Behind the Masque

Menasha, Wisconsin, December 31st, 1899
Written by: Sally McCarty Pleasants

Col. John Mason McCarty, son of Col. Daniel McCarty, was born on the 14th day of March, 1795, at Cedar Grove, the family seat of his father, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Cedar Grove is situated on the Potomac River about fourteen miles below Alexandria.

John M. McCarty was the grandson of George Mason of Gunston Hall, and was a distant cousin of Gen. Armistead Mason, his antagonist in the fatal duel, and whose sister married Col. McCarty’s brother, William McCarty. I may say here that she fully forgave Col. McCarty, and after the first few months received and treated him with her usual affection. Col. McCarty had nine brothers, and one sister,  afterwards Mrs. John Bronaugh. His brothers, with the exception of William, all died quite early. Col. John McCarty died on September 13th, 1852, in Detroit, Michigan, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery at Richmond, Virginia. He left but one surviving child, the writer of this sketch.

The story of the duel, as related to me by my father, is as nearly as I can recollect, as follows:

Gen. Armistead Mason was a violent Democrat, and my father an equally violent Federalist; and this difference in political opinion was the first cause of the quarrel between them.

Gen. Mason was a candidate for office, and my father, for political reasons, registered his first vote against him. Gen. Mason challenged his right to vote, on the ground that he was not yet of age, compelled him to make oath that he had passed his twenty first birthday, and immediately on his doing so, called him “a damned perjured scoundrel”. My father knocked him down on the spot; and was proceeding to punish him as he deserved, when they were forcibly separated by the bystanders.

Mason sent him a challenge at once, which he, of course, accepted; but mutual friends and relatives interfered to keep the peace, and the matter was, as my father supposed finally settled. After a year had elapsed, however, Gen. Mason, under the advice of political friends, wrote to him, stating that he was not satisfied to let the affair rest on a peaceful basis, and renewing the challenge to mortal combat. Col. McCarty accepted it, but as the challenged party, claimed the right to name the terms.

He then proposed fighting across a handkerchief; sitting together upon a keg of gunpowder, and lighting the catch; and springing, bound together, from the dome of the Capitol, at Washington. (He had often told me he did not want to come out of the encounter alive.) All these propositions were refused by Mason’s Friends, and Col. McCarty then told them to choose their own weapons.

Mason was an old soldier, and chose muskets. McCarty at once asserted his right to name the distance, and made it so short that the muzzles of the guns almost touched. This Gen. Mason’s friends were constrained to accept.

The meeting took place at Bladensburg, in February, 1819, at daylight; and although it was snowing, and very cold, McCarty took his place stripped to his shirt and trousers; while Mason wore a heavy overcoat.

They both fired at the word, Col. McCarty’s ball entering Mason’s heart and killing him instantly; while Mason’s ball tore the flesh of my father’s left forearm, from elbow to wrist, leaving a scar which he carried to his grave.

I have seen published from time to time, of this sad affair, that my father was a miserable man from that moment, and tormented with an undying remorse. I have the best reasons for knowing this to be utterly false, and without foundation, as every one now living who knew him can testify. He has often told me that the whole affair was forced upon him by the malignity of Mason’s political friends; and that while he deeply regretted the result, he has never blamed himself for it in the least.

He was one of the most cheerful and happy tempered men I ever know; full of wit and fun, and the center of attention in every social circle he frequented. In his last days he was the victim of a painful disease, but his fortitude and cheerfulness were unfailing to the end; and he died, as he had lived, “without fear and without reproach”.