In 1818, two of the Navy’s most famous names, Oliver Hazard Perry and Stephen Decatur, were involved, one as a participant and the other as his second, in a duel that was the culmination of a two-year-long dispute about Navy discipline and the limits of a commander’s powers.
It was an era when dueling was all too common.
“In the United States, dueling’s heyday began at around the time of the Revolution and lasted the better part of a century,” wrote author and researcher Ross Drake for Washington’s Smithsonian Institute. “This was especially true in the Navy, where boredom, drink, and a mix of spirited young men in close quarters on shipboard produced a host of petty irritations ending in gunfire.”
In the late summer of 1816, the USS Java, which Perry commanded, was stopped at Messina, Sicily, when Perry became displeased with what he considered the unsatisfactory appearance and attitude of the ship’s Marines. Capt. John Heath, the Marine commander, added to the problem by responding — at least in Perry’s opinion — with what Perry later called, “marked insolence.”
The incident escalated to the point that the two men had words. Perry allegedly shouted that Heath was a “damned rascal and scoundrel” and had “not acted as a gentleman.” Perry then summoned 2nd Lt. Parke G. Howle, the Marine detachment’s second in command, and relieved Heath. In a rash and thoughtless act, Perry, who was known for is short and violent temper, then slapped Heath.
Lieutenant Howle stepped between the men and no further blows were exchanged — but the damage had been done.
According to a Midshipman Mackenzie, who was aboard the Java at the time, the “following day was a gloomy one on board the Java. The officers and crew had the most profound respect for their commander, [Perry], and were strongly attached to his person; the victim of uncontrolled passion, he became an object of their pity; he was himself overcome with shame and mortification.” Perry meanwhile, realizing he had acted in anger, had a fellow officer write to Heath saying that Perry regretted what had happened and was in “readiness to make an honorable and personal apology.”
It was, however, not enough for Heath or the other Marine officer on the Java, who thought Perry’s actions had insulted the entire Corps.
On Dec. 31, 1816, a court-martial was convened to hear the charges that had been placed against Heath, namely disrespectful and insolent conduct towards a superior officer, neglect of duty, and disobeying orders, which involved what Perry considered an unacceptable delay in going after deserting Marines. Heath was found guilty of all but the last charge and was sentenced to receive a verbal reprimand from the Commodore of the squadron. Perry was also found by the court to have himself used “disrespectful language” toward a fellow officer and to have slapped him.
The incident became a major controversy in the Navy, gave birth to front page newspaper stories, and even ignited calls — that were ignored — for a Congressional investigation.
In the summer of 1817, Heath, who had then been dismissed from the service, published a pamphlet about the incident in which he referred to Perry, among other things, as “the slave of the most violent and vindictive passions” who could “descend to acts of revenge and cruelty.” Perry was also, Heath wrote, filled with “the most consummate arrogance” and “a spirit of the rankest malevolence.”
A duel between the men became inevitable.
As preparations for the meeting began, Perry, who had always opposed dueling, wrote to Decatur saying that he would meet Heath and stand in the duel, but he would not fire. He also asked Decatur to serve as his second, and Decatur traveled to New York to oblige. The two men finally met near Hoboken, New Jersey in October 1818, more than two years after the original incident. Heath and Perry stood back to back, marched five paces each, and wheeled. Heath fired missing Perry who, true to his word, handed his unfired pistol to Decatur.
Decatur then approached Heath, told him that Perry had all along intended not to fire and asked if Heath’s honor was not satisfied. Heath said it was.
It was over.