Combat In Congress

By Logan Metesh

When an editorial in the Boston Herald in April 1850 quipped, “If one-half of our Congressmen would kill the other half, and then commit suicide themselves, we think the country would gain by the operation,” it wasn’t just hyperbole.

Fourteen years earlier, that’s pretty close to what happened between Reps. Jonathan Cilley of Maine and William Graves of Kentucky.

The dispute started when Cilley questioned an article that accused a fellow congressman of corruption. This angered publisher James Watson Webb, so he had Graves act as messenger to deliver a note to Cilley. When Cilley refused to accept Webb’s note, Graves took this to be an affront to his own honor and character.

As tension built, Cilley commented that “Mr. Graves and myself are not enemies; I never had a difficulty with [him].” Nonetheless, Cilley’s friend (and future president) Franklin Pierce urged him to start carrying a pistol in the House, just in case Graves launched a surprise attack.

It was now personal between the two. Graves initiated the duel, so Cilley chose the type of weapon. Knowing Graves was a good shot with a pistol, Cilley suggested they use rifles instead.

Delegate George Jones of the Wisconsin territory and Rep. Henry Wise of Virginia acted as the seconds, arranging the specifics of the proceedings according to the code duello.

Since D.C. wasn’t deemed fitting for a duel, they went to nearby Bladensburg, Maryland. Three carriages arrived, bringing a total of ten congressmen to the site on February 24, 1838.

The two seconds teamed up to measure out the range. In an attempt to prevent bloodshed, the men took large steps. This put the distance between Cilley and Graves at approximately 92 yards—plenty more than the required 80 yards.

Graves’ weapon was a .44 caliber percussion rifle, made by Henry Deringer of Philadelphia, with a full stock made of maple, a 45-inch octagonal barrel, and brass hardware.

Cilley’s weapon was a .38 caliber percussion rifle, made by Tryon of Philadelphia, also fitted with a full-length maple stock. In addition to the smaller caliber, it also had a shorter barrel length of 35.5 inches. The rifle was accented with silver hardware.

Both duelers were relatively poor shots. On the first exchange, Cilley fired before he even got the gun to his shoulder. Graves fired an aimed shot a moment later and missed. As was customary, seconds Wise and Jones conferred (for an astounding 20 minutes) before reaching a conclusion.

Satisfaction had not been met, so the rifles were reloaded. On the second shot, it was Graves who fired too early and Cilley who aimed but still missed.

A duel customarily only had two shots, but this situation was anything but customary. The rifles were loaded for a third time as the two prepared to fire yet again.

Both men fired almost simultaneously. Cilley’s shot missed, but Graves’ bullet severed Cilley’s abdominal aorta and he bled out in a matter of minutes. Upon hearing the news, Graves’ second Henry Wise was in tears as he sent word back to Franklin Pierce in D.C., alerting him of his friend Cilley’s death.

Representative Jonathan Cilley was 35 years old and a freshman in the House, just eight days shy of completing his first year in office. He left behind a wife and three children.

His funeral was attended by the president, vice president, the entire cabinet, and most members of Congress. Notably absent were all of the Supreme Court justices, who refused to attend a dueler’s funeral.

The House conducted an investigation into the duel and the specifics surrounding how it came to be that two congressmen gathered in a Maryland field to shoot at one another. When the investigation concluded, a recommendation was made to censure Graves, Wise, and Jones, but it wasn’t enforced.

Congress eventually passed anti-dueling legislation, but it only prohibited such actions from actually taking place in D.C. Just as before, duelists could simply head to Maryland to settle the score.

William Graves was not renominated for his seat in 1840, so he went home to Kentucky and served again in the state’s House. He died in 1848 at the age of 43.

Today, the dueling guns are housed in the National Firearms Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. They are just two of the almost 7,000 firearms in the collection, but they are the only two that can claim to have been used in the only duel to result in the death of a sitting member of Congress at the hands of another sitting member of Congress.

From the FE Films Archive

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