[Washington City: March 1, 1838]. Manuscript document, a tender copy, unsigned. Two leaves, ink on rectos only, 32 x 20 cm., approx. 680 words. Both leaves split across the central fold, the first leaf held together by a news clipping tipped on as part of the author's explanation of the facts leading to Cilley's death in a duel on Feb. 24, 1838. A smaller piece of paper tipped onto the verso of the first leaf, and extending slightly above it dates the document as Washington City, March 1, 1838. The second leaf ends in mid-sentence.
The unknown author takes issue with some of the statements published in the papers relative to the duel between Cilley, a Congressman from Maine, and Graves, a Congressman from Kentucky. His contemporary account includes two newspaper clippings describing the incidents leading up to the duel, both from the Pennsylvania Inquirer of Feb. 28. One indicates that Cilley called Webb a "blackguard," the other that Cilley refused to accept a letter from J. Watson Webb brought to him by Graves. Of this reporting he states: "Now I feel bound to say that neither of these writers represent correctly what did occur at the interview between Messrs. Cilley and Graves. Mr. Cilley himself related to me the conversation that did occur, and I feel it my solemn duty now to repeat it. Mr. Cilley called on me on the 20th inst. and said to me, that Mr. Graves had, in a manner not at all exceptionable, presented him a note from J. Watson Webb, and that he promptly said to Mr. Graves 'that he could not receive it. Mr Graves then asked me if my refusal to receive it arose from any objection to the medium through which it was presented. I replied, No, sir, no, certainly not; I entertain for you the kindest and most respectful feelings, but I decline receiving this because I do not choose to be drawn into a controversy with Mr. Webb.' " The anonymous author goes on to say that thereafter Cilley expected a street attack on his person from Webb, and never entertained the idea of a duel. When finally the duel was forced on him by Graves, he selected rifles. Cilley's own gun appeared incapable of causing harm, when on the second shot the bullet failed to even penetrate the clothing of his opponent. The third shot, the fatal shot fired by Graves, was therefore like "firing at an unarmed man, and no sophistry can extenuate the case." Item #66155
Newspaper articles at the time of the duel indicate that the dispute between Cilley and Webb began with an article published in Webb's newspaper, the New York Courier and Enquirer in February 1838, under the authorship "Spy in Washington." It accused an unnamed member of Congress of corruption. Cilley openly denounced the credibility of the claims and his published remarks caused Webb to take offense. Graves, acting as go-between, became incensed when Cilley refused to take delivery of Webb's note, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The House of Representatives considered censuring the three Congressmen who were present when Cilley died, Graves, and the seconds Henry Wise of Virginia and George Jones of Wisconsin, but declined to do so. Instead, a year later, on Feb. 20, 1839, Congress passed legislation prohibiting "the giving or accepting within the District of Columbia, of a challenge to fight a duel, and for the punishment thereof." Even this did not completely stop the practice. The Bladensburg Duelling Grounds just over the D.C. border in Maryland where Jonathan Cilley died continued to be the prime spot for this mode of settling political slights and disputes, mostly under cover of darkness, according to Jennie Meade of George Washington University, in an article on "findingDulcinea," Feb. 20, 2012.