The Nineteen-Year Duel

Yet again, truth proves itself so much stranger than fiction. There ended, during our favorite period, a duel between two Frenchmen which had been fought, in installments, for a period of nineteen years. It began, with swords, when both men were captains in the French army and eventually ended, with pistols, after both had become generals. One could say the end of this duel was finally brought about, for love, through a clever stratagem. Would some, or all, of the aspects of this real-life affair provide inspiration for a Regency romance or three?

The nineteen-year duel . . .

This protracted duel actually began as the result of another duel, in the French border town of Strasbourg, in 1794. French troops, under the command of General Jean Victor Marie Moreau, were garrisoned in the town. One of those soldiers was Captain François Louis Fournier, known among the troops as a very quarrelsome man and a "desperate duellist," meaning he was always eager to fight a duel, on even the thinnest pretext. He did just that one day in Strasbourg, challenging a young local man to a duel for a very frivolous slight to his honor, the reason for which is now lost to history. This young man, a wealthy burgher by the name of Blumm, was the sole support of his family and was well liked in the community. Tragically, Fournier killed Blumm with a rapier to the throat during their duel. There was a great outcry among the citizenry of Strasbourg at Blumm’s pointless death. Because Blumm had little experience with the sword, many in the town considered the French captain to be little more than a cold-blooded murderer. Despite public anger, because young Blumm had been killed in a duel to which he had agreed, there was little that could be done under the law with regard to Fournier.

As it happened, young Blumm’s funeral was held on the same day that General Moreau was hosting a ball for the citizens of the town. Because the ball was being given for the residents of Strasbourg, the general felt he could not cancel it. However, he was well aware that the presence of Captain Fournier at the ball would be an affront to nearly anyone who might attend. Therefore, he ordered Captain Fournier to stay away from the ball that evening. Aware that Fournier was a hot-head and trouble-maker, General Moreau decided to take the added precaution of stationing one of his most trusted and able aides-de-camp at the door of his quarters, where the ball was to be held. General Moreau’s aide, Captain Pierre Dupont de l’Étang, was given express orders that he was to prevent Captain Fournier from entering the building, or the ballroom, should Fournier not follow the general’s orders. Fournier, a reckless and arrogant man, saw no reason why he should not attend the ball that evening. In fact, he considered it a personal insult that General Moreau had forbidden him entry to his home. Despite the orders from his commanding officer, that evening, Fournier went to the building where General Moreau had his quarters, after the ball had begun. There, he found Captain Dupont on duty at the door.

Captain Dupont immediately moved to bar Fournier’s way when the other man attempted to enter the general’s quarters. Fournier was furious, and when Captain Dupont admonished him for his lack of decency in coming to a place where most of young Blumm’s friends would be gathered, Fourier is said to have retorted that those people were his enemies, he was not afraid of them and that he was in a mood to fight them all. Captain Dupont stood firm and refused to allow Fournier to enter the building or the ball room that evening. Further infuriated, after a very heated exchange, Fournier challenged Dupont to a duel. In what was considered an affair of honor, both men felt they were obligated to meet one another other. And, according to the rules of dueling at that time, they could meet on the field of honor because they both held the same military rank. If they had not both been captains, such a duel would not have been possible. It was considered dishonorable for an officer to duel any other officer who held a rank below their own.

Fournier and Dupont met the following morning, and faced each other with their regular military swords. Dupont was a skilled swordsman, and he was able to hold his own against Fournier. Eventually, Dupont inflicted a severe wound to Fournier’s shoulder. According to the duelling code of the time, once one of the parties to a duel was injured badly enough that they could not continue, the duel was to be considered finished and honor satisfied. But Fournier refused to conform, and challenged Dupont to a duel as soon as he had recovered from his injury. Fournier wanted to fight this second duel with pistols, but Dupont refused. He knew Fournier was a crack shot, who had often shot the smoking pipes out of the mouths of his fellow soldiers from a galloping horse, through an open window, as they smoked in the local tavern. At a distance of twenty-five paces, Fournier liked to shoot small coins held out by his servant between thumb and forefinger. Therefore, the second duel was also fought with swords, since Dupont claimed the military right that each man fight with the weapon they wore as part of their uniform. That time, Dupont was wounded badly enough to stop the duel. But Dupont then challenged Fournier to a re-match. During the third meeting, again fought with swords, both men were injured and their seconds stopped the duel. Yet neither combatant considered honor satisfied and agreed to meet once again on the field of honor once they recovered from their wounds.

Before the fourth meeting could take place, Captain Fournier’s regiment received its marching orders and was scheduled to leave Strasbourg on very short notice. The two men, determined to meet each other on the field of honor at the next possible opportunity, drew up an agreement between themselves to specify how they would proceed. This singular agreement read:

First, that whenever Messieurs Dupont and Fournier should find themselves at the distance of thirty leagues from each other, each should advance one-half the road, to encounter the other, sword in hand. Secondly, that if the duties of his post should prevent either from absenting himself, the other would travel the whole distance, thus meeting both requirements of discipline, and the necessities of the contract. Thirdly, that no excuse, other than military duty, or serious illness, would be taken. And, fourthly, that the present treaty, being made in all faith and honour, it could only be altered or annulled by death or mutual consent.

At the time, a league was roughly three miles, which meant this "treaty" obligated Fournier and Dupont to fight a duel whenever they came within about ninety miles of one another. Both parties would travel half the distance, meeting somewhere between their respective posts, unless one of them could not leave his post. In such a case, the party who was at liberty would travel the entire distance. Both intended to continue to fight one another until one, or both of them, was dead.

Remarkably, both men honored this unique agreement, corresponding with one another to keep track of the respective locations of their regiments and dueling whenever they came within the thirty-league range. They continued to do so, even when Napoleon Bonaparte took over control of the French army a few years later. Bonaparte was not a gentleman born and had no respect for the tradition of duelling. He had banned the practice among French officers, because he did not want to loose them to a duelling injury when he might need them in battle. Nevertheless, there were many French officers who flouted Napoleon’s ban and continued to fight duels, Fournier and Dupont among them. As the two men rose through the ranks of the French army, there were occasions when their respective promotions prohibited their duels for a period. If either man attained a rank above that of the other, they could not duel again until the other man was promoted to a commensurate rank.

Dupont and Fournier continued to duel, whenever their proximity to one another would allow, well into the next century. All the while, the Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe. It is recorded that they had more than thirty meetings, all fought with swords. Dupont would never agree to the use of pistols, since Fournier continued to be a crack shot. They typically had at least two meetings each year, except for the times when one or the other of them were promoted to a military rank which was higher than that of the other. When that happened, they had to stop duelling until the other man was promoted to a comparable rank. The only other events which occasionally interfered with their duelling plans was when one, or both, of the men’s regiments were involved in a battle, as Bonaparte continued his quest to control the countries of Europe. Curiously, Dupont and Fournier corresponded regularly and amicably, often discussing a wide range of issues beyond the planning of their next duel. However, their next meeting always seems to have been on their minds. For example, when Fournier corresponded with Dupont about the latter’s promotion to Brigadier-General, he wrote:

. . . Accept my sincere congratulations on your promotion, which by your future and your courage is made natural, a mere matter of course. I have two reasons for exultation in this nomination. First, the satisfaction of a fortunate circumstance for your advancement; and secondly, the facility now vouchsafed to us to have a thrust at each other on the first opportunity.

The two men had not been able to meet after Fournier had been promoted to a rank higher than Dupont. With Dupont’s new promotion, now that they once again held equal military rank, the duels could begin again. When they did have another duel scheduled, they very often got together to share a meal the evening before taking up their swords against one another. Regardless of who was injured at each meeting, once both were healthy again, they soon made plans for yet another duel. This went on for a period of nineteen years, whenever they happened to be within thirty leagues of one another. Over the years, each man acquired a growing collection of scars as the number of their wounds increased.

In 1813, Napoleon was still in command of the French army and was battling the Allied powers to hold onto his empire. Both Dupont and Fournier had advanced to the military rank of general and both were still serving in Bonaparte’s army. During that same year, the regiments of both Dupont and Fournier were within thirty leagues of one another in Switzerland, so yet another duel was scheduled. The two men apparently shared a hearty and cordial meal together the evening before, then the following morning, they took up their swords against one another yet again. Dupont inflicted a deep wound on Fournier’s neck, though, as usual, it was not fatal. It turned out would be the last duel these two men would fight with swords. Soon thereafter, Dupont fell out of favor with Napoleon and was planning to retire from the army and return to his family. It is believed that he loved his wife and children and did not want to subject them to the risks to his life in his ongoing duel with General Fournier, once he left the army and was safely re-united with them. An alternate version of the story is that Dupont had just become engaged and wished to shield his new bride from the risks he would have to undergo by regular duelling. However, extant records show that Dupont had married in December of 1804, while he and Fournier were still duelling. In 1813, his wife was still living and they had two young children.

Regardless of the reason, at some time after their last duel with swords, General Dupont sought another meeting with General Fournier, which he was determined would be their last encounter. But this time, he conceded that the duel would be fought with pistols. Fournier instantly agreed, stipulating that each man was to have two pistols, with one shot in each. This latest meeting was set to take place in a wooded area near Neuilly, with each man entering the wood at a different point, out of sight of one another. They were then each to track their quarry through the trees and fire at their convenience. Once this plan was settled, all that remained was to set the date and time. The next day at ten o’clock was proposed by Dupont, but Fournier had an appointment with his tailor at that time. He then proposed that the duel should take place at ten o’clock on the following day, to which Dupont agreed.

On the appointed day, as the clock in the Neuilly church tower began to strike the hour of ten, General Fournier and General Dupont each entered the wooded area from separate directions, carrying their loaded pistols. Dupont wanted to stop the ongoing duel, but he was not as blood-thirsty as his opponent. He did not want to have to kill Fournier, which was the only conclusion the other man would accept. Therefore, Dupont was determined to turn this situation to his advantage. After moving carefully through the copse for several minutes, it happened that both men stepped out onto a path at nearly the same time, within pistol shot range. Catching sight of one another, they each jumped behind the largest tree nearest their respective positions. Though Fournier was a crack shot, Dupont knew he was not a patient or careful man. Dupont shook the lapel of his riding coat beyond the protection of the chestnut tree behind which he stood, fully aware the motion could be seen by his opponent. He then exposed his left shoulder in a motion meant to look as if he was leaning out to fire, then immediately withdrew behind the tree. As Dupont had hoped, Fournier fired and hit the chestnut tree mere seconds after Dupont had pulled back. Dupont attempted a similar maneuver with his right shoulder, but Fournier was too clever to be fooled by the same feint a second time.

Fournier still held one loaded pistol. Dupont had to resort to yet another ruse to keep that bullet from striking him. He stuck the barrel of one of his pistols out beyond the protection of the tree, as though he was about to take a shot. At the same time, he thrust his hat out beyond the edge of the tree trunk, on the other side of the large chestnut. Almost instantly, Fournier’s other bullet whizzed through Dupont’s hat, nearly singeing his fingers as it passed. With Fournier now of out bullets, Dupont left the shelter of the chestnut tree and walked along the path to where the other man stood. Fournier was very familiar with the dueling code, and knew he had lost. He pulled open his own riding coat to expose his breast so Dupont would have a clear shot. However, despite the fact that he still held two loaded pistols, Dupont did not fire. Instead, he reminded Fournier that he had a perfect right to kill him, then asked that from that day forward, there would be no further dueling between them. Initially, Fournier was unwilling to make such a promise, but when Dupont then said he would have no alternative but to shoot him on the spot, Fournier finally agreed that their nineteen-year duel was finally at an end. The two men shook hands, agreed that they would never meet again, and walked away from one another.

It is said that soon after this last meeting in the woods, Fournier returned to Paris, where he had a good laugh with his friends over how he was bested by his old opponent. However, it is also said that Fournier made it a point to avoid encountering Dupont ever again for the rest of his life, knowing that Dupont would have the right to put a pair of bullets in him on sight. Fournier also held the suspicion that Dupont was an immortal, the only man in the world who could not be killed. Fournier had killed most of the men with whom he had dueled, but he had never been able to kill Dupont, even after more than thirty encounters, over the course of nearly twenty years.

Dear Regency Authors, might you find some useful plot points in this real-life, nineteen-year duel? Perhaps the real pair might fight one of their many duels as part of one of your upcoming romances? Maybe they will then spend some time trying to explain themselves to one or more fictional characters in that story. Then again, though Dupont and Fournier were Frenchmen, there is no reason why a pair of fictional Englishmen or Scotsmen might not fight a similar ongoing duel in a Regency story. Will one of those characters be a "desperate duellist" like Fournier, or will there be other factors driving an ongoing duel over the course of many years? And will those fictional duelists draw up a contract or treaty to which they will adhere as they continue to meet one another on the field of honor at every opportunity? Are there other aspects of this nineteen-year duel which can add some interest to a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to The Nineteen-Year Duel

  1. gordon759 says:

    Was this the story behind Joseph Conrad’s story ‘The Duel’ and the 1971 film ‘The Duellists’ ?

  2. Sarah Waldock says:

    Good grief, how two grown men can be so childish really beggars belief. I’m not sure I could use it in a fiction, it’s too far fetched

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I know what you mean, I had to reach for any ideas myself. There really are times when truth is much stranger than fiction.


      • Sarah Waldock says:

        yes, you could not adapt the Schieiffen Plan to fiction without protest that nobody would be stupid enough to set up a plan without taking into account the idea that the enemy might react to it [even more disgracefully mismanaged when you bear in mind that Clausewitz had warned that no plan survives contact with the enemy]

  3. Donnalee says:

    Fournier sounds like a knucklehead. I’m glad Dupont survived and got him to knock it off.

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