dilemma, only being able to get out of it at the very last moment. He didn’t like to talk about it.


A duel was a planned event, bound by rules, and was conducted as a matter of honor between men of equal social rank.

If you refused to duel, you risked ruining your reputation. If you let an insult to your character (including being accused of being impudent, a liar or any other such slight) pass without challenge, you risked ruining your reputation.

A ruined reputation was a detriment to many gentlemen’s livelihoods, especially politicians. An officer could not expect his men to follow him if his reputation was ruined by his failure to duel.

Hamilton explicitly stated that he was accepting the challenge to duel Burr for the sake of his career. If he did not do it, he would no longer be useful. He must have really believed that, considering his son Philip died in a duel the year before.


The etiquette around apologies was complex. The first offender must be the first to apologize, even if the person who retaliated did something much worse.

Since no gentleman was permitted, under any circumstances, to strike another, an apology for a physical strike was not enough. You had to offer the man your cane and allow him to use it on your back.

Once a challenge was extended, however, an apology would be regarded as an act of cowardice. If you haven’t apologized yet, it was assumed you were just doing so out of fear.


In earlier times, a challenger might throw down a glove or a gauntlet, which was a heavy, armored glove worn by knights. Or he might slap you across the face with a glove. By the 18th and 19th centuries, though, challenges were extended using written documents.

If you were the one challenged, you had the right to choose the weapons and the location of the duel. The challenger determined how far apart you would stand. And the seconds determined what time all this was taking place and all the little details.

The seconds were men with social standing equal to the dueling gentlemen, who had been asked by their dueling friend to stand in and play a part in this event. The seconds had jobs. They were required to make an attempt to resolve the issue before the fighting began, although the rules did not seem to provide any suggestions on how they might do that, since no one could apologize at that point without being branded a coward. The seconds were meant to communicate with each other, working out the details, since the combatants were probably not on speaking terms, and to make sure the duel was fair and orderly.

So, once the logistics of where, when and what you would attempt to kill each other with were all determined, the duel took place.

The rules stated that you must stand straight and face your opponent. You couldn’t dodge or evade the bullet coming your way. After each party has fired two shots, then anyone could apologize in any order, unless the offense was a physical blow. For that, if you had not previously opted for the cane apology, then three shots each had to be exchanged. Then an apology without the cane could be offered.

The rules stated that you weren’t supposed to deliberately miss your opponent, but it was a common practice for people to fire into the air. Hamilton was supposed to have done this. That didn’t work out so well for him.


Swords were the main weapon of duels in the early days. But eventually, smooth pistols loaded with a single shot took over as the main weapon of choice. Rifles and other firearms that were designed to be accurate were generally discouraged.

Abraham Lincoln, as the one challenged, chose cavalry broadswords and required he and his opponent stand with a plank between them that neither was allowed to cross. Lincoln was trying to use his above-average height to his advantage.

The seconds loaded the weapons or held spares for their dueling counterparts. Some seconds might agree to load the guns with powder, but no balls, if they thought the offense un-duel-worthy. They might not let that be known however, lest they be themselves challenged to a duel by one of the highly sensitive duelers.

Seconds might get at odds with each other and decide they, too, must duel. If so, they were required to duel at a right angle to the other set of duelers, so all four were firing into the center of an X. I guess that was to make sure seconds shot at seconds and duelers shot at duelers, otherwise, we’d just have a disorderly shootout on our hands. And we wouldn’t want that.


If someone was wounded seriously or in such a manner that they could not shoot anymore, the duel ended and whoever was left standing prevailed. The winner of the duel was presumably the man who was in the “right,” although I don’t think history has taken that view of Aaron Burr.

When both parties survived relatively intact, the duel was over when they agreed that “honor had been satisfied.” I suppose running out of ammo for the dueling pistols might also end the affair.

The idea was that the duel settled the issue, however that turned out. If you were to slight again you may fight again, but there was no dueling double jeopardy.

In the accounts that I read where dueling opponents both went on to live lives, their animosity was generally settled and they sometimes even became friends.

Once the duel was over, life as a honorable gentleman resumed, until the next offense.

There are arguments out there that dueling was a fairly effective means of keeping order. It would certainly encourage me to mind my manners if I knew that my careless talk could land me on the business end of a pistol. And it might help some of these political rivals tone down their outrageous treatment of each other if they knew they might die as a result.

But dueling as a means of settling offenses is not coming back. Can you imagine? How many challenges would be extended on Facebook and Twitter? YouTube would crash from all the uploads of videoed duels.

We’ll just have to find another way to satisfy our honor.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. Wise As It Was is published on the third Saturday of every month.

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