Archived Mountain Voices

Dueling was a common way to right a wrong

mtn voicesLet’s suppose that you intentionally or unintentionally insult someone; after all, that’s something that does happen from time to time. You deal with it by apologizing or refusing to apologize. There may be words. The possibility of a little fisticuffs isn’t beyond the realm of possibility; after all, if push comes to shove ... well, that happens ... somebody gets a bloody nose or black eye ... no big deal.

But let’s suppose that one fine morning you receive an e-mail captioned “Satisfaction Requested.” You open the e-mail and read: “Sir, when a man’s feelings and character are injured he ought to seek a speedy redress. My character you have injured. I therefore call upon you as a gentleman to give me satisfaction for the same. Be kind enough and man enough to meet me at the Clingmans Dome parking area at 6:30 this evening. I shall bring a small-bore pistol and anticipate that you will do the same. Kindly bring the surgeon of your choice. The distance will be, as per usual, set at 10 paces and the firing will commence upon the command of your surgeon. I further call upon you to give me an answer forthwith without equivocation of your sincere intention to honor this request.”

Jeepers creepers, you’ve just been invited to participate in a duel! In reality, that’s not too likely to happen in America in the 21st century. But up until the mid-19th century, duels were rather commonplace. If you didn’t rise to the challenge during that day and time, your honor in the community was forever tarnished.

There’s a website devoted to “The History of Dueling in America” ( that provides some fascinating background on this topic. Here are some dueling tidbits culled from that site:

• The fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr shocked the nation. But it was the identity of the man killed, not the fact of the duel itself, that produced such dismay. By 1804, dueling had become an American fixture. And for another 30 years or more, its popularity would continue to grow.

• Like many early American customs, dueling was imported. Starting in the Middle Ages, European nobles had defended their honor in man-to-man battles. An early version of dueling was known as “judicial combat,” so called because God allegedly judged the man in the right and let him win. In an era known for its bloody encounters, judicial combats probably prevented men from killing in the heat of passion. Still, numerous authorities, including heads of state and the Catholic Church, banned dueling — with little effect.

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• In a typical duel, each party acted through a second. The seconds’ duty, above all, was to try to reconcile the parties without violence. An offended party sent a challenge through his second. If the recipient apologized, the matter usually ended. If he elected to fight, the recipient chose the weapons and the time and place of the encounter. Up until combat began, apologies could be given and the duel stopped. After combat began, it could be stopped at any point after honor had been satisfied.

• Most duelists chose guns as their weapons. The large caliber, smoothbore flintlock pistols Hamilton and Burr used in their encounter typified the American dueling weapons. Many American men owned a pair of such pistols, and, from about 1750 to 1850, many were called to use them.

• The chance of dying in a pistol duel was relatively slim. Flintlocks often misfired. And even in the hands of an experienced shooter, accuracy was difficult. Generally, pistols had to be discharged within three seconds; to take aim for a longer time period was considered dishonorable.

• For every man who gloried in the duel, there were many others who feared it. A word or two passed in private company on a Friday night could well mean a challenge on Saturday morning and death on Sunday. Avoiding a challenge wasn’t easy. Particularly in the South, where men who refused to duel would be ““posted.” A statement accusing them of cowardice would be hung in public areas or published in a newspaper or pamphlet.

• Due to the partisan nature of their work, politicians frequently received challenges — as did newspaper editors and attorneys. As a young man, attorney Andrew Jackson, future president of the United States, earned a reputation as a formidable duelist. His honor suffered, however, after a duel against Charles Dickinson in 1806. Dickinson fired his pistol, slightly wounding Jackson. Jackson’s weapon misfired — which, according to dueling rules, counted as a shot. Technically, the duel should have ended there. But Jackson coldly pulled his hammer back again and fired, this time killing Dickinson. In the eyes of many, Jackson’s behavior amounted to little more than murder.

Editor’s note: This Back Then column first appeared in the Sept. 12, 2001, edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..      

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