“Duelling at the present day has fallen into disrepute; it never did settle any point of honor and sensible discard if compatible with the spirit of the age; yet peculiar circumstances [ . . . ] drive men to such hostile meetings, and it would be fortunate to all parties if the issue was equally favorable.”
– “My First Duel” by M. M. Noah
Savannah Daily Republican, August 10, 1842
Between the years of 1740 and 1877, Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, played host to not only the already deceased but those who were rapidly headed toward that fate.
The art of dueling, as it happened, was not the best practice to involve oneself if a person wished to keep their limbs intact and the number of holes in their body the same as they were at birth.
In Savannah, however, dueling was an incredibly common practice that oftentimes took place at none other than Colonial Park Cemetery. With the number of buried tallying around 11,000 people, Colonial Park Cemetery’s number of “dead duelists” (if you will), in no way is staggering in its overall total.
At Colonial Park Cemetery, yellow fever epidemics, other fits of disease, fire and war were the edge of evil that crept into society to steal the babes from their cribs and proud men from the battlefield. And yet, duelists in the cemetery are more often than not marked by green placards describing the scene of the duel; others simply provide the most basic information for those who lost their life in the midst of a prideful fight.
Who were some of these famed duelists? First, let’s take a quick moment to truly understand the art of dueling and how it came to be in Savannah.
From the start of time—or at least the start of man’s pride—dueling was a method of conflict engaged in by men who hoped to settle the score. A cutting remark or a slight to one’s honor were instigating actions that ultimately paved the way to “meeting at dawn.”
(Generally, dawn proved the best hour to commence with dueling as the authorities were still abed and unlikely to put a stop to anything).
But if it was not one’s own honor that was called into question, it was probably a wife’s, sister’s or mother’s reputation that had been slandered. And thus, the only thing worse than receiving an insult yourself was to have a woman in the family be on the receiving end instead.
Here is an 18th Century sketch of a British Duel–if you look closely, you will see that they are making fun of the American South and their dueling “habits.” [Source: Library of Congress}Established originally in Ireland, in 1777, the Code Duello prescribed the necessary rules to the art of dueling. For example:
“The first offense requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult.”
In other words: if a cutting insult was delivered, then an apology was integral to settle the matter. If the apology was rejected, then the challenger’s “second” was meant to ease the situation. But if this step was ignored, then the Code Duello mandated:
“As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. [ . . . ] If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed; or until, after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.”
European practice dictated that the duel was expected to happen, no matter if a change of heart occurred or there was an attempt to yield a more favorable outcome without firing a pistol or stabbing each other with swords.
Blood was to be drawn and the subject of “honor” restored.
Although the United States followed the well established Code Duello, things were a mite different down in the American South.
The European Code Duello was the law of the land until 1838, when former South Carolina governor John Lyde Wilson wrote the accompanying “The Southern Duello” or, more professionally known as, “The Code of Honor; or Rules For the Government of Principles and Seconds in Duelling.”
Much like the European Code Duello, the American Southern version listed all the need-to-know information. Which insults constituted a challenge for a duel, where dueling should be conducted, the roles and responsibilities of seconds, who were generally friends of the challenged and challenger. And a particular good one: physicians and surgeons were not necessary during the duel unless both parties agreed that they were. In short, many duelists were left to bleed out thanks to a lack of medical support.
Informally, duels were sometimes referred to as “pistols for two, coffins for one.” A morbid image to be sure, especially as it brings to mind that not everyone would leave such a confrontation the same as they entered it.
Despite the gruesome imagery, dueling in Savannah did not always come to pass as it did in the more traditionally stringent Europe. Dueling Savannahians were known to mark their paces, turn to face one another and then aim their pistols up into the air. Bang! Bang! the shots rang out, and yet both men remained standing and unhurt. The score was settled with a firm shake of the hand and perhaps a word or two volleyed back and forth about who would have won had they decided to go for it.
But the insults that launched a thousand duels (or perhaps dramatically less than this)—oh, the insults remained the same. Challenges were issued in the local newspapers or sometimes tacked on posts or storefronts throughout town, and thus earned the nickname “postings.” And sometimes they got incredibly saucy in their verbiage. A few of the best:
“I do proclaim Richard Henry Leake, Attorney-at-Law, to be an infamous liar and vile defamer. Fathers of families, if you value the reputation of your daughters, suffer him not to enter your doors.” – John Miller
Or, better still:
“. . . I therefore pronounce General James Jackson an assassin of reputation and a coward.” – Jacob Waldburger
Frequently the challenger’s missive was answered in kind, even in the newspaper, and by that point . . . Well, it was unlikely that the instance would simply be glossed over. Instead, the challenger and the challenged picked their seconds, and the challenged was granted the luxury of choosing the location and the preferred weaponry.
Naturally, not everyone in Savannah particularly favored the act of dueling, like Mr. M. M. Noah who spoke so disagreeably of it in the local newspaper. From the early nineteenth century on there was a strong movement to outlaw the practice from all of Savannah society.
For example, following a rather political duel when the Governor of Georgia David Mitchell killed his opponent, William Hunter, at the Old Jewish Burial Ground, Mitchell went on to sign legislation in 1809 that aimed to stop dueling. It was thereafter illegal to accept a challenge, especially if the challenged was a member of the government.
The Revolutionary War saw both American and British officers dueling—sometimes against each other, sometimes within themselves—at what is now Fort Pulaski. Another anti-dueling law was established in 1828 by Governor John Forsyth, who made all civil and military officers swear an oath that they would have nothing to do with dueling.
And then an even more exacting law followed, which ruled that no one in the state was allowed to publish a challenge in the newspaper that initiated a duel by calling the challenged “a coward.” If someone did, they were to be imprisoned and fined one thousand dollars—a fee so exorbitant at the time that one would think potential duelists would have been scared off by the mere prospect of being poor for the remainder of their lives.
This was not the case, not even when it was then ordered that if death was the outcome of a duel, then the “killer” and his seconds were deemed guilty for manslaughter.
The city of Savannah and the state of Georgia sought every measure to curtail the bloody practice that resulted in more deaths than a simple acceptance of “let us agree to disagree.”
As one article stated in the Savannah Morning News on March 9, 1876 (just one year before the final duel in the city): “And now the Young Men’s Literary Association have decided that dueling is never justifiable. So, now keep your challenges in your pocket.”
For as many men agreed to keep said challenges tucked away, there were just as many men, if not more, who could not do that. And many of them were then buried in Colonial Park Cemetery.
As has been mentioned, many of the duelists who are interred at Colonial Park Cemetery have placards that mark their burial and the cause of their death.
One of these such National Register state markers revolves around Lieutenant James Wilde who was unfortunately killed in a duel against Captain Roswell P. Johnson. Both men served in the 8th Regiment U.S. Infantry. The reason for the argument is unknown, which the placard even notes. (No further information could be recovered from local newspapers, either, to solidify or expand upon what the marker already states).
What is known, however, was that the duel transpired on January 16, 1815, near the city of Savannah. Somehow both Wilde and Johnson survived three wound-free rounds before the tragedy of the fourth occurred. Lieutenant James Wilde took a bullet through the heart, stealing his breath and life in one fell swoop.
Wilde’s epitaph indicates that Captain Roswell P. Johnson was “a man who a short time before would have been friendless but for [Wilde].”
Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the duel between the two military men was that Wilde’s younger brother, who was both a poet and a statesman, wrote a significant poem about the campaign against the Seminoles . . . though some wonder if he was not referring to his own brother’s life being cut dramatically short.
The opening stanza reads:
My life is like the Summer Rose,
That opens to the morning sky;
But ere the shades of evening close,
is scattered on the ground — to die.
The next pair of Savannahian duelists can actually be found less than a stone’s throw away from each other at Colonial Park Cemetery.
The first McIntosh to engage in the “pistols for two, coffin for one” battle was General Lachlan McIntosh against Button Gwinnett, who just so happened to be one of the men to sign the Declaration of Independence.
As the story goes, McIntosh had established his credibility within the military and political sphere at a young age. He had high hopes, and even higher ambitions, about scaling the ranks within the colony of Georgia. Button Gwinnett, alternatively, had no military experience to speak of and yet found himself in the position of Governor of Georgia during the Revolutionary War.
As one might expect: Lachlan McIntosh was not amused. But neither was Gwinnett. Button Gwinnett’s envy only escalated after McIntosh was placed in the charge of all of the Continental troops in Georgia.
Gwinnett had wanted that exact same position.
Soon enough McIntosh and Gwinnett began issuing orders to the troops that completely contradicted—or just flat or disputed—what the other had said. Matters became so terrible between the men that under one of Gwinnett’s orders when the British invaded, McIntosh and his men were left roaming the Floridian swamp.
McIntosh returned to Georgia in a flurry of anger. That flurry swirled even faster after discovering his brother had been arrested for treason by none other than Button Gwinnet.
McIntosh had had enough. The insults came next, naturally, and naturally, Gwinnet issued a challenge to a duel. They decamped to the still-unknown location and faced off with their seconds at the reader. Normally, the men would have positioned themselves with their backs turned, but McIntosh was keen to see his opponent’s face.
McIntosh aimed at Gwinnett’s thigh; Gwinnet did the same. But Gwinnett’s fire glanced off McIntosh’s leg, leaving only a superficial wound. The same could not be said for the Governor. Gwinnett was felled by the force of his wound.
He died three days later. McIntosh, alternatively, was tried for murder but released under the grounds of the Code Duello.
And both men, enemies in life and one can only assume so in death, too, are found nearly side by side at Colonial Park Cemetery. Till this day, their duel remains one of the most famous of such skirmishes in Savannah’s history.
As an intriguing side note: Lachlan McIntosh was not the only McIntosh to fight in a duel. His nephew, Lieutenant-Coloneal John McIntosh, fought against Captain Elholm because of a dispute over military conduct. The duel itself was incredibly gritty, with Elholm’s arm nearly being severed and McIntosh’s being severely mangled. Both men survived, luckily, though their limbs remained somewhat disfigured following the battle. They, too, were buried in Colonial Park Cemetery at the end of their lives.
In 1831, poor Odrey Miller fought in a duel and became the victim. Who he dueled? That answer has been lost to history.
From his tomb slab in Colonial Park Cemetery, it’s clear that at one point in time his killer’s name was etched on the marble. Perhaps Odrey’s last wish was for all to know who had stolen his life—after all, as the story goes, he ensured that his friends did this one last thing for him.
However, one morning Odrey’s friends headed down to the cemetery . . . only to find that the duelist’s name had been completely scratched out.
Was it Odrey’s opponent who wished to keep his identity a secret for the rest of time? Or was he simply nervous to face the potential consequences with the Savannah government should anyone discover that he had taken a life?
Whatever the case, Odrey Miller’s tomb no longer gives the whole story and we can only imagine what occurred on that early morning when the two men marked their paces and commenced with salvaging their honor and reputation.
Dueling grounds can be found all throughout Savannah, but strangely enough most of the preferred meeting spots tended to be the city’s cemeteries. Colonial Park Cemetery was only one of the many graveyards where men once faced off in the name of honor.
But Colonial Park Cemetery is one of the only places where the duelist’s are named and marked for all to see who wander through. If you’re considering visiting the cemetery, be sure to go during the park’s opening hours from dusk to dawn.
For those of you hoping to learn more about dueling in Savannah and the particular graveyards and the old “dueling site” at Colonial Park Cemetery, consider taking our Cemetery Tour where you’ll learn all about Colonial Park Cemetery’s history as well as its secrets.
We hope to see you there!
by Maria Pinheiro