18th century duels
Last Sunday’s episode of TURN (Episode 8: Mercy Moment Murder Measure) included a dramatic dueling scene that had plenty of viewers wondering “Did people really do that sort of thing back then?” In today’s guest post, Todd Braisted answers with a resounding “yes” as he shares four fascinating stories of Revolutionary affairs of honor, pulled straight from the historical record. Yet another reminder that truth is often stranger – and more colorful – than fiction. Enjoy! -RS
“The vindictive spirit of malice and revenge”:
Dueling in the American Revolution
by Todd Braisted
When last we saw TURN’s Captain Simcoe and Abraham Woodhull (a.k.a. Jamie Bell and Samuel Roukin), they were facing off with pistols against each other over the fair Anna Strong (Heather Lind.) While the real Simcoe never dueled anyone (that we know of, anyway), duels, while perhaps not everyday affairs, were frequent enough during the Revolutionary War to be deadly to more than a few participants. And while duels were officially outlawed by both armies, the nuances of honor in the late 18th century virtually demanded that they take place.
This is not to say that the practice was universally approved — far from it. Continental Army Surgeon James Thatcher, on 30 August 1780, after two officers had been killed in duels over the past 24 hours, lamented in his journal:
“…two valuable lives been sacrificed within two days, to what is termed principles of honor, or rather to the vindictive spirit of malice and revenge. Is there no remedy for this fashionable folly, this awful blindness and perversion of mind, this barbarous and infernal practice, this foul stain on the history of man!”
The duel the day before involved two cavalry officers of the 4th (Continental) Dragoons, one can be identified as Lieutenant Thomas Overton, the other only as “Mr. P.” Again, according to Thatcher’s journal:
“I learned that a duel had just been fought between Lieutenant O. and Mr. P., both of Colonel Moyland’s [4th] regiment of dragoons, and both of whom were yesterday on the most intimate terms of friendship. Mr. O. killed his antagonist on the spot, and received a dangerous wound in his thigh. When I visited him, his wound had been dressed, and I was astonished at the calmness and composure with which he related all the particulars of this melancholy and murderous catastrophe, and the agonizing state of mind of his late friend in his dying moments. The duel originated in a trivial misunderstanding, which excited these close friends to assume the character of assassins, and to hazard life for life. Nor did O. discover the least sorrow or remorse of conscience for having sacrificed the life of a friend and valuable officer to the mistaken points of honor!”
“Points of honor” concerning a woman’s virtue were the rationale behind Simcoe’s and Woodhull’s on-screen duel. Duels between officers and civilians were rare, if not unheard of. However, there are several recorded cases of two officers seriously disagreeing over a woman, for numerous reasons.
When a drunken Ensign Murdoch McKenzie of the [British] 79th Regiment threw a bottle in a tavern in Jamaica, striking a black woman in the head, a fellow officer, Captain William Townsend of the 88th Regiment “in the presence and hearing of the Officers in the Coffee House, [said] that he was surprized such people (meaning Murdoch McKenzie) were allowed to wear His Majesty’s Cloth, and then desired him…to blindfold himself and go out of the Coffee House, for that after such behaviour, neither he Captain Townshend or any other of the Officers would keep any further Company with him.” The two, attended by their seconds, ended up in a pistol duel at a race track, where the captain was shot in the hand. McKenzie was tried by general court martial for sending a challenge and “assault” on Captain Townsend. He was cashiered but recommended to King George III for a pardon. His Majesty pardoned the intemperate ensign, but not without noting his express disapproval:
“His Majesty cannot however pass over without reprehension the very inconsiderate and unwarrantable Conduct of the Said Ensign McKenzie, and which appears to have been the source of the Quarrel between him and Captain Townshend, in wantonly throwing a Glass bottle at a number of negroes, who were innocently assembled, neither committing nor meditating any outrage, whereby a Negroe Woman received a considerable (tho’ happily not a dangerous) hurt on the head; and His Majesty has… [signified] His royal pleasure, that this animadversion upon the Conduct of the said Ensign McKenzie be notified in Public Orders.”
Evidently, His Britannic Majesty was not a fan of dueling, either.
There were plenty of disagreements between officers about women in more intimate (and scandalous) circumstances, too – although such disagreements did not automatically lead a duels. One example would be within the Queen’s Rangers (which, as we’ve mentioned earlier, Simcoe would command later in the war). After the British occupied Philadelphia in late 1777, the Rangers formed part of an expedition into Salem County, New Jersey. Not making the trip however was Lieutenant Nathaniel Fitzpatrick, who stayed behind to receive a “cure” for a “violent venereal disorder.” This did not stop him from sleeping with one Mary Duché, the live-in girlfriend of Captain James Murray of the same corps. He promptly transmitted the disease to her, who in turn gave it to the unknowing captain upon his return from New Jersey, thereby “disordering” him as well. Fitzpatrick privately acknowledged to Murray that he slept with Mary, though he mentioned nothing about being “poxed,” which he left for Murray to discover in due course. Since the captain “had many private reasons for wishing that the matter might not be made publick,” he begrudgingly “forgave Lieutenant Fitzpatrick.” Simcoe, however (perhaps somewhat resembling his TURN character) thought the whole matter outrageous and ordered Fitzpatrick to resign his commission over the incident. When the lieutenant refused, Simcoe placed him under arrest, telling him he was “not sensible of the Injury he had done to his own Character and to the Corps in General.” Tried for “behaving in a Scandalous infamous Manner such as is unbecoming the Character of an Officer and a Gentleman,” Fitzpatrick was acquitted, upon condition of apologizing to all the officers of the Rangers. (You can read the transcribed court martial documents, if you feel so inclined, here.)
Finally, there perhaps is no better example of poor judgment combined with liquid courage than when the boastful Ensign John Moffet, also of the Queen’s Rangers, spent one cold January 1780 night drinking in a tavern and making disparaging remarks against another corps in garrison there, the New Jersey Volunteers. When an officer of that battalion, Ensign John Lawrence, took exception, the two took to blows, hurling each other from table to table until both were placed under arrest by a superior officer, Lieutenant Allan McNabb. Several hours later, McNabb sent each officer back his sword and told them to settle it like gentlemen – meaning, of course, to either apologize or shoot lead balls at each other from close range. Moffet believed himself the aggrieved party and immediately penned the following note to Lawrence:
Richmond [Staten Island] 13th Jany. 1780
In consequence of your behaviour last night to me (when totally intoxicated) request that satisfaction due by one Gentleman to another. Mr. McNabb sends you your side arms, and wishes that you should not consider yourself longer under an arrest by him. I now call upon you as a Gentleman and a Soldier with your Sword & Pistols to wipe off any Odium I might have received by your Ungentlemanlike treatment to
The two met on that frigid January day with their seconds, marked the distance at six yards (as opposed to the 4 yards distance requested by Moffet), and fired simultaneously. Moffet’s ball barely grazed Lawrence near the right breast, not even breaking the skin. Lawrence’s shot however went true, straight into the Ranger’s stomach. Moffet was killed, as he was good enough to tell his second, Lieutenant George Pendred, looking up at him and declaring “My dear fellow I am killed” upon which he immediately died. Moffet was eventually buried at Richmond Church, where he presumably remains today. The burial was delayed several days because of an incursion of 2,700 Continental troops onto Staten Island. This forced Moffet to take one last tour of the island, his corpse taking a sleigh ride from tavern to tavern until the island was secured.
Lawrence was tried for murder but made the defense all such officers and gentlemen in similar circumstances made. Appealing to the court’s sense of honor, Lawrence related how he had been challenged, and had to accept, stating “I considered myself bound by the Laws of honor, to give him the Satisfaction he demanded. My reputation as an Officer and a Gentleman, in short my all was at stake—had I omitted meeting him in the manner he requested, I must ever after been treated as a Rascal and Coward…” The court agreed, acquitting him by reason of self-defense.
We don’t know what will become of TURN’s Simcoe and Woodhull in future episodes, but we can only hope we don’t see either looking up at the camera and exclaiming “My dear fellow I am killed…”
Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject. Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.
Postscript (by Rachel Smith)
Benjamin Tallmadge also had very strong feelings about dueling. In fact, he felt so strongly about it that he devoted the two very last paragraphs of his memoirs (written decades after the Revolutionary War) to the subject. Dueling didn’t fade away with the advent of the new American republic: in fact, it became even more widespread and infamous in the tumultuous first years of the 19th century, epitomized by the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. Anyone familiar with Tallmadge’s personal history knows that he himself harbored plenty of bravado and (occasional) impetuousness while serving as dragoon commander and spymaster during the American Revolution. Nevertheless, here are his final thoughts on dueling, in his own words: