Duelling In America

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by Maj. Ben C. Truman, edited by Steven Randolph Wood; Joseph Tabler Books; 265 pages .

This strange, slim volume is episodic and sometimes grisly, but it is never dull. Ben Truman was a nineteenth-century journalist who, after breaking in as a New York Times correspondent during the Civil War, later researched conditions in the Reconstruction South for the federal government and worked to promote the state of California. One of his many side projects along the way was this originally massive history of European and American dueling, which the editor Steven Randolph Wood has pared down to only those disputes settled on the American field of honor. Truman did not approve of the code duello , but he had a proper fascination with the disasters and near-disasters he described, from duels fought by Federalists in New York to Southern newspapermen’s defense of their honor with pistols and slave disputes settled with razors. Thin-skinned politicians and editors were busiest on the field, far outnumbering other professionals among recorded duelists.

Unlike the Oxford History of Duelling , published several years ago, Truman’s book doesn’t dampen its story-telling with a lot of disapproving sociology. Truman wouldn’t have known how. And no modern professor could explain as cogently as W. G. Graham did the tragedy of the European and American dueling tradition. He scribbled, just before Horace Barton shot him dead at Hoboken in 1827, that “by not doing what he [Barton] has he would have blasted his character forever. In common justice, I am bound thus to absolve him from all suspicion of unbecoming conduct. … It is needless for me to say I heartily protest and despise this absurd mode of settling disputes. But what can a poor devil do, except bow to the supremacy of custom?”