Lest We Forget

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The two men were Navy commodores. One was James Barron and the other was the renowned Stephen Decatur, whose courageous exploits against the Barbary pirates and in the War of 1812 were legendary. The great hero who had many times defied death at the hands of foreign enemies was now carried to his home on Lafayette Square in Washington, where he lingered in agony for the rest of the day before death finally released him from his suffering later that evening.

While dueling was practiced by men in other walks of life in that era (Aaron Burr's killing of Alexander Hamilton is one famous instance), it was particularly rampant among naval officers, probably because an exaggerated sense of personal honor was exacerbated by being pent up in men-of-war on distant stations for extended periods and by a stagnated promotion system that was causing a great deal of frustration in the officer corps. Shamefully, nearly as many naval officers met their deaths on the "field of honor" as were killed in all the naval battles that had taken place to that time.

Decatur's senseless death was somewhat mitigated by the resulting public outcry that soon caused senior officers to abandon the heinous practice. But dueling continued to flourish among midshipmen and junior officers. Little effort seems to have been made by their seniors to curb the slaughter. "Midshipmen, on the slightest provocation, would go out and have a crack at each other," said one officer.

One duel resulted when a midshipman sprinkled water over a letter being written by a messmate. In another instance a midshipman was killed by a shipmate after "giving offence by entering the cockpit wearing his hat." One duel resulted when two young gentlemen quarreled over whether a bottle—which they had no doubt emptied together—was black or dark green. In 1811, two youngsters killed each other in a duel fought at such close range that the antagonists' pistols almost touched. And in 1825, the Niles Weekly Register caustically reported: "Two boys, midshipmen attached to the Constellation frigate, amused themselves by shooting one another, by which one of them was killed, and the other had the pleasure of saying that he has slain his brother."

Finally, in 1857, the Navy took the long-overdue measure of making dueling punishable by dismissal from the service. This, at long last, ended the odious practice so that American naval officers would no longer kill one another . . . until four short years later, with the coming of the Civil War.

Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets .
 

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

More by this Author

BROWN WATER, BLACK BERETS
The men of the U.S. Navy's brown-water force played a vital but often overlooked role in the... Read More
BATTLE OF LEYTE GULF
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DUTTON'S NAUTICAL NAVIGATION, 15TH EDITION
As paper navigational charts are replaced by vector images on computer screens, magnetic compasses... Read More
A SAILOR'S HISTORY OF THE U.S. NAVY
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Events and Conferences

Guest Lecturer
12:30pm, “Shifley Lecture Series,” U.S. Naval Academy Museum, 118 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, MD /... Read More

 
 

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Defense Forum Washington 2014

Thu, 2014-12-04

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

Defense Forum Washington will take place December 4, 2014 at the Newseum - Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC.

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