Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Duel of the Month Club: John F. Sherburne v. Daniel Key

At age 19, Daniel Key, son of Francis Scott Key, was a midshipman in the Navy. While on tour, Daniel had a dispute with fellow midshipman John F. Sherburne, the son of the former Register of the Navy. In a letter written to the Memphis Avalanche, witness to the duel Thomas Mattingly recalled that Sherburne was serving on the ship, while Key –a troublesome youngster—was merely a passenger on the ship after having been arrested on his frigate Brandywine for insubordination. On board Key developed a strong disliking for Sherburne and would go to great lengths to anger him. Reaching Norfolk, Virginia Key was held on bond in order to keep the peace. After his release, Key and his father went to Baltimore to argue his case in front of the Naval Board. With his father as district attorney of the Circuit Court in DC, Key got off without punishment, and the two returned to Washington.

Also returning to Washington was John Sherburne. When the two midshipmen learned of each other’s presence, tensions escalated. Around June 15th or 16th Sherburne demanded a duel, to which Key replied, “Sherburne is a damned scoundrel, and I will not meet him.” But after a few minutes to compose himself, Key agreed to a duel, provided it be done quickly.

The stage was set; the duel would take place that evening at 6:00 pm in Bladensburg, Maryland (recall that dueling was illegal within the District). The dueling grounds are pictured above. The two agreed on pistols as their weapons, and stood ten short paces apart. They fired. After the smoke cleared, it became apparent that both shooters had missed their mark. Key exclaimed, “Where did my ball go to; God damn it, load up quick and let us have another shot!” Sherburne complied, the two reloaded, and at twilight the command was given to fire again. This time Key was struck on the lower right side of his chest, he lived twenty minutes longer before dying where he fell. Sherburne escaped unharmed.

Key’s body was returned to his father’s C Street house between 13th and 14th Streets. The scene there was one of agony and profound grief. Francis Scott had lost his eldest son. The Knickerbocker (a New York Magazine at the time) remarked on the duel saying, “We know how to appreciate such a scene, for we know its counterpart—a mother bending in speechless agony of heart over the dead body of an only son, murdered in cool blood…The life, however, of a successful duelist, is a curse to himself. His punishment goes with him, in every step he takes in his journey to the grave.” Let that be a lesson to duelists.
Sources: The Knickerbocker (or New-York Monthly Magazine), vol. VIII , New York: Clark and Edson, 1836.
Thomas Mattingly, "Duel between midshipmen Key and Sherburne," from the Memphis Avalanche, printed in the New York Times, April 23, 1859.

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