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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: A ritual fight to the finish

by Tom Dillard | February 28, 2021 at 2:08 a.m.

Last week I told you about dueling in early Arkansas history. Dueling is an ancient practice of ritualized violence, with the first duel in what is today the United States occurring in Massachusetts in 1621, barely a year after the Pilgrims landed. Eventually the practice came to be regulated by a code duello.

Dueling came to Arkansas in March 1820, almost a year after the creation of Arkansas Territory. The deadly contests continued apace until after the Civil War and did not die out completely until 1897. Historian Matthew A. Byron has recorded a total of 25 duels in Arkansas.

It does not take a seasoned historian to realize that dueling in Arkansas--especially the high profile cases--involved partisan politics. Politics were rough everywhere in antebellum America, and frontier politics were worse.

Politicians of every era are known for their egos, and this was especially true of early Arkansas politicians. These egos resulted in a finely tuned sense of honor by which any "gentleman" who had been embarrassed or affronted could "demand satisfaction" on the dueling field.

In 1824, two judges on the Arkansas Territorial Superior Court, Andrew Scott and Joseph Selden, fought a duel, with Selden dead after the first firing. To escape Arkansas jurisdiction, the judges conducted their duel on an island in the Mississippi River near Helena. This jurisdiction issue, along with a general disdain among the public and the judiciary for the state anti-dueling law, allowed Judge Scott to escape prosecution.

The Scott-Selden duel--between two of the highest judicial officials in the territory--did nothing to counter the reputation of Arkansas as backward and violent.

State governors could not be counted on to enforce the dueling law, for they too could be found on the "field of honor." Two Arkansas governors engaged in duels: John Roane, who served from 1849 to 1852, and Civil War-era governor Henry Massie Rector, who served as a second in an 1844 duel.

Roane's duel was with Albert Pike. It came about as a result of the Mexican War. Roane, who served as a lieutenant colonel of the First Arkansas Mounted Rifles, was criticized for his poor military leadership and inadequate training of the soldiers. Believing that Pike was responsible for the criticism, Roane attacked him in a newspaper article, and Pike challenged the future governor to a duel.

The two larger-than-life men met on a sandbar on the Arkansas River opposite Fort Smith--on land belonging to the Cherokee Nation--on a hot July day in 1847. Pike calmly smoked a cigar during deliberations. Though Pike was an experienced soldier and marksman, neither man was hit in the first round of shooting. A second round left both men untouched, and at that point Roane's "surgeon" mediated an end to the affair. Two years later Roane was sworn in as governor.

Another duel involving prominent Arkansas politicians occurred in 1827 when Arkansas territorial delegate to Congress Henry W. Conway was killed in a duel with territorial secretary and emerging kingpin Robert Crittenden.

The Conway-Crittenden duel resulted from allegations made during Conway's campaign for re-election to Congress in 1827. Conway was opposed by Robert C. Oden, an ally of Crittenden. Conway was accused of moving to Arkansas merely to accept a government post, "bribed by the gift of office" as Oden put it. More seriously, Conway was accused by Robert Crittenden of having misappropriated monies used to deal with the Indians.

Conway heaped scorn upon Crittenden in campaign speeches around the young territory, and Crittenden refuted what he termed "foul falsehoods." The intensity of the campaign was made worse by William E. Woodruff, editor of the Arkansas Gazette, who published numerous unsigned letters attacking both Crittenden and Oden.

Conway won re-election handily, but the animosity of the campaign continued after the balloting, ultimately resulting in Crittenden challenging Conway to a duel. Before that contest could take place, another duel was fought between Ambrose Sevier, Conway's cousin, and Thomas W. Newton, an ally of Crittenden. That duel ended when the first round of fire was "without effect," and friends intervened.

On Oct. 29, 1827, Conway and Crittenden met "on the field of honor," located across the Mississippi from the mouth of the White River. Details are not fully known, but one source said they fought at a distance of only 18 feet.

The same source reported that Conway fired first, his shot ripping Crittenden's "upper button hole out of his coat." Crittenden's bullet struck Conway's right side, first breaking a toothbrush in his breast pocket before piercing the ribcage.

The Gazette later provided a different account, saying that the men were standing 10 yards apart, and that both fired simultaneously. Lingering in pain for over a week, the territorial delegate to Congress died Nov. 9, 1827.

For drama in the face of adversity, no duel beats that between two hot-tempered Confederate brigadier generals, John S. Marmaduke and Lucius M. Walker. That duel is amazing because it involved top commanders of the badly outnumbered rebel troops trying to prevent the capture of Little Rock in September 1863. When Marmaduke accused Walker of cowardice in recent actions, Walker demanded an explanation and, failing to receive a satisfactory one, insisted on a duel.

With federal army Gen. Frederick Steele positioning his troops for the final assault, Marmaduke and Walker met at the Godfrey Le Fevre plantation about seven miles below Little Rock on Sept. 6. Neither man was hit in the first round of shooting, but Walker fell mortally wounded during the second. Little Rock fell to the federals four days later.

It was long thought that the Marmaduke-Walker duel was the last in Arkansas, but at least three others have been documented by historian Matthew Byron. The last was fought in 1897, with both participants supposedly dying from their wounds. Perhaps that was a fitting ending to such "affairs of honor."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column was published Sept. 5, 2010.

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