Vicksburg has an extensive historical relationship with dueling. Newspapers from around the area throughout the 1800s were filled with notices of the challenges that were being met, and the location they were taking place so that spectators could gather. Whether it be a local editor that had published a story defaming an individual, two politically opposed gentlemen, or a simple disagreement at the saloon, a challenge could be made that could potentially pit the two against each other at ten paces. Challenges were easy to make, but most of the time disputes were resolved before they ever reached the dueling grounds. Although a negative stigma would envelope anyone that had gained fame through the practice, that did not stop some from seeking it. One individual in particular from Vicksburg that earned a reputation as a feared duelist was Alexander McClung, the “Black Knight of the South.”
Even from his early childhood, McClung had been obstinate. After joining the Navy at the age of seventeen, he quickly developed the reputation for troublemaking. He had a knack for escalating an insignificant disagreement over an imagined insult into a full-blown brawl. At 19, while still active in the Navy, McClung got his first taste of dueling. During the exchange, McClung’s shot removed his opponent’s thumb, while he was hit in the arm attempting to shield himself from his opponent’s more accurate shot. The duel was considered a loss for McClung; it was the only loss that he would ever suffer. As punishment for his actions, he was given a choice of resigning his post or facing prosecution. McClung opted to resign and departed from his military career at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Upon leaving Brazil, McClung made his way back to his home state of Kentucky for a short time before departing for Vicksburg. Even during his limited stay, he managed to instigate a duel with one of his relatives, James W. Marshall. During their duel, Marshall’s shot missed its mark, and McClung chose to fire his shot into the air (one of the few times he chose not to take deadly aim). Once the encounter had played out, McClung made a promise to his mother that he would never again issue a challenge. This was an easy promise for him to keep, as he had a gift for agitating others until they issued the challenge to him.
In Vicksburg, McClung established himself as a romantic, intellectual, fashionably dressed citizen. As an exceptional orator, he opened a law office in town, but due to the nature of his being, he did not tend to take the legal profession seriously. Throughout his career, he dabbled in journalism and eventually politics, which earned him a Federal Marshal position in South America. Alexander McClung was a fighter at heart though, and found himself participating in several fights during his stay there before returning to Vicksburg.
McClung’s duels were often unique in comparison to others. Since he was the one challenged, he got to choose what weapons were used by the two duelers. During one of his most notorious clashes, he was faced off against his former superior officer, General Allen. McClung decided on using four pistols (two per individual) and Bowie knives at 80 paces. It was agreed that they would begin towards each other at the signal and if neither had fallen before the last shot, then they would end the duel hand to hand. General Allen fired the first shot, which missed. McClung shouted, “Are you content?” to which Allen called back, “No!” “Then I’ll hit you in the teeth,” McClung replied before raising his pistol and firing a shot at a distance of over a hundred feet embedding the bullet into Allen’s skull. The distance was an American dueling record.
It did not take long for news of McClung’s exploits to travel throughout the area. He quickly became one of the most feared men in the South, earning himself the nickname the “Black Knight.” He had claimed the lives of at least 33 men, but there must have been some regret the famed duelist had for his actions. His mental health was in a steady decline by the age of 44. McClung’s legal practice saw very little business; he was known to have drunk heavily and even reported seeing ethereal figures of the men that had died at his hands.
Alexander McClung’s story came to an early end at the old Jackson Hotel. While lodging there, he hired a carpenter to rework the back of his chair in the shape of a deep “V.” The carpenter was not told the reason but completed his work and left. McClung took a bath, put on his cleanest suit, and pinned a poem to his shirt he had written titled “Ode to Death.” Laying his head in the “V” of the chair facing the ceiling, he placed his pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger. Just as he had planned it, his head sagged backward, and his clothes remained unscathed. His body was brought back to Vicksburg where he is now buried at Cedar Hill. McClung’s haunting past had plagued his mind during his final days, and he was ready to make amends. His final words written in his “Ode to Death” read, “But more gladly I’ll spring to thy arms, O death; Come soon! Come soon!”See a typo? Report it here.