Jonathan Cilley

On February 24, 1838 Maine Representative Jonathan Cilley was shot down in a duel at the infamous Bladensburg, Maryland dueling grounds just outside Washington, DC. It is the event that brought about the official (but not the actual) end to duelling by action of Congress. More important, it is one of the long chain of events that led to the Civil War.

Dueling in America
Dueling has a romantic image. Dashing swordsmen with flowing sashes slicing their way up and down granite stairways. Handsome gentlemen with matched pistols fighting over the honor (or love) of a beautiful lady. Romantic... hardly. A duel was more likely fought by two men over petty, misconstrued or imperceptible slights to the honor of one or the other. Testosterone and what seems today to be a silly set of rules forced people into positions from which they felt they could not back down. The keyword here is purported to be "honor".

Right: Jonathan Cilley, 1802 – 1838LOC

Every student of American history knows of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton and the cost to the nation by the loss of Hamilton's financial leadership. Few Americans know the full cost to the nation of dueling or the extent to which dueling permeated society during the late 18th and early 19th century. Before loosing his life to Burr, Hamilton lost a son in a duel. Commodore Stephen Decatur, signer of the Declaration of Independence Button Gwinett, and Daniel Key, son of the author of the Star Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key all lost their lives in duels. Revolutionary War generals Nathaniel Greene and Israel Putnam, Dewitt Clinton, Sam Houston, Jim Bowie, Henry Clay and his cousin Cassius Marcellus Clay, John Randolph, Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Webster, even Mark Twain, and many others were challenged or engaged in duels. 

(The following section on Andrew Jackson is not included in Hidden History of Midcoast Maine due largely to space constraints and is included here.)

The preeminent American duelist was Andrew Jackson, military hero and 7th President of the United States. He was reputedly involved in some capacity or fought in as many as 103 duels, fights or altercations according to "The Indiscretions of Andrew Jackson", an 1828 anti-Jackson campaign rag. Certainly Jackson was hot-blooded and quick to anger. Two encounters stick out; neither would be considered honorable by code standards.

What started as an argument over a horse race ended in the death of Charles Dickinson, the only fatality in the 103 fights/duels. Jackson literally picked a quarrel with Dickinson. He arrived at the dueling ground in a voluminous dressing gown which hid the lines of his body making him a difficult shot. Determined to kill his opponent, Jackson stated that he would allow Dickinson, the better marksman, to take the first shot. Then he would take careful aim and shoot Dickinson even "if he had shot me through the brain". Dickinson did shoot him, seriously and in the chest.

Although blood dripped on his shoe, Jackson claimed he was only pinked. Jackson then calmly aimed and fired. The pistol stopped at half-cock! According to the code, the circumstances required a complete second round. Jackson did not stand on this formality; he simply aimed and fired again immediately. Dickinson was fatally wounded and, according to the rules, murdered! It was a stain not removed from Jackson's reputation until the Battle of New Orleans. The chest wound never healed properly and was considered to be contributory to his death nearly forty years later.

The second incident, in 1813, was an altercation between Jackson and the brothers Thomas Hart and Jesse Benton, but the cause was a duel in which Jackson acted as second to a man who shot Jesse Benton in the rear end. What started as a laughing matter went sour and led to a running gun battle in the lobby of a Nashville hotel. During what can only be called a brawl, several people joined the engagement, and Jackson was shot in the shoulder. He carried the bullet to his grave.

The eight year term of Jackson's presidency was considered the heyday of dueling in Washington and America. When Jonathan Cilley came to the capitol only a few years later, dueling was still very common.

Murder Most Foul

In 1838, the year of his death, Jonathan Cilley was a rising star in the US House of Representatives and a consumate Democrat and politician. He was quick-witted, intelligent and well educated at Bowdoin College where he graduated in the famous Class of 1825. A man such as him had many friends but also not a few enemies. One of the latter was from Maine but others were from the South and the West. This was a time of extreme partisan politics drawn up on geographic lines that would eventually lead to the Civil War.

Cilley became embroiled in a petty argument regarding a charge of bribery brought by a New York newspaperman against a Maine Senator. Once he stepped in the subsequent mess Cilley was not allowed to disentangle himself, and he was set upon by what every middle schooler today would recognize immediately as a pack of bullies.These men were highly recognizable and historically famous members of our government with an ax to grind that had nothing to do with bribery charges real or unfounded. 

Eventually Cilley was backed into a corner and with great frustration excepted the challenge to the duel that brought about his death. Who knows now what the loss of Jonathan Cilley’s life cost our country?     

This is a very abbreviated account of dueling and Jonathan Cilley’s death and leaves many unanswered questions:

  • What was the Code Duello?
  • Who was Jonathan Cilley and what was his background?
  • Who was this enemy from Maine and what was that all about?
  • What was they story behind this bribery charge?
  • Who were the men involved in Cilley’s death? And what about that newspaper editor?
  • What did they expect to gain by forcing Cilley into a duel?
  • How were they assisted by the methodology and culture of dueling in the US?
  • What actually happened on the field at Bladensburg?
  • Dueling sounds illegal. Wasn’t there a law against it?
  • Why is this considered a “partisan” tragedy?
  • What became of Cilley’s wife and young family?
  • What part did the Cilley duel play in the lead up to the Civil War?


If you are interested in the complete story of Jonathan Cilley's duel to the death, please read the my MaineStory in 
The Hidden History of Midcoast Maine
by Pat Higgins with photos by Dave Higgins.

                           Pat@mainestory.info                     Formerly ImagineMaine.com                   © Pat Higgins 2014