Dueling: A Gentleman’s Duty or a Nasty Habit?

As readers know, I have written quite a bit about war on these pages.[1]  But,  to my surprise, I have never written about direct personal combat—specifically, about dueling. This amazes me because I just learned that dueling was a widespread activity, a way of life even, in the antebellum South.

We all know about the fatal duel in 1804 between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, which led to the death of Hamilton. But I have recently learned that Hamilton was involved with—that is, at least entered into discussions about—ten duels before that. Burr had dueled once previously. (And Andrew Jackson killed a man in a duel.)

A recent scholarly paper perused two newspapers (the New York Times and the Richmond Daily Dispatch)  for duels reported between 1861 and 1865. They found 130 duels (over just five years!). Of these 130 duels, they write, “71 involve prominent figures, which we define as politicians, military officers with rank of at least colonel (Army) or captain (Navy), and other well-known private citizens.”[2]

If I sound a little shocked, I am. What was the social environment that fostered such widespread killing?

Of course, not everyone died, or was even injured, by a duel. Often, friends (who served as their “seconds”)  talked the participants out of actual combat. The scholars above  found that about 25 percent of the duels in their newspaper sample ended in a mortal wound. But they think the duels reached the newspapers  partly because a combatant died, so the sample was not applicable to all duels. They argue that overall mortality was around 7 percent, partly because the guns were deliberately chosen to be  mediocre.[3]

Why Dueling?

Historians and others have struggled to explain the prevalence of dueling. To begin with, dueling was more prominent in the South, especially after the 1804 duel between Burr and Hamilton. That mortal combat (which took place in New Jersey) seems to have troubled people in the North, and public opinion there turned away from acceptance.

That was not the case in the South, however. So why?

First, the South was simply more violent, some historians say. While dueling per se was conducted among the elite, there was a noticeable tendency toward what historian Troy Kickler calls “wielding of bowie knives and the finger-gouging of eyes” among the more common people. [4] (Don’t even ask me about eye-gouging; you can look it up if you wish.)

Second, during this period, protecting one’s honor helped men distinguish themselves from the people they considered “beneath” them. A gentleman’s “power to command himself as well as others,” writes Harry L. Watson, “set him apart completely from those who allegedly lacked these attributes the most: poor whites, slaves, and women, who were known as the ‘weaker sex.’”[5]

Third, politicians were especially prone to dueling because of the personal nature of politics before the Civil War, says C. A. Harwell Wells.  Furthermore, he writes, “By participating in a duel, specifically a duel with a political opponent, a politician displayed to his followers that he valued his principles more than his life.” [6]

One historian has an entirely different take. He argues that dueling was the result of the South’s  “Celtic” culture. He especially means people from Scotland (i.e., the Highland Scots) and Ireland. “Proud and contentious Scots, Irish, Welsh, and other Celtic people—touchy about their honor and dignity—were ever ready for either mass combat or individual duels,” says Grady McWhiney [7]. That sounds like an overstatement to me.

The Death of Dueling

Dueling in the United States was always illegal under common law, as it had been in England. Early on, dueling was punished, but enforcement seems to have ended during and after the American Revolution. One historian says that in the revolution many men became colonial army and navy officers for the first time. They wanted to define themselves as gentlemen, and dueling was one way to do it. [8]

Yet many people (especially Northerners) disparaged the southern dueling, and most southern states banned it legislatively. But those bans had little effect.

So how did dueling end? Very simply, there was a change in heart—by the public and by the duelers themselves. The “social norm” of dueling crumbled. Probably the most important factor was the Civil War. The war casualties between 1861 and 1865 were massive:  94,000 dead Confederate soldiers, many others permanently injured.[8]

“The returning soldiers must have found little to attract them to the duel,” writes Wells. So dueling became an  “archaism”—something best left to the past. [9]



Read the original article (and view the notes) on janetakesonhistory.org





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