31 August 2016

"He was Game to the Core." The Stabbing of Alexander Stephens.

Alexander Stephens (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons.A couple of years ago, I wrote a bit about Judge Francis H. Cone (here and here) and his tombstone at the Southern Graves blog.  The physical attack he made on Alexander H. Stephens (pictured at right) is a well-known incident in Georgia history, yet I did not delve into it there.  While working my way through Lucian Lamar Knight's volumes of Georgia's Landmarks, Memorials, and Legends, I came across a recounting of the fight.  I'll share it here.

Judge Cone's Assault Upon Mr. Stephens.  Alexander H. Stephens was not an athlete.  It is doubtful if the former Confederate Vice-President ever tipped the scales at more than ninety-six pounds, his exact weight in 1843, when he made his maiden speech in the national House of Representatives.  Throughout his long career in public life, he presented the typical look of an invalid, wan and emaciated.  But Mr. Stephens was an utter stranger to the sense of fear, either moral or physical.  He was game to the core; and every ounce of flesh which gripped his spare bones contained as much real pluck as Caesar ever displayed in Gaul.

Let me interject a moment here with some words from a newspaper article titled "Sketches of Georgia Lawyers: Number Five: Francis H. Cone." This article appeared in the 14 June 1867 edition of Georgia's Macon Weekly Telegraph (viewed online at GenealogyBank), and provides a physical description of Cone.  It's interesting to imagine the two combatants side-by-side.

...His person was rather remarkable -- of medium height, full habited and heavy. His face was round and rubicund. No one would mistake him for a starveling -- nor yet for a bon vicant...He relished a glass of wine or other like creature comforts, but was by no means a devotee of Bacchus. His large fleshy face was lit up by eyes black and sparkling, the visible testimonials of geniality and genius. He wore, too, a fine head of hair, which he was accustomed to neglect. He had not the presence of majesty. He did not assume the port of Jove, nor emulate the beauty and grace of Apollo. His gait was shuffling and his manners rough -- something uncouth...

Back to Mr. L. L. Knight:

On the steps of the old Thompson Hotel, in Atlanta, during the fall of 1848, there occurred an incident which well illustrates the courage of Mr. Stephens.  It will also serve to show that he bore a charmed life.  At this time he encountered somewhat unexpectedly Judge Francis H. Cone, of Greensboro, with whom he was then on strained terms.  Judge Cone had severely criticized Mr. Stephens for something which the latter had either said or done in Congress, and among other choice epithets which the Judge is said to have used was the term "traitor".

Difficulties almost immediately ensued…Judge Cone, delving underneath his broadcloth, whipped out a knife with which he made a leap toward Mr. Stephens.  The later was doubly at a disadvantage, not only because in avoirdupois he was a pigmy beside Judge Cone, but also because he was unarmed, except for an umbrella which shot out from his left elbow…Mr. Stephens sought to parry the blow of Judge Cone; but he was soon overpowered by his antagonist and fell bleeding upon the floor.

"Retract!" demanded the irate jurist, who now bent over his prostrate foe.

"Never!" replied Mr. Stephens, the blood gurgling from his wounds, but the proud spirit of the man still unquenched.  Again the knife descended, severing an intercostal artery, but Mr. Stephens still refused to retract.  He continued to grapple with his adversary…until at last rescue came from some hotel guests who, hastening to the scene of the encounter, separated the belligerents.

Mr. Stephens hovered on the brink of death for weeks, but eventually "arose from his sick bed" and returned to politics.  Mr. Knight goes on to say Judge Cone was "a man much beloved in his social and domestic relations, [and] it may be said that he was completely upset by his violent anger." Not sure what good that did for Mr. Stephens, who never fully regained the use of his right hand and bore scars from the battle for life.

Francis H. Cone died 11 years after the brutal encounter.  He was laid to rest in Greensboro City Cemetery at Greene County, Georgia.


To The Memory of the
Hon. Francis H. Cone
1797 - 1859

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