Duels of Honor

Critical Thinking

August 7, 2014
by Michael Schellhammer Also by this Author


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Dear Mr. History:

I’ve read about some duels of honor involving senior Continental Army officers and something doesn’t make sense to me; why were they dueling in the middle of a war? Signed, At Your Service, Sir.

Dear Service:

Portrait (detail) of John Cadwalader (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. Current location: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Portrait (detail) of John Cadwalader (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. Current location: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Some officers took to dueling like ducks to water. Here’s an example. In the summer of 1778 Pennsylvania militia general John Cadwalader encountered Thomas Conway in Philadelphia and accused him of cowardice at the battle of Germantown. To defend his honor, Conway challenged Cadwalader to a duel. Conway, as you probably know, was one of the Revolution’s most notorious goats. He had ignominiously resigned his commission as a major-general that April after conniving to remove General Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Historians still debate his role in the famous “Conway Cabal,” but either way, he was a vain, whiny weasel and generally disliked. Cadwalader admired Washington, detested Conway, and was a little hot-tempered. Months earlier he exchanged letters with Tench Tilghman, one of Washington’s aides, about giving Conway his just deserts. Now somebody was going to pay the piper. The opponents met outside Philadelphia on July 4, 1778 and chose pistols as their weapons. Cadwalader fired first and his shot smashed into Conway’s cheek. The wound to his mouth was horrible, but not fatal. Cadwallder reportedly said, “I’ve stopped the damned rascal’s tongue anyhow.”[1]

Conway and Cadwalader were following an ancient tradition.

Single combat between two champions has been around forever, at least since David beaned Goliath with a rock. “Judicial combat” where two nobles solved disputes through fighting, developed in the Middle Ages. The practice spread through Europe and became really popular in France and Italy. By the seventeenth century some European rulers outlawed dueling but people kept fighting anyway. The laws were tough to enforce among nobles and dueling became engrained in European aristocracy.

Dueling did not automatically transplant to America. English Common Law banned the practice and the early Puritan, Quaker, and Dutch colonists did not cotton to such aristocratic swordplay. Nevertheless, an argument between two men in Virginia led to America’s first duel in 1619.[2] Some colonies passed additional laws to put a lid on dueling, and the practice was only infrequent up to the early 1700s. But as American society matured, the colonists mimicked the European aristocracy, and dueling with it. The frequency of dueling increased after about 1760.[3]

When the Revolution began, the Continental Congress established Articles of War to govern Continental forces. Copying the British model, Article VII of Articles of War made dueling, challenging someone, and assisting duelists court-martial offenses.[4] Good thing, because some gentlemen were joining the Continental Army under the impression that dueling was a perfectly acceptable practice.

In general, Continental Army officers were members of the eighteenth century gentleman class with its integral concept of “honor.” An honorable man lived with integrity and a sense of duty. In the Continental Army, honor required gentlemen to faithfully serve the cause of liberty, care for their soldiers, and fight bravely in combat. This earned them their positions as leaders and the respect of their soldiers and peers. Honor encompassed an officer’s character, reputation and respectability, and it was all or nothing – a gentleman either had it, or he didn’t.[5]

This link between honor and leadership made some officers extremely sensitive to insults. To question a man’s honor was to question his command ability. An officer’s blood would boil if someone called him a liar, a cheat, or questioned his battlefield abilities or courage. Calling someone a “scoundrel” or “rascal” carried a lot more weight that it does today. Other slights, such as being ignored for promotion, could also damage an officer’s honor. In their minds, an officer had to protect his honor or his peers and soldiers would consider him cowardly. Gen. Philip Schuyler captured the concept: “a man’s character ought not to be sported with, and he that suffers stains to lay on it with impunity really deserves none – nor will he long enjoy one.”[6]

A serious insult often led to an “affair of honor,” which was an argument that required redress. The affair could end if either party satisfactorily retracted or explained the offending comments (though the two may still hate each other). An affair of honor advanced to a duel if neither side was interested in explanations, if negotiations failed, and one principal directly challenged the other to a duel or “interview” as it was euphemistically called. Once that happened, honor compelled the other party to accept.

A duel was a complicated affair governed by multiple conventions that existed at the time. In 1777, a committee of gentlemen in Ireland captured the various rules in 26 “commandments” for dueling known as the Code Duello, which became popular in Europe and America. Under this code, the challenged man chose weapons for the battle – pistols, swords and sabers were popular. The antagonists, or “principals,” chose “seconds,” usually trusted friends, as representatives. The seconds named the location, all parties met at the field at a designated time, and the principals took positions at a distance designated by the challenger. Usually on a command, the principals fired single shots, or struck at each other if using swords. Pistols were notoriously inaccurate and combatants could exchange rounds until “a severe hit be received” on any party. Fighting with swords continued “until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed or until . . . the aggressor begs pardon.” Many duels ended without bloodshed, as the Code allowed for the apologies between the principals at several points so everybody could go home alive.[7]

At the same time the Irish Code Duello became popular, Continental officers were improving in competence through battle and in training at Valley Forge. The more competent officers became, the more they began to consider themselves military professionals who commanded an extra measure of respect. This made them even more sensitive about insults to their honor. It seems a bit odd, but the self-confidence that officers gained in the first few years of the Revolution actually made them more inclined to duel.[8]

Identifying the extent of their inclination is problematic. Anecdotal evidence of several duels exists, but I am not aware of a comprehensive and reliable record of duels. This makes sense considering that it was punishable under the Articles of War so most antagonists probably fought in secret. The records of Continental courts-martial show only seven officers and three enlisted men prosecuted for dueling charges during the war.[9] This may indicate that dueling was not as widespread as we might think. Or, it may mean that dueling remained generally accepted and therefore not punished. Many were certainly minor affairs. Historian Thomas Fleming wrote that over the Valley Forge winter, some duels occurred between friends because of boredom or over minor jokes that touched on honor and the opponents often remained friendly.[10] I suspect that a lot of commanders looked the other way unless a duel created a big problem.

Court-martial records show light sentences for dueling. Of the ten officers and soldiers that faced charges,seven received convictions but only one suffered a sentence that was anything more than a slap on the wrist. For example, in August 1778 a court tried a Capt. Sullivan of the 4th New York for “calling Adjutant Sackett a liar and drawing his sword on him,” and “insinuating that [Sackett] was a coward and challenging him to fight a duel.” The court found Sullivan guilty of the first charge and counted his time confined while awaiting trial as fair punishment. Sullivan was also guilty of the second charge but received no sentence because his challenge was “the instantaneous resentment of an incensed gentleman and was not sent on cool reflection.” Therefore, not a real challenge under the Code Duello and no violation of the Articles of War.[11] Somebody looked really hard to find that loophole.

With punishment scarce, it is little wonder that some of the Revolution’s most famous, and infamous, characters were embroiled in duels.

Portrait of James Wilkinson by Charles Willson Peale. Source:  Independence National Historical Park
Portrait of James Wilkinson (1797) by Charles Willson Peale. Source: Independence National Historical Park Collection

In February 1778, as the Conway Cabal developed, Lt. Col. James Wilkinson challenged Gen. Horatio Gates to a duel after Gates accused Wilkinson of leaking information that brought the affair to light and trying to blame another officer. Gates initially accepted, but the two patched things up before exchanging shots. Wilkinson actually was the scoundrel who leaked the information, and he was far from honorable, but that’s another story.[12]

In August the same year, a long-running argument between Gen. Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina and Gen. Robert Howe of North Carolina came to a head when Gadsden spoke badly of Howe in an open letter. Howe called Gadsden out, and on August 30 they met outside Charleston. At eight paces apart, Howe fired first and his ball nicked Gadsden’s ear. Gadsden intentionally missed his shot, which Howe took as an apology. Now with cooler heads they settled their argument, shook hands, and parted ways. The affair so amused British Major John André that he penned a mocking ditty about it set to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”[13]

In late September 1778, Gen. Lafayette challenged Lord Carlisle, chief of the British peace commission in America, over a commission document that named France “an enemy to all civil and religious liberty” among other things, which Lafayette felt dishonored his nation.[14] Carlisle simply refused to be held accountable for a matter of government policy and ignored the challenge.

Various disputes even led to affairs of honor between Continental officers and members of Congress.[15] Overall, so many altercations occurred in late 1778 that in mid-January, 1779 the French Minister to the United States, Conrad Alexandre Gerard de Reyneval, observed, “the rage for dueling here has reached an incredible and scandalous point. No repression of such a pernicious spirit is even thought of.” And he was from France for crying out loud, one of the cradles of dueling. He continued, “Fortunately, in these combats nothing but the priming is burnt. Out of eight or nine duels which occurred in the last few weeks, only one shot took effect in the coat of General Lee.”[16]

Reyneval referred to the fact that in December, 1778, Lt. Col. John Laurens challenged Gen. Charles Lee for impugning Gen. Washington’s honor in Lee’s public defense of his conduct at the battle of Monmouth. The 24 year-old Laurens, one of Washington’s aides, may not have known what he was getting himself into; Lee was a heel, but years earlier he killed a man in a vicious duel in Europe where he lost two fingers. At 3:30 PM on December 23, 1778, Laurens and Lee met at a wood near Philadelphia. Col. Alexander Hamilton was Laurens’ second and Maj. Evan Edwards of the 11th Pennsylvania seconded Lee. The principals both wore a brace of pistols. Hamilton recorded, “they approached each other within about five or six paces and exchanged a shot almost at the same moment.” Lee missed, and Laurens’ ball grazed Lee’s right side. With their blood up, both principals wanted to fire again. Hamilton and Edwards disagreed and after a discussion everybody decided that honor was satisfied and the affair ended. Hamilton concluded his record of the duel with a statement that captures some duality in the mindset of the time: “we think it a piece of justice to the two gentlemen to declare, that after they met their conduct was strongly marked with all the politeness generosity coolness and firmness, that ought to characterize a transaction of this nature.” In other words, “they were very gentlemanly about really wanting to kill each other.”[17]

It is possible that Hamilton was ignoring what his towering intellect may have inwardly told him – that regardless of how gentlemen justified it, dueling had no place in an army.

Dueling was murder, and against the Articles of War, and that should have been enough. Gen. Washington, the Commander-in-Chief, may have looked the other way in the cases listed above, but officially he disapproved of dueling. For example in January 1778, a court-martial cashiered Lt. Martin Shugart of the 8th Maryland for challenging Lt. Jacob Laudermilk, but later recommended that Washington reinstate Shugart because of his faithful service. Washington supported the court’s decision but publicly and forcefully denounced dueling as “directly repugnant to our own Articles of War” and “subversive of good order, discipline and harmony.”[18] Smart officers heeded Washington. Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge of the 2nd Continental Dragoons was as brave and daring as they came, and he called dueling foremost among “all the vices and false pursuits to which the military life is liable.”[19] In August, 1780, Dr. James Thacher, a veteran physician of the Massachusetts Line, recorded two duels that both resulted in death. “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,” wrote Thacher, and continued, “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!”[20]

Washington, Tallmadge, and Thacher knew that gentlemen could ignore slights without losing their honor and command abilities. In May, 1785, former general Nathaniel Greene refused a challenge from ex-Continental captain James Gunn, and Washington told Greene, “your honor and reputation will not only stand perfectly acquitted for the non-acceptance of his challenge,” and “your prudence and judgment would have been condemnable for accepting of it, in the eyes of the world.”[21] Later in life, Lafayette realized that his challenge to Lord Carlisle was youthful impetuosity and wrote, “Lord Carlisle refused – and he was right.”[22] And the diminutive tough guy Benjamin Tallmadge observed, “I always determined that I never would be guilty of this murderous sin, and yet I am not conscious that any man ever thought me to be a coward.”[23]

The thing is, the ideals of the Continental Army called for officers to make the national cause and the needs of their soldiers their primary concerns. Officers who risked their lives over personal honor made themselves more important than the cause and their military duties. They were guilty of excessive navel-gazing and probably a little selfish, which did not match up with their commissions and the republican virtues for which they fought.[24] By focusing too much on honor and dueling, the officers were actually acting, well, dishonorably. I think that’s ironic or something.

Here’s what’s really ironic. In 1801, Alexander Hamilton, who extolled the gentlemanly conduct of the Laurens-Lee affair, lost his son Phillip in a duel. Three years later Hamilton felt that honor compelled him to duel with Aaron Burr. At Weehawken, New Jersey, honor and Burr’s good aim cost Hamilton his life. A public backlash against dueling finally began, and continued until the practice fell from favor, at least in the northern states. But that is another story.

Thanks to Mr. Scott Houting at the Valley Forge National Historical Park for his kind assistance with research!

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After J. Mund. Source: Lord, John, LL.D. (1902). Beacon Lights of History. Vol. XI, “American Founders.”]


[1] Thomas Fleming, Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 108, 329; Letter from Owen Biddle, July 5, 1778, in Encyclopedia of Contemporary Biography of Pennsylvania, Vol. III (New York: Atlantic Publishing, 1898), 281.

[2] William Oliver Stevens, Pistols at Ten Paces: The Story of the Code of Honor in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940), 1-5, 9-10.

[3] C. A. Harwell Wells, “The End of the Affair? Anti-Dueling Laws and Social Norms in Antebellum America,” Vanderbilt Law Review 54, no. 4 (2001), accessed July 22 2014 via: http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-73208054.

[4] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Volume 5, September 20, 1776, 793.

[5] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army & American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 88, 92, 207; See also Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (Yale University Press, 2001), xx.

[6] Quoted from Don R. Gerlach, Philip Schuyler and the American Revolution in New York, 1733-1777 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 171, accessed July 19 2014 via http://www.questia.com/read/93806701.

[7] Code Duello, quoted from Robert Baldick, The Duel: A History of Duelling (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1965), 33-36.

[8] Royster, Revolutionary People at War, 209-210.

[9] This number comes from my review of John C. Neagles, Summer Soldiers: A Survey & Index of Revolutionary War Courts-Martial (Salt Lake City, Ancestry Inc., 1986). Neagles compiled the records of 3,315 courts found in 168 sets of orderly books. The cases I counted appear on pages 104, 118, 137,143, 242, 249, 253, 255, 268, and 273. I verified Neagles’ findings by searching Continental Army General Orders, which announced court-martial sentences to the Army, in The Writings of George Washington, accessed via: http://etext.virginia.edu/washington/fitzpatrick/. In addition to the courts-martial, the state of New York issued a warrant for the arrest of Capt. Nathaniel Stone for killing Capt. Luke Hitchcock in a February, 1782 duel at West Point, New York. See Washington to Col. Joseph Vose, January 21, 1783, Writings of Washington, Vol. 26, accessed July 20 2014 via: http://etext.virginia.edu/washington/fitzpatrick/.

[10] Fleming, Washington’s Secret War, 139.

[11] General Orders, August 3, 1778; Writings of Washington, Vol. 12, accessed July 20 2014 via: http://etext.virginia.edu/washington/fitzpatrick/. In this transcription the name appears as “Silleron.” In Summer Soldiers, Neagles actually records the event twice, showing the name as “Cillenon” on 104 and “Sullivan,” 253. I went with “Sullivan” because it seems to make sense.

[12] Fleming, Washington’s Secret War, 203-204.

[13] E. Stanly Godbold Jr. and Robert H. Woody, Christopher Gadsden and the American Revolution (University of Tennessee Press, 1982), 178-187.

[14] Washington to Comte D’Estaing, October 2, 1778, Writings of Washington, Vol. 13, accessed July 20 2014 via: http://etext.virginia.edu/washington/fitzpatrick/. The editor’s note explains the phrase that so offended Lafayette.

[15] Megan Wilson, “A Damned Set of Rascals” The Continental Army vs. The Continental Congress: Tensions Among Revolutionaries, Master’s Thesis Submitted to the Louisiana State University and

Agricultural and Mechanical College, May, 2012, 13. The author details affairs of honor between Col. Daniel Morgan and Richard Peters, Gen. William Thompson and Thomas McKean, and Gen. John Sullivan and Thomas Burke.

[16] John Durand, ed., New Materials for the History of the American Revolution, Translated from Documents in the French Archives and then Edited, (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1889), 187.

[17] Alexander Hamilton and Evan Edwards, “Account of a Duel between Major General Charles Lee and Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, December 24, 1778”; original in the Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress, accessed July 1 2014 via: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0687

[18] General Orders, January 26, 1778, Writings of George Washington, Vol. 10, accessed June 28 2014 via: http://etext.virginia.edu/washington/fitzpatrick/. The General Orders show Shugart’s unit as the German Battalion, which was officially designated the 8th Maryland at that time.

[19] Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, Prepared by Himself at the Request of his Children (New York: Thomas Holman, Printer, 1858), 68.

[20] Dr. James Thacher, A Military Journal During the American Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783 (Boston, Richardson and Lord, 1832), 250-251.

[21] Washington to Nathaniel Greene, May 20, 1785, Writings of Washington, Vol. 28, accessed June 28 2014 via: http://etext.virginia.edu/washington/fitzpatrick/.

[22] William A. Duer, ed., Memoirs, Correspondence and Manuscripts of General Lafayette, Volume I, (New York; Saunders & Otley, 1837), 61.

[23] Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, 68.

[24] Royster, Revolutionary People at War, 208, 211.


  • Outstanding article. I suspect that combing the diaries and private papers would reveal even more instances of duels. Also, there were probably many less formal “duels” that may have been seen as simple one-on-one fights. Very interesting subject and well documented. Thank you!

    1. I’m glad you liked it Hugh. And you’re right on, various journals and diaries record more duels than made it into official records, as Dr. Thacher’s journal indicates.

      Some writers have postulated that alcohol in camp fueled some duels and challenges, which I suspect was true. However the Code Duello stressed that challenges made at night, or in the heat of the moment, were not valid, and some men surely reconsidered their challenges after their heads stopped hurting the next morning. The court-martial records also showed many soldiers punished for your run-of-the-mill camp brawl.

      And certainly some challenges just petered out. For example, in addition to John Laurens, Gen. Von Steuben and Gen. Anthony Wayne also challenged Charles Lee for smearing their honor in his defense of his Monmouth conduct. Neither developed to an actual duel.

    2. The most startling duel of the Revolutionary War was the one in which Continental Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh killed Georgia Governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence Button Gwinnett.

  • Thanks for pointing out this duel. I agree that it is a striking example. One reason is that it was the respective political ambitions that led to the argument between McIntosh and Gwinnett. As I mentioned in the piece, men who made their personal ambitions so prominent that they aimed to kill people on their same side were missing something about the cause that they (ostensibly) served. Another reason is that it appears that McIntosh and Gwinnett fired at each other with pistols at a distance of four paces. If they were intent on not missing, they succeeded, because each man’s pistol ball hit the other. Only Gwinnett’s wound was fatal.

    It is also interesting to note that dueling flourished as a political weapon in the young Republic, which was one factor that led to the Burr-Hamilton duel.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Interesting article and thank you for sharing. Even though some men are indeed fearless and have an amazing ability to remain calm under fire I can’t help but wonder how many of these duels took place with both combatants completely free of alcohol. Years ago I read somewhere that in those days even the military doled out “rum rations”.

    1. You are correct. During the war, Washington made sure that distilleries were set up to make ardent spirits for the troops, utilizing the ubiquitous presence of wheat in the colonies and in an attempt to wean them off of European concoctions. The U.S. Army doled out whiskey until banning the practice in 1832 and the Navy continued with the grog ration until 1862. Here in Vermont, after much debate (and finding that “treating” of alcohol by senior officers was becoming such a burden that they resigned their ranks), the state legislature finally prohibited alcohol at militia musters in 1828.

  • The American Rebels were not the only parties to duel over perceived breaches of honor. The British also practiced this unlawful act, as Lord George Germain dueled with Captain George Johnstone, both Members of Parliament in December 1770. Johnstone’s first shot shattered Lord Germain’s pistol and the duel ended without bloodshed.

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