On Feb. 24, 1838, an event occurred that greatly affected Benjamin Brown French, who was then in his fifth year as a clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives. A man he admired, Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Maine, was killed in a duel in Maryland, just across the border from the District of Columbia. Cilley had been shot by Congressman William J. Graves of Kentucky. The combatants had no quarrel with each other, but, after a series of disputes involving a third party, New York newspaperman James Watson Webb, both felt honor-bound to engage in the duel. This was the only fatal fight between members of Congress in history.
French blamed Kentucky Congressman Henry A. Wise for Cilley’s death, as Wise had encouraged Graves, a fellow Whig, to take on Cilley, a Democrat. On March 10 French wrote in his journal that “…with hatred for Cilley rankling in his bosom, he had the meanness to act as second to Mr. Graves.” Each dueler chose a “second,” whose job was to assure that the duel was conducted in a fair manner. Cilley had chosen George Jones, a delegate from the Wisconsin Territory.
Initial accounts of the duel supported French’s low opinion of Wise as a callous instigator. On March 12 French recorded in his journal what he knew of Wise — that he had been involved in three other duels, had fought in at least a dozen brawls in the House of Representatives, and had even shot Virginia Congressman Richard Coke, Jr. through the arm. French wrote “What can his heart be made of?”
On April 28, 1838, while French was in the process of presenting the formal report regarding the duel to Congress, Wise interrupted him and demanded that he stop mumbling, and speak louder. French wrote in his journal, “I am happy to ascertain that the general opinion among all who heard the remark is that it was a base, vulgar, blackguard insult to my feelings, and many have said to me, ‘Keep cool, it will injure him more than it will you.’”
French was elected Clerk of the House of Representatives on Jan. 18, 1845, and put in charge of the office that he had faithfully served since arriving in Washington from New Hampshire at the end of 1833. He would serve in this position until 1847, when the political winds would change.
Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, devotes an entire chapter to the Cilley-Graves duel in her recent book, “The Field of Blood–Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War.” The book draws in part on French’s journal entries for the years he spent working for the U.S. Congress. His newspaper articles and other writings, as well as his personal letters during this period also informed her groundbreaking work. As Freeman wrote, “Staring out at the House for fourteen years, French saw a lot of fighting. He saw screaming matches, finger-pointing, and desk-pounding. He saw Southerners rise en masse in a chorus of fist-clenched outrage, bellowing for all they were worth … He saw stamping and shoving, fistfights and flipped tables. He saw a few all-out melees — ‘interesting and intellectual exhibitions,’ he called them — with dozens of congressmen pounding one another or standing on chairs to get a good look.”
Wise served in Congress from 1833 to 1844. He was appointed as the U.S. Minister to Brazil by President John Tyler in 1844. In 1847 he returned to Virginia. That year French added this note to his April 28, 1838, journal entry: “Forgiven and forgotten.” He was pleased that Wise had left the Whig Party and was now a member of French’s own party, the Democrats. After Wise was victorious in the Virginia governor’s race in 1855, French noted, “Mr. Wise was triumphantly elected Governor, and every member of Congress (from Virginia) elected is a Democrat.”
Wise supported slavery, and was an ardent secessionist. He served as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. He was at the side of the army’s commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, at the Battle of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.