A recent story on “The Black Knight,” Alexander McClung, sparked interest in the sordid history of dueling in the Vicksburg area during the 1800s.
McClung was reported to have killed 10 men in duels before taking his own life in a drunken fit at a Jackson hotel. But what a life he led. A contemporary of Jefferson Davis, a hero of the Mexican American War, undersecretary to the Ambassador of Bolivia and well-known rabble-rouser, McClung is one of dozens, maybe hundreds of duelers that enthralled folks in the Vicksburg area. From our first recorded newspaper, The Vicksburg Times and Republican, in 1825, up until the last days of the 19th century, that 75-year period is replete with stories of men defending their honor, the honor of their beloveds and sometimes, even the honor of those in their employ.
Dueling was governed by a long list of rules, almost all of which were about resolving an issue before it necessitated a visit to the dueling grounds. The gentlemen—and all the duelists were considered gentlemen—were expected to adhere to the rules before settling their dispute with deadly force.
“Whenever you believe that you are insulted, if the insult be in public and by words or behavior, never resent it there, if you have self-command enough to avoid noticing it” was rule No. 1 for “the person insulted, before challenge sent,” in the pamphlet “The Code of Honor: Rules for the Government, Principals and Seconds in Duelling.”
“If resented there, you offer an indignity to the company, which you should not.”
The pamphlet provided a rule for every bit of dueling minutiae, from how to send a challenge (“Let your note be in the language of a gentleman”) to the type of pistol that should be used (“smooth-bore pistols, not exceeding nine inches in length, with flint and steel”).
Gentlemen were expected to behave in a fashion reflective of their upbringing. Their conduct should have proceeded from goodwill and an acute sense of propriety; their self-control was expected to be equal to all emergencies. While rare in today’s world, the upper crust in the 1800s was held to that standard with a clear understanding that not doing so could result in financial ruin and early death.
Most of the local duels were held on a strip of land across the Yazoo River diversion canal called DeSoto Island. Dueling was illegal in Vicksburg and Warren County, and gentlemen wanted to avoid being arrested.
Duels were quite the event.
“It was 1838, when, one bright morning, all Vicksburg was crossing the river to the ‘battle ground,’ as the encounters were all in one place and of frequent occurrence, as any stranger who visited Vicksburg, contemplating settlement, if a professional gentleman, had of necessity to fight a duel, to establish his claim to gentility. The river was covered with skiffs or canoes, (usually called dugouts,) as it was always a gala day, and witnessed with as much gusto as a ‘bull-fight’ in Spain, or the old English and French tournament of the good old day of legalized chivalry.”
From “Scraps from the Prison Table: At Camp Chase and Johnson’s Island” by Joseph Barbière, 1868
A poltroon, according to the dictionary, is an utter coward. “Cowardly puppy” speaks for itself.
Despite the forced chivalry of our past, people died in duels and did so in a violent way. Perhaps some of the most infamous duelists in Vicksburg were its newspaper editors, who tended to fight one another. This description from “After Sundown” by Monroe F. Cockrell, 1961, tells of the Vicksburg Sentinel editors, whose penchant for fighting brought the paper to its demise.
“On January 31st, 1838, began the publication of the ‘Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel’ with James Hagan as its editor and publisher. The tragic history of this paper furnished one of the saddest chapters in the early story of the city. It was the organ of the Democratic party, an intensely partisan sheet, and though conducted with considerable ability, its vindictive and vituperative utterances constantly involved its editors in personal difficulties, five of whom on account of which met violent deaths, the first being James Hagan himself, the owner and proprietor, who was killed by Daniel Adams in a street encounter. The paper continued its precarious career until 1860, when Roy, its last editor was killed by Shepard at the corner of Washington and Clay Streets, shortly after which the ‘Vicksburg Sentinel’ breathed its last, leaving behind only a train of bloody memories.”
The last duel in Vicksburg under The Code took place on Aug. 30, 1898, between “Hon. Chas. Scott, of Rosedale, and Mr. C. E. Wright, of this city” according to the account in the Vicksburg Herald published the following day.
“[T]wo shots were ex-changed with no serious results to either side,” the author wrote.
“Both Mr. Scott and Mr. Wright, according to the representatives, were calm and collected, neither showing the slightest nervousness,” he concludes. “They stood before each other as if they were engaging in a little target practice.”See a typo? Report it here.