Dueling in Savannah
Dueling in Savannah was once quite commonplace. The practice was sometimes referred to as ‘pistols for two, and coffee for one.’ Starting virtually from the beginning of our colony, the convention of one man facing down an armed adversary continued until after the Civil War. But how were they fought?
You might think that the topic of dueling wouldn’t come up on a Savannah haunted pub crawl, but you’d be dead wrong. I frequently tell the famous Savannah Stark/Minis Duel at Moon River Brewing Company.
So many other tours get how duels were fought exactly wrong. Despite what you’ll hear on many tours in town, the of-repeated claim that dueling in Savannah took place at Colonial Park Cemetery is a myth. The tour guide’s assertion that the loser of the duel was simply “tossed over the back fence of the cemetery” ignores the fact that most duels were not fatal. Even if the conflict was deadly, the duelist would have a good friend (known as a Second) who would be present, so this idea that a dead duelist’s body could be simply dumped into the cemetery completely overlooks the role of a Second, who was an duelist’s assistant. No self-respecting friend would allow his buddy’s body to be disrespected, and such action would likely spur another duel!
There were complex rules which had to be followed. The rules of the engagement, called the Code Duello, were lengthy and placed limits on the scope of the confrontation. There were rules for when a duel was appropriate, rules of conduct, and rules for when the challenge had been satisfied. The challenge was issued in writing, and could be issued for a variety of reasons, usually involving the honor of those involved (or the reputation of a lady). The letter would list the infraction and demand satisfaction, by either an apology or duel, and was delivered by the best friend of the challenger—the Second. A challenger could also nail his letter in prominent places around town, a process called ‘posting.’ The challenge for dueling in Savannah could even be placed in the local newspaper. The reply to the challenge was sent in much the same fashion, and these aforementioned best friends would (in theory) attempt to diffuse the source of aggravation between the two parties.
Failing reconciliation by the seconds (often impossible considering the language used in the challenge), the challenged could pick both the place of the duel and the weapons. The challenger would have at least the right of first refusal regarding the choice of weapon, and would have to swear on his honor that he was no expert with the selection by the challenged. The challenger could also pick the distance.
At that point the two parties would meet, and by mutual agreement the firing (or swordplay) would commence—either by signal or gesture. The duel was concluded when honor had been restored by way of apology by the offender, by mutual agreement that honor had been done, or by spilling the blood of an opponent. Rarely were duels fought to the death. A far more common outcome was the two parties to simply fire a shot in the air and shake hands, something expressly forbidden by European rules but a frequent practice in the States. An accepted end to the duel could also be two exchanges with no blood drawn.
Savannah’s Ties to Dueling
No one is certain when dueling in Savannah first took place. The city’s founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, was apparently in favor of the practice, asserting at an advanced age that, “Undoubtedly a man has a right to defend his honor.”
However, the evidence abounds from the early records that there were more than enough duels to go around. Many of the early duels were fought with swords. The duels between Savannahians largely took place across the Savannah River on Hutchinson Island, South Carolina, because of laws which declared such contests a crime. Conversely, many South Carolinians wishing to escape laws restricting that same activity would often have their duels on Tybee Island. Mostly, however, the authorities looked the other way. Dueling was seen as something gentlemen of the period engaged in, and part of a young man’s attire was a concealed dueling pistol.
McIntosh vs. Gwinnett
One of the most famous duels in American history was the confrontation between Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Lachlan McIntosh, fiery patriot. McIntosh’s military career started in Georgia at the age of 13. He accompanied his father, a Scotsman, and James Edward Oglethorpe on an expedition into Florida to fight the Spanish. He was captured by the Spaniards in St. Augustine, and was actually taken to Spain and spent years as a prisoner of war. Upon his release he returned to Savannah. He served Oglethorpe as a cadet.
Gwinnett was acting Governor of Georgia during the Revolutionary War. He imagined himself a commander, yet had no military experience. It was General McIntosh, a born military leader, who was in charge of the Continental troops in Georgia. Gwinnett had hoped to be named commander of that same brigade, thus spurring some jealousy between the two men.
Colonial forces in the region often received orders from both Gwinnett and McIntosh that contradicted one another. Their bad relationship was further tainted when an invasion of British- held Florida, planned by Gwinnett, went awry and McIntosh and Samuel Elbert were left wandering around a swamp. McIntosh blamed the mission’s failure on Gwinnett. A bad situation got worse when McIntosh finally returned to Savannah to find that his brother George had been arrested on charges of treason—by Gwinnett (he was later tried by Congress and released). Both Gwinnett and McIntosh were called in front of a tribunal to explain the failure of the Florida expedition. Gwinnett managed to escape rebuke, but McIntosh was not so lucky. McIntosh had some harsh words with Gwinnett, and Gwinnett challenged him to a duel.
The location of this duel is not known for certain, but it is thought that Gwinnett and McIntosh faced each other in a meadow belonging to Royal Governor James Wright about a mile and a half to the east of the present-day Historic District. The two met, along with their seconds, and agreed to fire from four paces away. They were both wounded in the leg in the exchange. McIntosh’s wound was superficial, but Gwinnett was shot just above the knee, a wound that broke his thighbone. McIntosh grimly asked if Gwinnett would like another shot, and Gwinnett answered that he would, if the Seconds would help him to his feet. The Seconds, perhaps not anxious to be in the line of fire between two wounded men with loaded pistols, interceded. Gwinnett died three days later, of a gangrenous infection. McIntosh was tried for murder, but acquitted. The two combatants are buried about a pistol shot away from each other in Colonial Park Cemetery.
Other Savannah Duels
Savannahians have had a role as seconds in two of the most famous duels in American history. Nathaniel Pendleton served as second to Alexander Hamilton in his duel with Aaron Burr, and Edward Fenwick Tattnall served in that same capacity for John Randolph in his 1825 contest with Secretary of State Henry Clay.
In Colonial Park Cemetery, there exist reminders of the custom young men made of taking lives because honor demanded it. Odrey Miller, who died in a duel in 1831, has an intriguing gravestone: his friends made sure that the man who shot Odrey Miller was named on his tombstone for posterity. Odrey’s killer apparently took exception to his name being forever recorded in stone. Presumably under cover of darkness, he crept into the cemetery and chiseled his name off of Odrey Miller’s slab.
In a duel between Patrick Calhoun (grandson of famous politician John C. Calhoun) and J. R. Williamson, the two combatants used five-shot revolvers. Williamson let fly with all his shots in rapid succession, every shot missing the mark. He was defenseless against Calhoun, who still had four bullets left in his arsenal. Calhoun offered clemency by calling out that Williamson could have a chance to offer an apology. Williamson replied, “I have no shot left and you have four. You will have to fire them.” Calhoun considered for a moment, and fired his remaining shots in the air. Then the two made a mutual reconciliation.
Sometimes more noteworthy are instances where the planned dueling in Savannah did not take place. One such example found its beginning at a dance put on by the Soiree Club. A young Savannah man formerly of South Carolina was turned away at the door because of some minor reason—non-payment of dues or some other infraction. His date was escorted inside by a friend, and the now freshly-single fellow was barred from entry. The young man began to curse, and in the depths of his vitriolic diatribe managed to challenge the Board of Governors to a duel—all five of them. The young man had not cooled by morning, and dashed off formal challenges in writing. The Governors of the club reluctantly accepted the challenges, agreeing to fight him one after the other, and each with different weapons: swords, pistols, rifles, shotguns, etc. Fortunately, (especially for the hot-headed young man), the authorities intervened before such a farce could be played out.
There was also a case in point where the two parties were on their way to the dueling ground when the carriage of one of the combatants broke down. The other carriage, carrying the other duelist-to-be, offered help. The repair took some time, and by then it was too late to have their planned duel. The two retired to a house of a mutual friend; they ate supper together, and were forced to share a room together for the night, albeit in different beds. In the morning, they had breakfast together. Then the two proceeded to the dueling ground and exchanged shots, neither coming anywhere near their target. They shook hands, and parted as friends.
And yet another occurrence (or, more properly, a non-occurrence) was when the challenged selected the weapon to make a point: double-barreled shotguns loaded with buckshot at twenty paces. The challenger quickly rethought the seriousness of the offense, and dropped his shotgun before the call to fire. Certainly a wise move, considering the spread of the shotgun’s blast would have maimed them both.
Mockery of the Practice
So many young men were losing their lives in fits of pique that an Anti-Dueling League was formed. But the practice was discontinued not because of the enforcement of laws, or even public outcry. Instead, the strange custom was largely abandoned because of mockery of the duelists themselves by local newspaper editors. Savannah Morning News editor Joel Chandler Harris, who is famous for his “Uncle Remus” stories, was one such critic. Chandler recorded an amusing anecdote where a visitor to the city became involved in a disagreement with a hotel desk clerk. The two became embroiled in the all-too-familiar exchange of letters in advance of a duel, but the Virginian suddenly apologized to the clerk—and the “popping of pistols… was changed to the popping of corks.”
So in this instance, the pen truly did prove mightier than any traditional armament. The last duel was fought between two lawyers in 1877. Depending on the reader’s opinion of lawyers, it is either fortunate or unfortunate that the duel was bloodless, and the two former combatants departed on at least fairly friendly terms. Their duel brought to a close the curious practice that Savannah men had engaged in since the beginning of the colony.
In these more modern times, the hot-blooded duel has given way to working out disagreements over libations—and thus Savannahians have exchanged one type of shot for another.
If you enjoyed this tidbit of Savannah history, you might want to check out the complete list of books by James Caskey, founder of Cobblestone Tours.