28. Dueling

An Officer and a Gentleman

The practice of dueling among Continental Army officers must be viewed in relation to the sensibilities that American society in the eighteenth century expected them to exhibit as military gentlemen. The feelings that were encompassed in the prevailing, even obsessive, concern among this social stratum for maintaining one’s self-respect and avoiding disgrace ran the gamut from honor to shame and were inextricably tied to an officer’s need for public recognition of his accomplishments and public vindication if he was openly criticized by any of his peers. In the social environment of this period, issues concerning whether someone was perceived as engaging in honorable conduct or not were immensely important to the persons involved, in some cases even to the point of life or death.

In his study of the Continental Army, Charles Royster observes that the relationships officers developed among each other probably helped insulate them from the critical perspectives of both enlisted soldiers and the civilian population (Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783, The University of North Carolina Press, 1979). “Officers could judge each other’s character,” he writes, “by the criteria that only they understood.”

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Caroline Cox tells us that officers’ sensitivity to issues such as rank and honor occasionally gave rise to disputes among each other over “perceived slights” the led to charges resulting in a court of inquiry or a court-martial (A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington’s Army, The University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Some incidents involved the conduct of young officers that was deemed by senior officers to fall short of appropriate standards of gentlemanly conduct. In other cases, however, squabbles erupted between senior officers over a perceived insult leveled by one against the other or against a third officer—and sometimes these precipitated a resolution by less orderly or formal means than a judicial proceeding.

During the army’s Valley Forge encampment in the winter of 1777-1778, the practice of dueling between Continental officers “in defense of honor” became more common, according to Royster. Perhaps the best-known of these incidents occurred when Pennsylvania militia general John Cadwalader confronted General Thomas Conway, who had allegedly instigated the so-called “Conway Cabal” to remove General Washington from command and resigned his commission as major general in April 1778 after his supposed intrigue was exposed. Cadwalader—who admired Washington and detested Conway—accused the latter of cowardice, and Conway challenged him to a duel. In the ensuing affair on July 4, 1778, Cadwalader wounded Conway in the mouth, but the latter survived. Such encounters between officers were typically over real or imagined insults.

Although dueling was officially prohibited in the Continental Army, the practice was rarely discouraged or punished, according to Royster. In fact, it conformed to the etiquette of officers in European armies and the time-honored code of gentlemanly conduct, although such incidents were rare at the beginning of the war when, as Royster puts it, “American officers were first striving to become military gentlemen.” It wasn’t until after the Valley Forge winter that dueling occurred more frequently, to the point that it became “so much in vogue among the Gentlemen of our Army” according to a New Jersey Gazette article of March 17, 1779. Indeed, France’s minister to the United States Gerard de Rayneval wrote home on January 17, 1779 that “[the] rage for duelling here has reached an incredible and scandalous point” and was viewed “as the appanage of liberty.”

So What was the (ahem) Upshot of All This?

Royster believes that the incidence of these affairs increased because they “settled questions of honor in a distinctive, gallant way for men newly self-conscious about their uniqueness and their proper public inviolability” and so demonstrated to everyone, including themselves, that these proud and sentimental officers comprised “a separate order of men.” The other side of this coin is that they developed close friendships with each other in the conviction that “the intimacy in their life of keener patriotism, risk, and pride prepared them to understand each other’s experiences and opinions better than anyone else could.” So this self-conscious ethos among Continental officers (uh oh) triggered an intensity of feeling that encompassed strong sentiments, both of friendship and honor. If the latter was challenged, the dark side of this fraternity could rear its ugly head in a deadly or disabling exchange of fire.

22. Why Did They Serve?

Is there a better question for a Revolutionary War blog to ask when anticipating the annual observance of Memorial Day? Of course, it’s worth considering in relation to any conflict in our Nation’s past, and there may be a good deal of commonality among them in the answers to that question. But I want to focus here on what motivated those Americans who bore arms in a young nation’s struggle for the right to rule itself, and in particular the common soldier, meaning those below the rank of commissioned officer.


Some two hundred thousand Americans served in the Continental army or the militia out of a population of about three million. Those who voluntarily filled the Patriot ranks chose to do so for many different reasons. Some were committed to fight for liberty and independence. Others responded to the financial incentive offered in the form of a bounty—a cash payment received for enlisting—or from being hired as a substitute by someone with the means to do so, or were lured by the promise of Western land after the war. Some wanted to separate themselves from a parent or master, or wanted to indulge their desire for adventure or eagerness to serve with a friend or neighbor. Whatever the motivation, many of those under arms came to believe they were part of something larger than themselves by virtue of their shared experience of war, attended as it was by the sporadic excitement and terror of combat, the prolonged drudgery of camp life, the frequent lack of food and other supplies, the presence of debilitating disease, the misery imposed by sweltering summers and frigid winters, and the indifference of many civilians to the army’s needs. In the process, these men learned to be professional soldiers and, along with George Washington’s generals and junior officers, became more competent and assured as the conflict wore on.

The tribute I paid to the legendary Delaware Regiment of 1776-1783 in John Haslet’s World applies equally to the hard-core Continental soldiery generally, whatever their motivation to serve: “Their story is an enduring reminder that the willingness to engage in self-sacrifice in the national interest has been, and always will be, indispensable to the defense of a free society in war and the furtherance of its democratic tradition and values in peace.”


We can’t quantify how many Patriot combatants were consciously or explicitly motivated by the language of universal rights in the Declaration of Independence, and unfortunately that soaring rhetoric fell short when it came to the Founders’ willingness to accommodate the interests of black people, women, Indians, and men without property.

Still, the rationale for a new nation articulated in our first founding document laid the groundwork for a constitutional framework in the second that, according to political philosopher Steven B. Smith in Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes (Yale University Press, 2021), gave rise to an American civil religion “based on the promise of equality, inclusivity, and tolerance.” He cites as a singular expression of this aspiration President Washington’s correspondence with the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, which conceives of American democracy in a way no one has ever improved upon, or so Smith claims.

In his letter of August 21, 1790, our foremost Founding Father wrote: “For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” He conveyed his hope that “the children of Abraham who dwell in this land [may] continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

If that’s not a way of life worth fighting for, what is?