February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
“It is astonishing that the murderous practice of duelling should continue so long in vogue,” said Benjamin Franklin. Yet continue it did, often with peculiarly American variations
Few boys survive their school days without using their fists now and then. If these fights are extemporaneous affairs, fought in the immediate heat of anger, they are little more than animal reflex actions. But if they are of the “I’ll see you after school” variety, allowing time for rage to be replaced by trepidation, they become highly complex manifestations of human emotions and social pressures. By the time the young gladiators arrive on the field of combat, usually one or both of them would much prefer to be home watching television. Nevertheless, urged on by the crowd and the fear of showing fear, even to themselves, they do battle.
This type of fight has many of the elements of a duel, though there are important differences and the absence of lethal weapons is only one of them. The custom of duelling in America was an inheritance from Europe, where it was a debasement of what .had once been a far nobler, if misguided, means of settling disputes. Benjamin Franklin’s comment is pertinent: It is astonishing that the murderous practice of dueling … should continue so long in vogue. Formerly, when duels were used to determine lawsuits, from an opinion that Providence would, in every instance, favour truth and right with victory, they were excusable; at present, they decide nothing. A man says something, which a man tells him is a lie—they fight; but which ever is killed, the point in dispute remains unsettled. … These petty princes in their own opinion, would call that sovereign a tyrant, who would put one of them to death Cor a little uncivil language, though pointed at a sacred person; yet every one oC them makes himself judge in his own cause—condemns the offender without a jury—and undertakes himself to he the executioner.
Despite Franklin’s condemnation duelling continued in this country for nearly a hundred years after his death; its high tide, in fact, was during the first half of the nineteenth century. The immense popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels may have had something to do with this. Particularly in the South people became obsessed with notions of chivalric derring-do, thrown-down gauntlets, the glory of broken lances, and all the attendant claptrap. But the consequent attitudes were not a pose; they rested upon a solid foundation of armed self-reliance already developed in the American character, and the results were deadly.
If there was anything peculiarly American about duels on this side of the water, it lay in their infinite variety, ranging from the bizarre to the suicidal, and the almost exclusive use of knives and firearms rather than swords. For a rather brief period in New Orleans and other settlements of French origin the fencing master influenced the choice of weapons, but elsewhere few men devoted enough time to swordsmanship to stake their lives upon it.
Oddly enough Abraham Lincoln was one of those who did. At least he chose cavalry sabers for his one appearance on the duelling ground, though it is doubtful if he had ever wasted much effort in practice. During his salad years as an Illinois politician, before he was married to Mary Todd, he wrote an article for the Sangamo journal lampooning a Democratic politician named Shields who was auditor of the state and was refusing to accept various issues of paper money in payment of taxes. Lincoln used the nom de plume “Rebecca,” and Mary Todd thought the lampoon was extremely funny. Mr. Shields was not amused, and the truth is that the humor was not up to Lincoln’s later standard. It was pretty crude backwoods stuff, and Shields can scarcely be blamed for resenting statements that he was a fool as well as a liar and could easily be recognized by his smell. Mary Todd was so intrigued that she and her friend Julia Jayne followed up the article with another in the same vein and also signed “Rebecca.”
One cannot help being bemused byMary Todd. Didn’t she realize she was risking the loss of a future husband? Or was the fear counterbalanced by the possibility of having a hero in the family? Certainly Shields had no trouble identifying Lincoln as the original Rebecca and promptly delivered a challenge. As the challenged party Lincoln had the choice of weapons. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that he suggested to Shields’s second: “How about cow dung at five paces?” Another account has it that he specified broadswords, not cavalry sabers. This seems doubtful, as broadswords must have been rare indeed in the Illinois of the time—or would that have been his reason for choosing them?
The laws against duelling were rather strict in Illinois but practically nonexistent in Missouri, so a sandbar on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River was chosen as the site. Upon his arrival Lincoln is said to have drawn his saber and swished it back and forth as a warming-up exercise. It is not clear whether Shields was in a position to see this. If so, it must have been a fearsome sight—that long rail-splitter’s arm with three feet of steel slicing the air. At any rate Lincoln’s and Shields’s seconds were busily conferring and came to the joint conclusion that though Lincoln was admittedly the author of the offensive article, “he had no intention of injuring the personal or private character or standing of Mr. Shields as a gentleman or a man, and that Mr. Lincoln did not think, nor does he now think, that such an article could produce such an effect; and had Mr. Lincoln anticipated such an effect, he would have foreborne to write it; said article was written solely for political effect and not to gratify any personal pique against Mr. Shields, for he had none and knew of no cause for any.”
If the ending seems anticlimactic, it illustrates one difference between a duel and the after-school fistfight—the presence and importance of seconds. The Code Duello, also called the Code of Honor, specifically charged the seconds of both parties with the duty of trying to arrange a peaceful settlement right up to the last moment. In this case they did their duty well, but all too often the seconds seemed more bloodthirsty or pigheaded than the principals and made any compromise impossible.
The English-language Code Duello originated in Ireland in 1777 but was, of course, a compilation, clarification, and legitimization of many long-established practices. Much of it dealt with the preliminaries, and though its effect was to make duelling mandatory for what to us seem frivolous grievances, it had occasional lapses into sanity. One was that any exchange of correspondence between the offended party and the offender be couched in polite, even vague, language that left open the possibility of a reconciliation. This principle was violated in the Shields-Lincoln affair. Shields’s note to Lincoln was so blatantly a challenge that Lincoln had scarcely any choice but to accept it.
The Irish Code was revised for American conditions by Governor John Lyde Wilson of South Carolina in 1838; as might be expected, the Wilson Code tended to be more democratic than its Irish counterpart. It did not insist upon equality of social position between antagonists, and it even permitted, if reluctantly, an exchange of blows at the time of the original altercation. However, though you might flatten your opponent, this didn’t relieve you from the obligation of trying to shoot him later.
Though not mentioned in the Wilson Code, Americans made another contribution to the local duelling scene in direct contradiction of the Irish Code’s attempt to keep challenges polite, secret, and hopefully negotiable. This new development was known as posting and began as early as 1807. If some fire-eater couldn’t entice his enemy to the duelling ground in any other way, he would name him as a villain and a coward in pamphlets or advertisements in the newspapers. This vicious practice put literally every male citizen of anystanding in the community in constant peril of public scorn or unwanted bloodshed. It was especially prevalent in the South, and for many a man it must have dulled the fragrance of the magrolia blossoms. Posting was eventually outlawed in most places, but far too many generations lived under its threat of humiliating publicity.
Seldom were the many provisions of the code followed with great exactitude, as it was agreed that men who were going to risk their lives had the right to some freedom of choice in the details; but the duties of the seconds followed a common pattern. From the moment of their appointment they were in charge, and the principals remained in the background until the final moment. The job had its dangers. Where duelling was illegal, the seconds were liable to prosecution along with the principals. More serious was the fact that if the challenger’s second delivered the challenge in person and it was refused on the grounds that the challenger was no gentleman or in any other way unworthy, the second was then duty-bound to do the fighting himself.
Upon arrival at the field of honor the seconds were responsible for measuring the ground, loading the pistols, and policing the proceedings. Sometimes a neutral referee gave the signal to fire. More often the seconds tossed a coin for the privilege. If a duellist fired before the signal, then his opponent’s second was entitled to shoot him on the spot. Fortunately this was an extremely rare occurrence.
One second who took his duties seriously indeed was Stephen Decatur of War of 1812 fame. Decatur, who was destined to die in a duel of his own, previously recounted in these pages [see “Bloodshed at Dawn,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, October, 1964], proved his devotion on two grim occasions, both at the turn of the nineteenth century.
While the tiny United States Navy was engaged with the Barbary pirates the British Navy looked on with a disdain that it made apparent whenever possible. Decatur was serving as a lieutenant aboard the frigate New York , and far down on the list of officers was a midshipman named William Bainbridge. At Malta young Bainbridge went ashore to attend the theatre. There a young Englishman, James Cochran, made slurring remarks about the United States Navy at every intermission and finally deliberately bumped into Bainbridge, who promptly knocked him down. Cochran sent a challenge the next day.
Bainbridge had never been in a duel before, and Decatur offered to be his second. Discovering that Cochran was a veteran duellist, Decatur met with his second and specified that the distance be four paces, a scant twelve feet, which meant that the pistol muzzles would be little more than six feet apart. The astonished Englishman very rightly protested that this would be mutual murder. Decatur blandly replied that if the distance was not acceptable, he himself would gladly fight Cochran at ten paces. Lieutenant Decatur was not a large man, but there must have been something very formidable about him, because Cochran’s second decided he preferred Bainbridge and the deadly four paces.
The encounter was as surprising as the terms. When the two men first fired, Cochran missed entirely and Bainbridge’s bullet drilled a hole in the Englishman’s hat. If two nervous young men had ever proved their courage, these two had, and, after all, the only real issue between them was national pride. Yet their seconds failed in their earnest attempt to persuade them to call it quits. Thereupon, Cochran and Bainbridge again took their places. This time Cochran fell dead with a bullet in his forehead, while Bainbridge lived to become a commodore.
A few years earlier, during the undeclared war with France, Stephen Decatur had become a second in a most peculiar fashion. A fellow lieutenant, Richard Somers, made some teasing remark about Decatur’s clothes. Decatur, equally teasingly, called him a silly fool, and neither of them thought any more about it. But to Somers’ astonishment his fellow officers of the wardroom later refused to drink with him because he had failed the code of an officer and gentleman by not challenging a man who had called him a fool. No matter that Somers protested Decatur was his best friend and there was absolutely no quarrel between them—he was still in a state of ostracism.
Desperately Somers took his dilemma to Decatur, who cheerfully offered to give a dinner for all concerned at which he would make it clear that he had never had any intention whatever of giving offense. Somers appreciated the offer but said it wouldn’t solve the problem. People would think that Decatur was simply trying to bail him out—and that he was letting himself be bailed out.
Perhaps there was some logic in this reasoning, considering the stiffnecked attitude already demonstrated by the other officers, but it is hard to find the logic in Somers’ solution of the problem; only extreme emotional stress and perhaps anger can explain it. He decided to turn the tables on those who were questioning his honor; he would put their honor on the line by challenging the whole kit and caboodle of them. Somehow he managed to persuade Decatur to be his second in this madcap scheme. Certainly Decatur’s gesture should have proved that all the trouble was founded on sheer nonsense. Nevertheless the other lieutenants accepted the challenge, and the ship’s captain made no recorded move to stop what amounted to an internal war when he had plenty of Frenchmen to fight. Captains were as mesmerized by the code as the lesser ranks.
At the traditional dawn Somers’ first adversary’s bullet hit his shooting arm but without disabling it. Lieutenant Number Two drilled Somers in the leg. Decatur knelt beside his fallen friend and beseeched him to let him take on the rest, but Somers would have none of it.
“Hold me up and steady my arm,” he gasped. To do this meant that Decatur would be equally in the line of fire with Somers. Yet he did it, and he must have done it well, because Somers’ ball wounded his third opponent. At this point the other lieutenants were kind enough to state that Lieutenant Somers had proved his valor and that all good things must come to an end. Somers lived to die a particularly heroic death on a volunteer mission in the war with the Barbary pirates, which is certainly not surprising.•
•All of these gentlemen, Decatur, Bainbridge, and Somers, had destroyers named for them, operating in World War II. The Navy must have thought well of them.
Duels at this time were fought with flintlock smoothbore pistols that were prone to misfire, and a misfire counted as a shot. As a result a man might have to stand helpless while his opponent calmly shot at him. Fortunately this dreadful situation occurred rather infrequently. Sometimes the opponent was unable to bring himself to shoot a defenseless man, but more often he had already fired at approximately the same instant at which the other weapon had misfired. The essence of duelling was speed. Usually the signal was “Fire! One, two, three!” spoken very fast. A man had to shoot by the count of three or not at all. Even when no time limit was specified, speed ordinarily was the safest course. Prior to the signal pistols were held at present, which could be either muzzle up or muzzle down as agreed, so there was no opportunity for prior aim. When he took position, a good duellist fixed his eye upon some definite part of his opponent’s body—buttons were highly favored—and kept it there until he had pulled the trigger.
In the movies most duels are staged with the opponents placed back to back, walking the prescribed distance, then whirling and firing. This is dramatic to watch and historically accurate, but the vast majority of duels were fought with the men standing in place, facing each other at distances from ten to twenty paces. The pistols were very large caliber, and medical knowledge and practice were primitive; abdominal wounds were almost invariably fatal (usually the surgeon made no effort to treat them), and infection made even minor wounds highly dangerous. It was always a matter of debate whether to stand sideways or squarely facing your opponent. Sideways you presented a more slender target, but a bullet could drill through more of your vital organs.
Unless you were a Stephen Decatur, who seemed to fear nothing on this earth, the emotional strain must have been close to unbearable. Guy de Maupassant, himself a duellist, wrote a story called “A Coward,” in which his protagonist blew his brains out with the very pistol he was supposed to use the following dawn. My great-great-grandfather, a small-town doctor in North Carolina, was most reluctantly persuaded to officiate at a duel but was relieved of the painful duty when one of the belligerents died of a heart attack just an hour or two before the scheduled meeting. There must have been many similar instances, but near-duels weren’t recorded unless, as in Lincoln’s case, the participants at least showed up for the appointment.
In general, duels tended to be an occupational hazard of the military, lawyers, politicians, gay young blades of the southern landowning class, and newspaper editors. Of the armed services the Navy seems to have been touchier and more combative than the Army, possibly because of the frictions created by the close quarters of shipboard life. Many so-called armyduels were actually between militia officers who doubled as politicians.
One man who fitted into most of these categories was Gen. Sam Houston. In 1826, as a congressman from the Nashville district of Tennessee, he hit upon the notion of mailing to his constituents agricultural information reinforced with a packet of the appropriate vegetable seeds. Somehow or other no one received the seeds. Never slow to anger, Houston zeroed in on Postmaster Curry of Nashville, using the word “scoundrel.” Curry promptly sent Houston a challenge via a certain General White. Houston refused to accept the challenge “from such a contemptible source.”
General White knew the rules. It was now up to him, and he seems to have been eager for the fray. He even intimated that Houston was afraid to fight, to which Houston replied “Try me.”
The distance agreed upon was almost as murderous as that of the Bainbridge-Cochran duel—fifteen feet—and the site was the H. J. Duncan farm, close to the state line. Sam Houston was staying at the nearby farm of Sanford Duncan, who owned several dogs. Two of the youngest and feistiest were named Andrew Jackson and Thomas Benton. As an Old Hickory partisan Houston took great pleasure in watching the canine Jackson lambaste Benton in their frequent fights, and it would seem that he considered it a good omen. Well before dawn on the designated morning, having been aroused by Andy Jackson’s barking, he melted some lead and started molding bullets for his pair of pistols. Then, according to the story, as the first ball was shaken from the mold a gamecock that Houston also admired crowed a clarion note. These two cordial greetings cheered him to the point where he decided to mark that bullet on one side for the dog and the other for the rooster and to use it for the first shot. Sam Houston was a practical man, but a little superstition was certainly permissible under the circumstances.
The marked bullet did its work. General White was shot through the groin, and Sam Houston survived unscathed even at that deadly distance of fifteen feet. White’s wound was almost surely mortal; the bullet hole was big enough for the surgeon to pull his silk handkerchief clear through it in an effort to “cleanse” it. But despite this highly septic treatment White was spared having to die for a few packets of seeds that were none of his concern, and Sam Houston is reported to have chosen a dog and a rooster as his coat of arms.
Andrew Jackson was certainly the most combative of all the soldierpoliticians. Aside from formal duels he had innumerable fights and “altercations,” and in his youth and later he was typical of the hard-riding, hard-drinking, hard-gambling class of southern landowners who made a cult of recklessness. This cavalier spirit prevailed among the landed gentry of England and in many other parts of Europe and probably was the inspiration for it in this country, though the Puritan ethic was still too strong in our northern states for it to gain much of a foothold there. Jackson’s Presidency has made him a symbol of democracy, but he was no democrat in his personal attitudes and took his role of gentleman so seriously as to make constant friction inevitable.
One reason for Jackson’s touchiness was his marriage to Rachel Robards, presumably a divorcée. But there was question about the legality of the divorce, so Jackson was always liable to the slur of living with another man’s wife. There is no question of his intense love for Rachel or that the couple had been married in the honest belief that she was a free woman, so one can sympathize with the streak of bitterness that seems to underlie so many of his actions.
Of all Jackson’s fights the most famous is the one with Charles Dickinson. There is no absolute proof, but there is reason to believe that Dickinson had made slighting references to Rachel Jackson. Indeed any man at odds with Jackson was almost sure not to let such an opportunity slip. But Rachel was not the ostensible reason for the quarrel. Dickinson had the same fondness for horse racing and betting as Jackson and had paid a forfeit to him for a race that failed to take place. The forfeit was in the form of promissory notes. Apparently this settlement was satisfactory until a third party named Thomas Swann got involved. Swann’s motives are murky; he was a newcomer to Tennessee and perhaps hoped to attract attention to himself. At this time, 1806, Jackson was already a very prominent man, having been both a judge of the state supreme court and a member of Congress. To become involved with him, either pro or con, was a sure way to make one’s name known.
Swann began by publicly announcing that Dickinson’s forfeiture notes were unsatisfactory to Jackson and that he had Jackson’s word for it. Stung by this affront to his honor, Dickinson went to Jackson, who denied having said any such thing and tailed Swann “a damned liar.” So now Swann wrote Jackson a note protesting this insult and naming Dickinson as his source of information. He added that if the information was correct, he would be forced to take the proper measures. Despite this provocation Jackson refused Swann’s challenge and gave him a caning instead.
The quarrel was now aired in the Nashville newspaper, with Swann accusing Jackson of assault and Jackson replying with affidavits from friends, justifying the caning on the grounds that Swann was not a gentleman and didn’t deserve anything better. If Swann had wanted to attract attention, he had certainly succeeded; but the chief interest in this printed exchange lies in the fact that Jackson, whenever possible, took a dig at Dickinson, indicating that Swann was merely Dickinson’s instrument. As Jackson had no obvious motive for this, it is a major reason for the belief that Rachel Jackson’s good name was somehow involved. Dickinson now entered the newspaper fray with a letter to the editor so strongly worded that Jackson, tipped off by his friend General Thomas Overton, rode to the newspaper office, read the letter, and challenged Dickinson before it was even published.
General Overton became Jackson’s second, and Dr. Hanson Catlett represented Dickinson. They agreed that “the distance shall be twenty-four feet; the parties to stand facing each other, with their pistols down perpendicularly. When they are ready the single word, Tire,’ to be given; at which they are to fire as soon as they please.” General Overton must have been a persuasive man; though Jackson was the challenger, the terms were distinctly in his favor. Dickinson was known to be an excellent snap shooter, faster than Jackson, so the lack of a time limit gave Jackson the opportunity of firing deliberately providing he was willing to risk being hit first. The provision that the two face each other, rather than standing sideways, was also advantageous, as Dickinson was much broader than Jackson.
The affair was to take place at Harrison’s Mills on the Red River in Kentucky; and though efforts were made to keep it secret, there was plenty of betting, with Dickinson the favorite. On the long way to the site, the day before, Dickinson amused his entourage with fancy shots, once cutting a string at over sixty feet with the request “If General Jackson comes along this road, show him that.” Jackson himself displayed less bravado but seemed confident and cheerful; he had also done some wily planning—as became apparent the following morning. It was the thirtieth of May and not cold, but Jackson showed up in a long, bulky overcoat that he kept on as he took his place. Though he faced his adversary as required, he twisted his lean body within the coat until it was almost sideways, presenting a string-bean target, which is possibly why we can remember him as the seventh President of the United States of America.
General Overton had won the toss and gave the word “Fire!” It was answered by only one shot. While wisps of smoke still curled from Dickinson’s pistol Jackson clasped his left arm tightly across his chest and raised his own weapon. Involuntarily Dickinson stepped back a pace or two, crying “Great God! Have I missed him?”
Sternly Overton ordered him back to the mark. Like a walking dead man Dickinson obeyed. He managed to stand straight but kept his head turned away from what was coming. Jackson took steady aim and squeezed the trigger; there was only a click. The hammer had stopped at half cock. Most men would then have dropped the gun, thanking their stars they didn’t have to kill a defenseless man. Not Jackson. While poor Dickinson stood there he carefully examined the pistol, recocked it, and again took deliberate aim. There was no malfunction this time. Dickinson’s friends caught him as he fell, shot through the body below the ribs. Jackson had tried to inflict a mortal wound, and he had done it. Then he, Overton, and their surgeon walked away from the place.
Only when they were out of sight of the others did the surgeon notice that Jackson’s shoe was dripping blood. “I believe he has pinked me a little,” Jackson admitted. “Let’s look at it, but say nothing about it.” The voluminous coat and Jackson’s maneuver within it had saved his life. Had his heart been where it should have been—from Dickinson’s angle—the bullet would have pierced it. As it was, the breast-bone was damaged and several ribs fractured. After Jackson had been patched up, he sent a bottle of wine to his dying antagonist but refused Dickinson the satisfaction of letting him know that he had hit Jackson.
Dickinson’s wife had not been forewarned of the duel. She was sent for, but too late: she met a wagon carrying her husband’s body bumping along the road. Jackson’s wound never healed properly and bothered him for the rest of his long life. But he sustained more than physical damage. The public was shocked by his coldblooded execution of Dickinson, particularly after what could well have been counted as a misfire (why Dickinson and his second didn’t protest in time is a mystery; perhaps there was a common paralysis of thought at that terrible moment), and the trick with the cavernous coat was also considered less than sporting. It took the Battle of New Orleans, nearly a decade later, to restore Old Hickory to popularity.
Duels didn’t always end up as duels; sometimes they became free-for-alls. One of the wildest melees in American history took place on a Mississippi River sandbar across from Natchez in 1827. The quarrel itself is not worth explaining, because there were many interlocking quarrels involved, most of them stemming from the spate of land speculation that the coming of the steamboat had brought to the Natchez area.
Colonel James Bowie, reputed originator of the knife that bears his name, was then working his way up in the world. He was powerfully built, relatively quiet, relatively moderate in his drinking, and was said to avoid loose women, but no prudent man aroused his wrath. He had become friends with the wealthy Wells family, which almost ruled the roost in Natchez. He had also made an enemy in a certain Colonel Grain, with whom he had had a fistfight, and this, according to Jim’s brother Rezin, led him to develop his knife and carry it at all times.
Rivalling the Wells faction in land speculation and other matters was a loosely knit clique headed by Sheriff Norris Wright, and Colonel Grain was a member. Grain had previously fought a duel with a General Cuney, a Wells man, who had wounded him in the arm, so there was plenty of powder ready to explode. The fuse was lit by a challenge between Dr. Maddox, a Wright adherent, and Sam Wells, brother of General Monfort Wells, head of the family. But efforts were made to quench it. Jim Bowie and Colonel Grain were forbidden to attend the meeting on the sandbar, and the duel was conducted with propriety. Dr. Maddox and Sam Wells exchanged two shots apiece without damage. Then both groups joined together for a festive picnic with plenty of champagne and brandy. At this point Colonel Grain arrived to join the fun, perhaps honestly feeling that he wasn’t breaking the rule, since the duel was over. But apparently Jim Bowie heard of his presence and promptly rowed over himself.
There is no real proof that Bowie meant trouble. But General Cuney seemed to take his appearance as a signal to settle his own old feud with Colonel Grain. He drew a pistol but was restrained before he could fire it.
Grain then turned on Jim Bowie. The two men fired almost simultaneously. Jim missed and was struck in the side, falling to the ground. Cuney then broke free of the restraining hands, but Grain was fortunate in having two pistols. He killed Cuney and received only a grazed arm in return.
Jim Bowie now drew his razor-sharp knife and managed to wriggle along the ground toward Grain, who was no mean fighting man himself. He threw his empty pistol at Jim, striking him on the side of the head and ripping a great gash in his scalp. Despite the blood flooding his eyes Jim now saw Sheriff Wright and an ally, Alfred Blanchard, coming his way with pistols ready. He is said to have pleaded with them not to shoot, but Wright did, giving Bowie his third wound. Now somehow Jim laid hand on a loaded pistol (there were a lot of “innocent” bystanders on the sandbar) and wounded Wright, who reportedly complained, “The damned rascal’s killed me!” But this didn’t keep him from snatching a sword cane from some friend and lunging at the half-dead Bowie.
Bullets were now whizzing everywhere. Two more men were wounded, and bystanders were ducking into the water for safety. Unmindful of the turmoil, Wright and Bowie continued their one-sided battle, with the prostrate Bowie trying to evade the sword cane or parry it with his knife. But the slender blade plunged into Jim’s chest, hit bone, and broke. Whereupon Bowie grabbed Wright’s cravat, yanked him down, and drove the knife into his heart. That last desperate stroke, or lack of ammunition, ended the melee. Jim Bowie had received four dangerous wounds, and only an extraordinary constitution allowed him to fulfill his destiny of dying in an even fiercer conflict at the Alamo.
Inevitably, women not only caused many duels but actually participated in some. In France ladies of the nobility met in occasional encounters with rapiers. In this country armed conflict took place primarily between ladies of questionable repute, was usually spontaneous, and seldom followed the code. One exception is particularly noteworthy for its outcome. It happened in Denver, Colorado, during the silver boom of the 1870’s. Mattie Silks was proud of being the Queen of the Denver Tenderloin and commonly wore a queenlike costume, complete with cloak and train. She loved money but loved a gambler named Cort Thompson even more. So did Katie Fulton. Cort Thompson was probably playing both sides of the street. All the proper formalities were observed as the two shady ladies met on the grounds of the Denver Brewery, which assured a good attendance. Prominent among the spectators was the dashing Mr. Thompson.
When the pistols roared and the smoke cleared, both Mattie and Kate were obviously unhurt. Then, among the crowd, a man slowly crumpled. Cort Thompson was dead with a bullet in his handsome head, presumably from Mattie Silks’s gun. Accident? Or good shooting? Only Mattie ever knew; there was no police investigation.
Percussion duelling pistols had generally replaced flintlocks by the late 183o’s; and although the code continued to specify smoothbores, many of the new pistols were rifled. But there is little evidence to show that they made duelling any more lethal. Certainly this factor was not responsible for the custom’s gradual decline. Nor did the increasing number of laws have a great deal directly to do with it; laws are no stronger than the willingness to prosecute and convict. But they were an indication of a very slow change in the public attitude, and urbanization, industrialization, and the rise of the middle class all had a part in this.
Duelling was still in vogue at the time of the Civil War, though mainly in the South and Far West. This was particularly true of the Confederate army; but few of these affairs were of unusual interest except for the paradox that devotion to the cause didn’t prevent Southerners from killing each other. Questions of rank and command were the cause of bitter disputes in both armies, North and South, but it was usually only the Confederates who actually fought over them. General U. S. Grant’s frank confession in his memoirs seems to be at least an indication of the northern attitude: I do not believe I would ever have the courage to fight a duel. If any man should wrong me to the extent of my being willing to kill him, I would not be willing to give him the choice of weapons with which it should be done, and of the time, place and distance separating us, when I executed him. If I should do another such a wrong as to justify him in killing me, I would make any reasonable atonement within my power, if convinced of the wrong done. I place my opposition to dueling on higher grounds than any here stated. No doubt a majority of the duels fought have been for want of moral courage on the part of those engaged to decline.
Yet a curious belief that personal quarrels were somehow privileged persisted even in the North—and its army. During an active campaign in 1862 two Union generals, William Nelson and Jefferson C. Davis (no relation), had a dispute at the Gait House in Louisville, Kentucky. General Davis demanded an apology, whereupon General Nelson slapped him in the face, calling him a coward to boot. Then Nelson started up the stairs. Davis grabbed a pistol from a bystander and shot Nelson just above the heart. This was not a duel or even a fight; it was murder or, by the kindest interpretation, manslaughter. Yet Davis was never tried by either a military or a civil court and continued to serve with distinction and, presumably, respect throughout the war. [See “I have been basely murdered,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , August, 1963.]
One of the last recorded duels occurred in 1889 and, appropriately enough, in the South. It sums up, perhaps, the basic absurdity of the whole custom. J. R. Williamson, a dignified, proud man, was president of the Rome, Chattanooga, and Columbus Railroad. He and an attorney, Patrick Calhoun, a descendant of the more famous John C. Calhoun, brought themselves to fighting pitch over a slurring statement Pat Calhoun had made about Williamson before a Georgia legislative committee. President Williamson then called Calhoun a liar. After an interchange of notes, with neither willing to retract, Calhoun challenged.
In accepting, Williamson specified the newfangled Smith and Wesson hammerless revolvers. As word leaked, the newspapers knew they had a bonanza, and the governors of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee knew they had a hot potato—the meeting might take place in any one of those three states. Sheriffs and posses were alerted along all the state borders. Actually Cedar Bluff, Alabama, was the chosen site. Two railroads connected Atlanta with Cedar Bluff. Calhoun and party were to take one; President Williamson and cohorts were to ride in his private car on the other—what the stockholders thought of this is not recorded.
The eager press and peace officers made matters difficult. Two reporters hid themselves aboard the private car and were discovered and pitched off. But they hoofed it back to Rome, Georgia, found a spare locomotive and an engineer familiar with the train schedule on that line, and acted as firemen themselves. President Williamson’s own engineer was not so familiar with the schedule and finally became so fearful of a head-on collision that even his dread of the boss couldn’t persuade him to proceed farther. Catching up, the reporters offered their own engineer in return for a ride on the private car. Reluctantly, Williamson accepted.
They pulled into Cedar Bluff almost simultaneously with the arrival of the regular train carrying the Calhoun party. But the sheriff was there as well. His problem was that no one would admit to being either Williamson or Calhoun. During this contretemps Judge Tompkins of Williamson’s group raised the point that the sheriff was interfering with the United States mails by delaying the departure of the regular train. While the sheriff was mulling this over both parties sneaked aboard this train, and it pulled out of the station with the empty private car and engine ordered to follow.
After a few miles President Williamson used his influence to stop the train, and everyone started toward a clearing to settle the matter. But as the regular train departed the pesky sheriff arrived at the head of a posse armed with Winchesters. In the nick of time the faithful engineer came puffing along with the private car. Now both parties scrambled aboard it and took off again, with Williamson and Calhoun trying to remain aloof from each other in these close quarters.
At last a safe spot was found, but late in the day. Then came another delay. Williamson’s second, testing his weapon, couldn’t make the cylinder revolve. A reporter named Bruffey, seeing the precious duel in peril, volunteered to fix it. Bruffey succeeded but shot off the tip of his finger in the process. It was dusk when the two men took their places, peering at each other warily.
At the word “Fire!” a regular volley rattled out, but both men remained untouched. There had been a misunderstanding on a most crucial point. Williamson had thought they were to keep firing at will; Calhoun had understood that they were to exchange shots one at a time, each on signal. As a result Williamson had emptied his revolver and Calhoun still had four shots left. It had now become a replay of the Jackson-Dickinson affair, and Calhoun was free to kill an unarmed man. Williamson didn’t flinch, nor would he retract any of his statements. Standing in place, the two stubborn men engaged in a lengthy interchange.
Finally Calhoun said to President Williamson, “In my remarks before the committee, you as a person did not enter my mind. I say this holding my four shots in reserve, and when I’ve fired them into the air I expect you to withdraw your remarks.” He discharged the four shots, Williamson retracted, they shook hands, and all repaired to the private car to enjoy champagne and cigars on the ride home. The only damage was to Mr. Bruffey’s finger.
This duel, despite its many slapstick aspects, was no joke to the participants. All the difficulties with the trains and the law offered plenty of opportunities to call it off with honor, yet Williamson and Calhoun showed the same grim determination to see it through that runs like a blood-soaked thread through the long history of duelling. The poor marksmanship was due to bad light and inexperience, not to intent, and had there been a fatality, the victor could hardly have escaped legal punishment. But to a country of newspaper readers it was all sheer comedy, and so duelling was ended in perhaps the only way it could be ended: it was laughed out of existence.