A New York Lawyer Describes the Duels He Has Seen

This is a very interesting article. Most of the described incidents took place outside the parish/state but there are a couple of Ouachita Parish incidents that he describes. During the time period he describes, men dueled at the slightest perceived insult. No one thought anything of it!

I added footnotes in for clarification.

The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA) April 5, 1890, Page 6

THE FIELD OF HONOR.

A BROOKLYN LAWYER RECALLS DUELLING INCIDENTS.

How Disputes Were Settled at the South in the Days Before the War –
The Fight Not Always to the Skilled.

Brooklyn Eagle.

            Of the code of honor as it was followed in the South in the days long before the war, perhaps no man living is more competent to speak than Lawyer Abraham Marks, who resides on Palmetto street, Brooklyn, and has an office in the Garfield building.  Mr. Marks is a Virginian by birth, and although he is considerably over seventy years of age, he has lost but little of the physical and none of the intellectual vigor which brought him into prominence while a young man in his native State.  It has been surmised and even asserted that he was the original of the Lawyer Marks in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but there seems to be no real ground on which to base such a supposition.  Mr. Marks himself laughs at the idea, and says that he never had the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Stowe.  He held many positions of honor in Virginia and other States, and still continues to practice law.  In his youth he was something of a rolling stone, and during his wanderings it was his lot to be an actor in some and a witness in many other stirring events.  Fifty years ago the duel was regarded at the South and West as being the only means of settling disputes in a manner becoming to gentlemen.  Mr. Marks has been out himself on more than one occasion, and has often stood by the side of a friend on the field of honor.  Drawing upon the fund of his experience he gave to the writer the other day the particulars of a few of the affairs in which he had been engaged directly or indirectly.

            “It was in 1836,” he said, “that a duel, which created a good deal of excitement at the time, took place between Mr. McMillan, a merchant of Natchitoches, La., and Major Williams, a clerk of one of the courts in the same town.  McMillan had a party at his house, and among the guests was Williams.  During the poker game which came after dinner one of the players got it into his head that Williams was cheating, and imparted his suspicions to his host.  McMillan, who was a hot-headed man, ordered Williams to leave the house.  Chafing under what he considered to be an insult, Williams consulted with his friends, and the result was that he sent a challenge to his former friend.  Having scarcely any knowledge of firearms the outlook for him was very poor, especially as McMillan was known to be one of the most expert shots in the country.  The result of the duel was a complete surprise to everybody.  The men met at sunrise, just outside the city.  The distance was thirty paces and the weapons old-fashioned dueling pistols.  As the opponents took their places McMillan’s second whispered to him to be careful not to raise his pistol arm too high, a peculiarity he had.  The word was given, the pistols cracked together and McMillan fell with a wound in his right side, in the exact spot which would have been guarded by his arm had he followed his second’s instructions.  He died three days afterward and Williams fled to Texas.  I never heard what became of him.”[1]

            “In 1837,” continued Mr. Marks, “I had an affair myself.  I was then living at Monroe, on the Ouachita river, La., where I was engaged in editing a Whig paper called the Monroe Standard, started by myself.  The feeling between Whigs and Democrats was rather bitter about that time, and there had been a good many street fights and duels.  In my capacity as editor I had taken occasion to censure several Democrats on account of their fire-eating proclivities, and, among the rest, Gen. Downs, a United States Senator, who had shot Judge Morgan[2], a prominent Whig.  Among Gen. Downs’ friends was a man named Alexander, who made no secret of his intention to stick up for the General in a practical way.  One night I was in a billiard room eating a sandwich when Alexander came in.  he stepped up to me and said he would like to have a piece of the sandwich.  I told him he could have none of it, and then he tried to snatch it from my hand.  I struck him, and, of course, a challenged [sic] followed.  We met the next morning, and at the first fire I received a slight wound in the side.  Alexander, who was unhurt, declared himself satisfied, and the matter ended then and there.

            “In 1835 I was present at the celebrated duel between Alexander McLung[3] and a gentleman named Allen, both of Vicksburg, and both very prominent men.  What the real trouble between them was I never knew, but it was supposed to be something of a private character.  McLung had a wide reputation as a duelist, and Allen, although he had not been out before, was known as a man of courage.  The duel was to be to the death.  The men, armed with rifle and pistol, were posted forty paces apart, and were to wheel at the word and advance as they pleased.  When the signal was given Allen turned quickly and fired, missing his man.  His rifle was then useless, there being no repeaters or magazine guns in those days.  McLung walked forward twenty paces, raised his rifle, took steady aim and shot Allen dead.

            “In the same year, I think it was, I witnessed a meeting between Col. Oakey, an uncle of Oakey Hall, and the editor of a Vicksburg paper, whose name I forget[4].  Oakey was a cotton merchant of New Orleans and had taken umbrage at an article published by the editor, which reflected not on him personally, but on the New Orleans merchants as a class.  He sent a challenge, which was promptly accepted.  Rifles were chosen as the weapons and the distance was thirty paces.  The men came together on a small island opposite Vicksburg, and at the first fire the editor fell dead, shot through the heart.  Oakey was a very small man and had no experience, while his victim was of magnificent physique and had been out before.

            “Just previous to this event the same little island had been the scene of a bloody duel between six Mississippians, three on a side, one of them being the famous Jim Bowie.  I saw the fight, and it was a desperate one.  The men were at liberty to use any kind of weapons except rifles.  Five of them had pistols and Bowie had a knife of his own invention, which afterward was called by his name.  two men were killed and Bowie was badly wounded.

            “It was in 1836 that Gen. Foote and S.J. Prentiss, of Vicksburg, came together upon the field of honor.  Mr. Prentiss was one of the best known lawyers and orators of the day, and the General had also a reputation in the same line.  The challenge on the General’s part followed a dispute in court.  They met at ten paces, armed with flint-lock pistols.  Gen. Foote missed, and Prentiss fired in the air, saying that he was satisfied.  The General demanded a second shot, and Mr. Prentiss, turning to his second said, ‘If he will have another fire he must take his chances.  I will shoot him in the left leg.’ A second exchange of shots followed, and Prentiss was as good as his word.  He hit his man exactly where he said he would.  Foote finally recovered.  Prentiss was not touched.[5]

            “While in San Antonio, Tex., in 1838, I saw a duel between Major Tinsley and Col. Wells, both of the Texes [sic] army[6].  What brought about the meeting I don’t know, but it must have been something serious, for each was determined to kill the other.  They met at sunrise in a secluded spot near the Alamo one July morning.  Each was armed with a pistol, and the distance between them was only three feet.  Both were cool, brave men and experienced shots, and it was the opinion of all on the ground that neither would survive the first fire.  The pistols were discharged simultaneously, and Wells fell dead.  Strange to say Tinsley did not receive a scratch.

            “Not very long afterward a Capt. Leroy, of New York, who was also in the Texas army and had been a close friend of Col. Wells, challenged Tinsley.  They met on the same spot where the Colonel had fallen, but the distance was ten paces.  Leroy was killed at the first shot.  Tinsley, although only twenty-five years old, was a desperate man, and was continually engaged in broils. He died finally with his boots on, shortly after he had killed Leroy.  He had spoken disrespectfully of the sister of a Spanish merchant named Navarro[7], who lived in San Antonio, and the Spaniard said he would kill him on sight.  One day Tinsley walked into Navarro’s store, and as soon as the Spaniard saw him he came from behind his counter.  Tinsley fired, and as Navarro fell he grasped his enemy by the throat and stabbed him in the stomach with a long knife.  Both dropped dead together.  It was subsequently discovered that Navarro had been shot through the heart, and his remarkable vitality after such a wound was the cause of much discussion among physicians.  I happened to be in the store when the tragedy occurred.

            “In the same year I stood up to be shot at myself.  One day I was crossing the courthouse square in San Antonio when I witnessed an unprovoked assault made by a sutler named Henderson upon an inoffensive peddler.  I was then probate judge.  Henderson, having knocked the peddler down, was about to kick him, when I dragged him away.  He turned and struck me, and I challenged him.  We met in a piece of woods near by, and my shot struck Henderson in the right shoulder, unfitting him for anything further.  I was not touched myself.

            “The last duel at which I was a spectator was the one which took place in 1852, at New Orleans, between Gen. DeBuys and an auctioneer named Richardson.  The latter was the challenging party.  Gen. DeBuys was an expert swordsman, and chose swords as the weapons.  Richardson knew nothing whatever of fencing, and it was thought that he would be finished at the first pass.  The affair came off in a ball room in New Orleans in the presence of thirty people.  Richardson began slashing away at once, and, having thrown the General off his guard, ran him through the abdomen.  The wound was pronounced to be fatal, but in six months the General was all right again.  Richardson did not receive a scratch.”[8]


[1] In the January-October, 1920 issue of the Louisiana Historical Quarterly, there is an article by Milton Dunn, “History of Natchitoches, Louisiana”.  On page 43 he writes:  Natchitoches has been the scene of many famous duels in the past. In 1836 a duel took place between W. L. McMillan and George Williams, resulting in the death of McMillan. This duel was fought in January. David Burnett was the friend of McMillan and Adolph Sompyrac the friend of Williams. Dr. F. Johnson was the surgeon.

[2] Solomon Weathersbee Downs (a U.S. Senator) and Ferdinand Morgan.

[3] Alexander Keith McLung was a nephew of Chief Justice John Marshall.  He was a legendary duelist, known as, “The Black Knight of the South”.  He committed suicide in Jackson, MS in 1851 with his own dueling pistol.

[4] Samuel Wright and S.W. Oakey’s duel actually took place June 1, 1841.

[5] Henry S. Foote and Seargent S. Prentiss.  The duel above was the second time the two dueled.  Eyewitness accounts state Prentiss’ shot misfired, and it wasn’t a deliberate miss.  The two men became friends later on.

[6] Mr. Marks is mistaken.  Maj. Lysander Wells and his opponent William D. Redd died in a duel on May 9, 1840.  Redd was killed instantly and Wells died twenty days later.

[7] Major James W. Tinsley accused Eugenio Navarro of shaving his horse’s tail.  Navarro stabbed Tinsley who then  fired his pistol and killed him (May 6, 1838).

[8] The Times-Picayune March 26, 1844, Page 2 states William DeBuys was “dangerously wounded” and Mr. Richard Richardson was “slightly wounded in the shoulder.”  The duel reportedly took place in the Orleans ballroom, which is now located in the Bourbon Orleans hotel.

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