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Bladensburg Dueling Grounds

Naval hero Stephen Decatur is one of many who died from wounds at the infamous Bladensburg Dueling Grounds.

The Bladensburg Dueling Grounds was located just beyond and to the northeast of DC. For decades in America's early days, many men fought there duels of honor.

The dueling grounds are gone, noted now by a historical marker along Route 450 in Maryland. But the events that happened there so many years ago left an indelible impression. Victims of the 50 duels, men like Stephen Decatur, have perhaps left phantoms behind in their wake doomed to endlessly replay events now forgotten.

Death lingered long after dying was over. The duelists who walked away were sometimes scarred forever by what had transpired. In those days, a question of honor was often settled at gunpoint, such as in February of 1819.

Colonel John M. McCarty challenged his cousin, then-former Virginia senator, General Armistead T. Mason. The duel was over a woman's honor. McCarty believed neither should escape settlement: He proposed they both jump from the (then new) Capitol building or else both sit atop a lighted keg of gunpowder. Unsurprisingly, Mason refused the idiocy. Finally both agreed to fight at 10 paces with single ball muskets.

At next sunrise, the duel took place and Mason was killed. McCarty suffered a wounded hand and lost use of his right arm. In the following years he never forgot that horrible morning but eventually he lost his mind.

It is believed that he has returned to haunt the dueling grounds, never having recovered from murdering his cousin.

Daniel Key, the son of Francis Scott Key (author of the "Star-Spangled Banner"), festered an argument over a long sea voyage with a friend, John Sheburne, over the speed of two steamboats. When they reached Maryland they agreed to a duel on the field of honor. Unlucky Daniel Key was killed with a single shot in June of 1836.

As blood spilled in Bladensburg, ghost stories grew. These stories caused concern over the legality of dueling. Maryland laws did not apply to citizens of DC. In 1838, an incident took place that caused such a public outcry that Congress was forced to act.

Jonathan Cilley, a popular Maine congressman, was shot to death by William Graves, another congressman from Kentucky. Graves had been a stand-in for New York newspaper editor James W. Webb. Cilley had called Webb corrupt, and Graves, being a friend of the editor, took the remark rather personally.

Graves, adept with firearms, challenged Cilley to a duel who thought the whole thing foolish and never expected any duel to actually occur. Nevertheless, he found himself at Bladensburg with a rifle in his hand. The two men took up positions 80 yards apart and both fired. But no one was struck.

Round two. But still, neither fell. They agreed to take one more shot, and this proved fatal for Cilley. His leg was shot out from under him, cutting away an artery and he died in a matter of seconds on the cold ground, leaving a wife and three small children.

Cilley was barely cold before public outcry began. The next session of Congress was forced to make dueling, or accepting or making a challenge, a criminal offense.

The law appeased the public, but it did not end dueling. Instead, challenges were declared in secret and the duelists met in at Bladensburg under the cover of darkness. Not until the Civil War did the "sport" of dueling die out completely.

Bladensburg has since endured change. The small inn, where numerous duelists and their "seconds" met for a toast or some "liquid courage," is long gone, and urban growth has swallowed all but a small portion of the grounds. A few trees remain with the nearby river that was once called "Blood Run" but now is called "Eastern Branch".

Some few who visit Bladensburg occasionally report seeing dark, but not transparent, figures walking across the area, apparently specters from another time and place.

Bladensburg is located northeast of Washington, on Highway 202 in Prince Georges County. The former dueling ground is located near Fort Lincoln Cemetery, and a historical marker is located in front of the grounds on Route 450.


Bladensburg Dueling Grounds & Creek Area, Bladensburg/Colmar Manor, MD, off Bladensburg Road, right next to Fort Lincoln Cemetery. Look for the historical marker or you might miss this field area along a small creek just past the D.C. line. This was the preferred site for many duels from 1808-1868 (even though ones were held there since 1732), including the one that killed Stephen Decatur (see Decatur House). There have been reports of shadows and apparitions. This area was also the site of Civil War conflict and earlier battles between the Americans & British in 1814. --http://hometown.aol.com/waniehol/MDplaces.html