Notorious Duels in Savannah

Do you accept the Challenge?

By: Stephanie Thompson

Savannah, Georgia has a rich history involving conflicts resulting in the art of dueling involving influential men who have help not only shaped Savannah, but America as well. Peter Grant one of the earliest freeholders in savannah is said to have been the first citizen killed in a duel in Georgia.[1] Dueling was a popular way for gentlemen to handle disputes so it called for a uniformity of rules and regulations. American’s usually followed European rules until it came in southern form in 1838 from former governor of South Carolina John Lyde Wilson who created “The Southern duello” or “The Code of Honor; or Rules For the Government of Principles and Seconds in Duelling”.[2]

The Southern Duello was “a book of authority, to which they can refer in matters where they are uniformed.” [3] It discusses the decorum of insults and which ones, constituted a challenge, the responsibilities of the parties involved, and the procedures to be done at the dueling ground. Primaries were the people engaged in a duel and seconds where their assistants. Seconds had many responsibilities such as carrying the notes of challenge and negotiations. Who should be at grounds? Principles, seconds, surgeon, assistant surgeon to each principle, assistant is not necessary, and friends that the seconds agree with. If someone is struck in the duel that usually signifies the end of the duel.[4] Though there were rules and codes to duel by, many times some of the rules went un-followed even by the most distinguished duelist.

One thing that seemingly coincides is that politicians seem to be prominent duelist, and very important men of the country before, during, and after serving terms in political office were involved in duels.

July 11 1804 a fight between Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, the former U.S Treasury Secretary came to fatal blows. They were political enemies Hamilton a federalist and Burr a Republican. The morning of July 11 both men along with their allotted parties met at the dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey. They both fired .56 caliber dueling pistols, Hamilton was shot and died the next day, and Burr was unwounded. Burr was charged with two counts of murder but acquitted.[5]

In 1806, Andrew Jackson a renowned duelist and the future seventh U.s President dueled with Charles Dickinson an American Attorney.  Dickinson accused Jackson of cheating on a horse race bet, and called Jackson’s wife a bigamist, as her divorce from her first wife was not finalized. They fought at Harrison’s Mills on the Red River in Logan, Kentucky May 30, 1806. Jackson was shot in the chest and misfired, Jackson fired again without warrant and Killed Dickinson.[6]

As seen above the pistol is the most commonly used weapon to duel with, but with rifles and shotguns were also used.  The smoothbore flintlock pistol was the most common pistol used to duel; most wealthy American men usually owned a matching set. One would usually carry to them everywhere; they would put two pistols inside their coat pockets.[7] One misconception about duels is that it always results in death and that is not the case. The smoothbore flintlock pistols “were relatively inaccurate and unreliable” [8] allowing many duelists to leave the grounds with their lives such as the duel between US Secretary of State Henry Clay and John Randolph of Roanoke the US senator of Virginia.

April 8, 1826 Henry Clay and John Randolph dueled in Virginia. Randolph attacked a project of Clay’s to send US representatives to the Pan American congress in Panama “only a short time before [Clay] had condemned dueling as a relic of barbarism. Now he challenged Randolph without delay.” [9] They met on the bank in Virginia, Randolph chose the area so if he died he would die on his soil, but refused to fire because of anti-dueling laws in Virginia. Clay shot and it passed through Randolph’s coat and they left amicably.[10]

Another weapon used is the sabre. Abraham Lincoln before he became the 16th president of the United States chose a sword as his weapon of choice in his almost duel against James Shields who would go on to be a US senator. Lincoln ridiculed Shields about his banking ideas and refused to take it back, Shields challenged him to a duel. Lincoln chose the Calvary broadswords the largest size. Lincoln had a large reach advantage him being 6’4 and Shields being 5’9. They met September 22, 1842 on bloody Island, Missouri the story goes that Lincoln sung high above Shields head, and Shields recognized his disadvantage him along with the encouragement of others they were able to reach a truce.

One duelist here in Savannah chose to duel with a sabre as well. Lieutenant-colonel John McIntosh fought against Captain Elholm over conduct in the military. They dueled under a large oak tree somewhere in savannah. They both had multiple stab wounds but Captain Elholm’s arm was nearly severed and McIntosh’s arm was disfigured. They both eventually healed from their wounds.[11] Years before this duel John McIntosh’s uncle Lachlan McIntosh earned his notoriety as a duelist when he killed Button Gwinnett one of the signers of the declaration of independence.

General Lachlan McIntosh was a British born- American military leader who took home in savannah. May 16, 1777. A few miles east of savannah in an open field 8-10 feet apart with pistols, traditionally would have backs turned until prepared to shoot, but McIntosh wanted to face each other. McIntosh shot Gwinnett in the thigh and Gwinnett fell to the ground. Gwinnett died three days later in Chatham County from his wound. Gwinnett County in Georgia is named in his honor. Gwinnett and McIntosh are buried at Colonial park cemetery.[12] Lachlan was said to be involved in many duels, much like Major James Jackson chief of the Savannah duelist.

February 15, 1780 Jackson dueled against Lieutenant Governor Georgia Wells. They did not have seconds with them at the duel and used pistols. Jackson was wounded in the knee and Wells was killed on the spot. Jackson refused to have an amputation, but his leg did eventually heal.[13] Though this governor lost, his life in 1802 Governor of Georgia David B Mitchell killed William Hunter in a duel the Old Jewish burial ground, south of Cohen St in Savannah.  The Jewish burial ground was a common place for duels in Savannah.

One believed result of this duel is that December 12, 1809 Mitchell signed a Georgia law against dueling. He made it illegal to accept a challenge, and if one did, they could not hold office. This was vital because a good amount of the people dueling held some type of office. Many soldiers both American and British took part in dueling while serving in the American Revolutionary War. British Officers were known for dueling on Cockspur Island now Fort Pulaski. December 19, 1828 Governor John Forsyth also signed an anti dueling law which required all civil and military officers appointed on or after July 1 1829 to take an oath that they had not since that date  directly or indirectly as principle or second have any association with dueling not even carrying a not inquiring a duel. [14] There was also a Georgia state code that if someone wrote or published that someone was a coward for not dueling, on conviction they could be fined up to one thousand dollars, and imprisoned.[15] If death in a duel occurred both principle and seconds would be guilty of manslaughter.

However, there were many anti-dueling associations, law and bans, dueling were still prevalent in many states. In Savannah, many still dueled at Brampton Plantation, which “had been for many years a favorite resort for Savannah duelist.”[16] Across the nation if dueling was illegal in your state, one would just cross the border into another state. Many Savannah duelists crossed into South Carolina, Carolinians dueled on Tybee’s old Martello Tower, which was just a short boat ride away. Bans on dueling were not uniform and often went un-enforced and ignored.

The public often ignored the bans, but the anti-dueling associations gained fuel in the death of a prominent figure died such as Alexander Hamilton and Button Gwinnett. The temperance movement also gained fuel if a duel occurred because of alcohol. The altercation between James Jones Stark and Dr. Philip Minis is an example of inebriation taking part in starting a duel.

It began at a bar spring of 1832 downtown savannah when an intoxicated Stark made anti-Semitic comments about the physician Dr. Minis calling him a “damned Jew” and other offensive remarks. Minis challenge Stark to a duel in august, stark chose the rifle as his weapon as choice, Minis did not show up at the dueling grounds saying that his rifle was being repaired. Stark called him a coward and in effort to defend, his name Minis went to Old City Hotel bar now Moon River Brewing Company where Stark was having a drink. Minis allegedly saw Stark reaching for his pistol, but Minis was able to reach his first where he fired a fatal shot. Minis was tried for murder but was acquitted based on self-defense.

There are little to no records of African Americans dueling, but in savannah in 1868, there was a duel between two African Americans Jackson Brand and Eugene Morehead. The men were fighting for political power of the “Negro conservative” clubs. They first fist fought then they arranged a duel, they fought in South Carolina with double-barreled shotguns 16 buckshot at 45 feet.  Jackson Brand was struck, and wanted to continue fighting and asked his second to hold him up for another round but his second refused. Brand died due to wound, they did not have a surgeon present. [17]

The last duel to be fought in savannah is believed to have taken place at Brampton Plantation the summer of 1877 between two young attorneys. Now dueling is a distant memory, but many of Savannahs historic burial grounds house the bodies of many savannah duelist.



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