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.