“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).