U.S.A. –-(Ammoland.com)- The environment in today’s Congress can seem rough and tumble, with members exchanging words in the Chamber and out in public, but it pales in comparison to that of the early 19th century.
This is the story of two representatives who were actually driven to participate in a duel, resulting in the death of a sitting member of Congress at the hands of another fellow member.
Representative Jonathan Cilley, born in Maine in 1802, was a college-educated man. He studied law, passed the bar, practiced law, served as the editor for a local paper, was a member and Speaker in the Maine House of Representatives, and was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1837.
Representative William Graves, born in Kentucky in 1805, followed a similar path. He, too, went to college, studied law, passed the bar, practiced law, and served as a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives. He was elected to the US House in 1835.
Ironically, the two representatives had no issue with one another when the whole matter began. Instead, it all started when Cilley openly questioned the validity of an article that accused a fellow congressman of corruption. This angered James Watson Webb, the publisher of the paper that ran the article, 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.
Even as tension built, Cilley commented to a fellow representative that “Mr. Graves and myself are not enemies; I never had a difficulty with [him].” Nonetheless, Cilley’s friend Franklin Pierce urged him to start carrying a pistol, just in case Graves launched a surprise attack.
It now became a personal matter between Graves and Cilley. Graves initiated the challenge for the duel, so it was up to Cilley to choose the type of weapon to be used. Knowing that Graves was a good shot with a pistol, he suggested they use rifles instead.
Delegate George Jones of the Wisconsin territory and Representative Henry Wise of Virginia acted as the duel’s seconds, arranging the specifics of the proceedings, as according to the code duello.
The District of Columbia was not fit for a duel, so the men had to travel to nearby Bladensburg, Maryland, to settle their score. Three carriages arrived at the dueling ground, bringing a total of ten congressmen to the site on February 24, 1838. The two seconds teamed up to measure out the duel’s range. In an attempt to prevent bloodshed, the men took large steps. This put the distance between Cilley and Graves as approximately 92 yards, a good deal 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 second later and missed. As was customary, seconds Wise and Jones conferred in the middle 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 had already proven to be anything but customary. So, the rifles were loaded for a third time as the two representatives prepared to fire yet again.
This time, 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 had tears in his eyes as he sent word back to Franklin Pierce in Washington, 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, when he died. He left behind a wife and three children.
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 the censure was not enforced.
Congress eventually passed anti-dueling legislation, but it only prohibited such actions from actually taking place in the District. Just as before, duelists could simply head to nearby Maryland to settle the score.
William Graves was not re-nominated 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 guns are housed in the National Firearms Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. 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.
About Logan Metesh
Logan Metesh is a historian with a focus on firearms history and development. He runs High Caliber History LLC and has more than a decade of experience working for the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, and the NRA Museums. His ability to present history and research in an engaging manner has made him a sought after consultant, writer, and museum professional. The ease with which he can recall obscure historical facts and figures makes him very good at Jeopardy!, but exceptionally bad at geometry.