Bowdoin Magazine Vol. 86, No. 2, Winter 2015

Page 16

A Bowdoin Grad and the End of the Duel


How a Bowdoin graduate helped bring about the demise of an unfortunate tradition. By Lorry Fleming

n February 24, 1838, at three o’clock, US Representative Jonathan Cilley, Class of 1825, counted off paces in Maryland’s Bladensburg Dueling Grounds. It was a blustery day for a duel. Formal duels were almost the order of the day in the first half of the nineteenth century, with injury and death common, but not necessary, outcomes. “Seconds” (friends who oversaw the event to ensure at least a pretext of honorable conditions) often intervened to avoid the worst. Occasionally, participants would delope, purposefully missing their opponent, for practical purposes or on moral grounds (both could save face this way). On this winter day, at least one participant—Cilley— hoped for a bloodless end to the affair. Cilley gradated with Bowdoin’s noteworthy Class of 1825. His friends and peers included Nathanial Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as future United States President Franklin Pierce (Class of 1824). It surprised no one when the young alumnus passed the bar, became a lawyer, and made his way to the state legislature. In 1837, he was elected to the US Congress. Departing Maine for the winter session of the twenty-fifth Congress, the thirty-fiveyear-old congressman left behind two young sons and a wife


with another child, a daughter, on the way. Cilley, a democrat, soon discovered the myriad dangers of national politics. After scolding a whig newspaper from the House floor for disingenuous reporting, Cilley found himself accepting a challenge to defend the editor’s “honor.” The editor, Colonel James Watson Webb, initially had dispatched a friend, Representative William Graves of Kentucky, to seek an apology. When Cilley refused, the quarrel escalated into a duel between the two congressmen. The offended editor sat safely on the sidelines. It was somewhat perplexing that Jonathan Cilley would accept the invitation to such an occasion. The majority of New Englanders opposed the tradition of dueling, and many northern states had passed laws banning them. As Graves attempted to procure a rifle on the morning of February 24, the appointed time of the occasion slipped from one hour to the next. Finally, in the afternoon, the two met, along with their seconds (Henry J. Wise attending to Graves, George W. Jones with Cilley) and a handful of observers. Along with shooting into the wind, Cilley found himself in the open while his opponent benefited from a thicket