“The Last Notable American Duel”: California and its influence on the Civil War

The obelisk marking the general area of the duel

Part of a series about California & The Civil War

Lately, there has been a rumble here in California that cannot be attributed to another earthquake. As Civil War historians widen their scope, it must be observed that the real West had a great deal to do with the American Civil War. Writers such as Alvin M. Josephy (The Civil War in the American West), Jerry Thompson (Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade), and Glenna Matthews (The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California) are teasing this important information out of the national fabric bit by bit. Even the American Battlefields Trust has honored California by including the Golden State in their series of broadcasts about important places.

Because I live in California, I have been asked by several folks why I don’t write about the influence my home state had during the Civil War. I usually just mumble something about Elmer Ellsworth and pivot the conversation, but the time has come for me to take this topic in hand and see how badly I can mangle it.

California was far away from the seat of the fighting in the Civil War, but it had its own issues going on. Compare the map of California to the East Coast and take a guess as to which end of Cali was pro-Union and which was pro-Confederate. Additionally, the same divisions that split the East split the West, especially the issue of slavery. California was admitted to the Union as a free state, but that didn’t stop Californians from disagreeing.  This post will focus on two men who were both Democrats but on opposite ends of that party.

David Broderick

David C. Broderick came to California from Washington, D.C. where he was born in 1820 to a stonemason who worked on the Capitol Building. Choosing opportunity and politics over stonemasonry, Broderick left the East in 1849, joining the California Gold Rush. He settled in San Francisco and quickly made a fortune in real estate.[1]As a Democrat Broderick was elected to the California state senate in 1850 and rapidly became a power broker within the antislavery wing of the California Democratic Party. In 1857 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.[2]


David Terry

David S. Terry was also a Forty-niner, coming to California from Texas, where his family had moved from Kentucky. He was nominated for a seat on the California State Supreme Court as a Know-Nothing in 1855 and served as the 4th Chief Justice of California from September 1857. At some point during his term, he became a Democrat. On June 25, 1859, the State Democratic Party nominated another man over Terry, as Terry’s pro-slavery views became better known.[3]

For a while, Broderick and Terry were friends. However, Senator Broderick was a Douglas Dem (anti-slavery) while Judge Terry was pro-slavery. They supported each other’s political efforts until Terry ran for reelection to the state bench in 1859. He was defeated and very bitter about it. He publically accused Broderick of marshaling Democratic support against him. This led to bitter words between the two men. According to a 1905 edition of Munsey’s Magazine, a popular-though-not-necessarily-historically-accurate publication of stories and articles, Broderick replied to Terry’s vitriol with some of his own:

I see now that Terry has been abusing me. I now take back the remark I once made that he is the only honest judge in the (state) supreme court. I was his friend when he was in need of friends, for which I am sorry. Had the vigilance committee disposed of him as they did of others, they would have done a      righteous act.[4]

The incident to which Senator Broderick referred was one in which Judge Terry was accused of knifing a man in order to free another man from arrest. Since no one died, Terry–with the help of the press, the Masons and, apparently, Broderick–was released.[5]

Terry and Broderick fought back and forth in the press. Things got worse when Judge Terry tried to gain a re-nomination to the California Supreme Court, an unpleasant occurrence in which Terry ascribed his failure to obtain the re-nomination to the efforts of his former friend, who had actively been speaking about the Kansas-based Lecompton Constitution and its possible influence in California. Terry made a speech accusing convention delegates of following orders issued by Broderick and denying him the bench.[6]Gossip ensued and feelings were hurt all around. “Betrayal” was the epithet being used on both sides. After Broderick lost the 1859 senatorial bid to William M. Gwin, things got even worse . . . if that is imaginable.

This letter was sent from Terry to Broderick:

            Oakland, September 8, 1859.

Hon. D. C. Broderick—Sir: Some two months since, at the public table of the International Hotel, in San Francisco, you saw fit to indulge in certain remarks concerning me, which were offensive in their nature. Before I had heard of the        circumstance, your note of 20th of June, addressed to Mr. D. W. Perley, in which you declared that you would not respond to any call of a personal character during the political canvass just concluded, had been published.

I have, therefore, not been permitted to take any notice of those remarks until the expiration of the limit fixed by yourself. I now take the earliest opportunity to require of you a retraction of those remarks. This note will be handed to you by my friend, Calhoun Benham, Esq., who is acquainted with its contents, and will receive your reply. D. S. Terry.[7]

Both men were easily able to identify the offensive remarks, and things escalated. A duel was scheduled. The infamous Code Duello was alive and well, even 3,000 miles west of the eastern end of the Mason-Dixon line.

The California State Marker for the Broderick-Terry Duel

The odd thing about the duel was that it had to be scheduled twice. The first attempt was scheduled to take place in early September but was halted by the San Francisco Chief of Police, Martin J. Burke. Although the police arraigned the would-be duelists, they were discharged on the grounds that there had been no active misdemeanor.[8]

Terry and Broderick, miffed that they had been denied their duel, made plans to continue the hostilities. They agreed to move the place of the duel to an area near Lake Merced. The date was set for September 13, and the chosen weapons were Belgian .58 caliber pistols. The type of gun was Terry’s choice, and he spent some time before the duel practicing, whereas Broderick did not see the guns until the appointed time. It was reported by onlookers that, at the moment of the duel, Broderick’s gun fired into the dirt. Terry then took aim at Broderick’s chest and pulled the trigger. Although Judge Terry later claimed that he had only grazed Broderick, the bullet entered Broderick’s chest and lungs. The wounded senator was rushed to the nearby home of Leonidas Haskell and despite the best efforts of a doctor, David Broderick succumbed to his wound three days later. He reportedly claimed that “They killed me because I am opposed to the extension of slavery and a corrupt administration.”[9]

Close-up of the name engraved on the place marker for David Terry


Close-up of the name engraved on the place marker for David Broderick

Senator Broderick was remembered in the California Police Gazette, September 17, 1859:

           Not only does a State mourn for its champion and defender, not only does the population of the Pacific slope wail for the loss of its favorite, but a whole confederacy—a whole people, are full of sorrow and regret for his death. As was aid of another, “The heart of a nation is throbbing heavily at the portals of his tomb.”[10]

Senator Broderick’s funeral was held in San Francisco, attended by thousands of mourners. Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, a friend of Abraham Lincoln who would later be killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, presented a moving eulogy. The duel drew national attention, turning Broderick into a martyr for the antislavery movement. Terry and his supporters were accused of assassination.[11]The duel reflected the more violent divisions afflicting the entire nation, and many count this tragedy in “far-away California” as one of the events that pushed the country into war by 1861.

Where each man stood–Terry was on the right, Broderick on the left


[1]United States Senate, “Senator Killed in Duel,”  https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Duel_By_The_Lake.htm (accessed May 14, 2018).


[3]”The Late Affair in San Francisco,” Sacramento Daily Union, June 28, 1859. California Digital newspaper Collection, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SDU18590704.2.7&srpos=7&e=01-06-1859-14-09-1859-185-en–20–1–txt-txIN-broderick+terry—-1859—1 (accessed May 15, 2018).

[4]Cyrus Townsend Brady, “Famous American Duels,” Munsey’s Magazine, Frank A. Munsey and Company, January 1, 1905, Vol. 33, 615-616. https://books.google.com/books?id=sy0AAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA608&dq=famous+duels&hl=en&ei=69GDTMf2L4-isQPVvIn4Bw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=flake%20merced&f=false (accessed May 16, 2018).


[6]”Senator David Colbreth Broderick 1820-1859,” The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco Francisco, http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist6/broderick.html (accessed May 16, 2018).

[7]Thomas Samuel Duke, Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, (San Francisco, CA: John H. Barry Company, 1910), 53. https://books.google.com/books?id=M1ocAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA9&dq=duel+at+%22lake+merced%22&hl=en&ei=IO2DTP30JYOosAO118T2Bw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFIQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=terry&f=false (accessed May 17, 2018).

8″Chiefs of the SFPD,” website of the City and County of San Francisco, https://sanfranciscopolice.org/chiefs-sfpd (accessed May 18, 2018).

[9]”The Broderick-Terry Duel,” National Park Service-Golden Gate National Recreation Area–California, https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/historyculture/broderick-terry-duel.htm (accessed May 14, 2018).

[10]Senator David Colbreth Broderick 1820-1859,” The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco Francisco, http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist6/broderick.html (accessed May 16, 2018).


6 Responses to “The Last Notable American Duel”: California and its influence on the Civil War

  1. From the stand point of being Ms. Groeling’s personal chauffeur and photographer I can say that driving up to the site and standing near the two monuments, stumbling and falling among the leaves and such to get the shots you see, was a fun and an exciting experience. I took pictures with our Cannon A590 camera and an I phone. We are right next to a golf course, and someone or people wrote out Satanic symbols near the monuments. People are disrespecting our historical monuments on the East and West coasts. We are going to have to get in touch with our historical monuments and the grounds keepers in the perspective locations to preserve these items for posterity. If we do some research and “get around” we can find some pretty neat historic “jewels” right in our relative “backyard.”

  2. In a high school History class it was asked, “What did Californians do during the Civil War?” And the teacher replied, “Oh, they were too busy digging for gold to be bothered with the conflict tearing the Nation apart to the east.” Although more significant events took place to the east, California had its own role in nurturing leaders that played significant parts in the main game: Henry Halleck, Edward Ord, William Tecumseh Sherman, Don Carlos Buell and John C. Fremont all fought for the North; Albert Sidney Johnston resigned his commission while serving as “senior federal officer” and with a handful of followers embarked on a trek from Los Angeles to join the Confederate Cause in Texas. And there is debate to this day concerning Southern sympathizers in California, and how serious were their plans to take the Golden State out of the Union.

    1. Two of ECW’s writers live in California–Sarah Bierle lives on Temecula, in Southern California, and I live in Hollister, just inland from Monterey on the Central Coast. Wehave had many discussions about the attitudes exemplified by your unfortunate teacher, and will be offerring posts irregularly to illustrate exactly how wrong she/he was. One you might check out at ECW is https://emergingcivilwar.com/2012/07/24/the-grand-austin-flour-sack-an-idea-whose-time-may-come-again/. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Meg Groeling
    Thank you for your reply and recommendation to read about The Austin Flour Sack, because the main subject — Mark Twain — is one of the reasons schoolkids in the Midwest believed California kept out of the Civil War (Samuel Clemens was known to have gone West to curtail involvement in the conflict; so it followed that the entire West remained somehow detached.)
    Another forgotten connection: the California gold (estimated at 30,000 pounds) that was sent away by ship, waggoned across Panama, and loaded aboard another ship bound for New York. When the “SS Central America” failed to arrive, sunk during a September hurricane, the financial interests panicked, there was a run on banks, and debtors across the Northern States suffered as the banks called in their loans. The Southern States mostly avoided the Panic of 1857 and during subsequent years pushed their agenda in Congress and the Courts, believing the North needed its stronger (financially) Southern neighbor to weather the economic crisis and recover, and would not dispute what the South believed to be “reasonable claims to the continuance, and westward expansion of their way of life.”
    In its own way, California gold played a part in setting the stage for Civil War.

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