03 August 2016

Under the Code Duello

By G. Durand - Harper's Weekly, New York: Harper Brothers, Vol. 19, No. 941 (9 January 1875), p. 41; Wikimedia Commons"The general practice of dueling to settle affairs of honor between gentlemen," wrote Lucian Lamar Knight about 1914 for volume two of Georgia's Landmarks, Memorials and Legends, "may be said to have commenced in 1527, when Francis I, of France, issued a challenge to Charles V, of Germany, directing him to name his own time and place and to make his own choice of weapons with which to fight."

No duel ever happened between the two high-ranking men, but the mere notion of it attracted so much attention throughout Europe.  Other gauntlets were thrown, and the challenges were accepted.  L. L. Knight went on to write, "During a period of eighteen years, under the reign of Henry IV, it is said that 4,000 lives were sacrificed on the Field of Honor.  [T]he mania for dueling swept the civilized world like a besom of fire, involving, on both sides of the water, men of the highest political and social distinction…[T]he duel became one of the established institutions of society, among men of Caucasian blood.

So it's apropos for Wikipedia to note, "Between 1798 and the Civil War, the US Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did in combat at sea…"

With all the talk of chivalry and honor, dueling became quite a regular practice in the South.  Speaking specifically about the Peach State, let's return to Lucian Lamar Knight:

Georgia was one of the first States of the Union to find the duel an effective instrument for the adjustment of differences between gentlemen; and likewise one of the last States to abandon the custom…At a time when party strife was most intense and bitter, it was an almost daily occurrence for men to cross swords or to exchange shots in personal encounters, but everything was done according to prescribed form and with punctilious regard for the Code of Honor.  There was scarcely a public man in Georgia who was not credited with at least one duel, fought usually in the earlier stages of his career…Political honors were not awarded to cowards nor to those who…were found wanting in courage; and…the public life of this State was ruled with a rod of iron by that grim arbiter of destinies:  the Code Duello.

Jack K. Williams, author of Dueling in the Old South, echoes this by writing, "[A] number of public figures gained prominence and were pushed ahead in their careers because of prowess in dueling." He goes on to highlight a writer from Mississippi and noted, "[I]t was understood as late as 1850 that one rarely reached the pinnacle of political success unless he had displayed his macho…in a duel or some other acceptable mode of personal warfare."

So let us look at some historic Georgia duels…

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