from a series of sketches by J. W. De Forest: "Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons."
Self-respect, as the Southerners understood it, has always demanded much fighting. A pugnacity which is not merely war-paint, but which is, so to speak, tattooed into the character, has resulted from this high sentiment of personal value, and from the circumstances which produced the sentiment. It permeates all society; it has infected all individualities. The meekest man by nature, the man who at the North would no more fight than he would jump out of a second-story window, will at the South resent an insult by a blow, or perhaps a stab or pistol-shot.
I knew a middle-aged South Carolinian, at one time a representative of our country to one of the minor courts of Europe, who temporarily withdrew his connection from the church of which he was a member in order to give himself elbow-room for a duel.
I knew a clergyman of the same pugnacious little State who was the hero of another “unpleasantness.” The Reverend James Clayton, as I shall presume to miscall him, had suffered under various disobliging remarks and irritating practical jokes from a fellow-citizen whom I will venture to stigmatize as Mr. Tom Noddy. One sale-day, that is, on the first Monday of a month, a number of people had gathered around the steps of the village court-house, attracted by an auction of property sold for delinquent taxes. Amidst the magnates of the place, leaning backward upon the cane which he held behind him in both hands, discussing some grave subject (perhaps the nature of the negro soul) with his usual blandness of aspect, stood Parson Clayton. While thus beneficially engaged his cane was knocked from its hold in the earth, causing him to reel backward. Supposing that some intimate friend had done this thing, the reverend gentleman turned round with a smile, and beheld the exasperating grin of that low-toned Noddy. In a second the cane was in the air, and in another the insulter lay on the ground. Next Mr. Clayton rushed to the office of a legal acquaintance; not, however, with the intention of taking refuge behind the legal code; no, but to plant himself in front of the code of honor.
“But, my dear Sir, your cloth!“ objected the lawyer; “you certainly are not bound to fight a duel; your cloth relieves you from that obligation.”
“I will not attempt to shield myself under my cloth, Sir.”
“But—excuse my frankness—this is a grave matter, and you have placed it in my hands— but will not the public consider that your cloth prohibits you from appealing to the code?“
“Sir, I am a minister of the gospel; I am proud of my profession; I have sought to honor it. Had I been insulted as a clergyman I would have accepted it as persecution, and would have endured it meekly. But I have been insulted as an individual. My family has a social status and a reputation which I must not allow myself to ignore. It will not do for a Clayton of Clayton District to suffer these impertinences as though he were a poor white or a slave. I must act suitably to my name. I beg, Sir, that in arranging this matter you will not consider my cloth any more than the low-bred person who insulted me considered it.”
“Nevertheless, you are not bound to take the initiative. You knocked Mr. Noddy down, it appears; and consequently it is his business to challenge. That is the code, Sir; you may rely upon it.”
As Mr. Noddy was in every respect unchivalrous, and did not at all regard it as his business to challenge, the affair went off without triggers.
Very curious in certain cases is the contrast between a man of turtle-dove disposition and the falcon-like ferocity which Southern public opinion can force him to exhibit. A citizen of New Orleans who had been repeatedly insulted by a bully, and who was threatened with expulsion from society because of the meek manner in which he had endured his wrongs, found himself at last driven to appeal to arms. With a cocked pistol in either hand he entered an eating-saloon where sat his persecutor, and marched slowly to the attack, swearing viciously. He might have slain the foe at once; but he was too tender-hearted to shed blood except in the exigency of self-defense; his agonizing desire was that the other should run away. Fortunately the threatened blusterer had no weapons, and, after one glance at his plated table-knife, skedaddled through a side- door. There was a noisy chase down the street; the promenaders made way, followed on, applauded; the omnibus-drivers stopped to see the issue of the affair; there was a general disappointment when the fugitive dodged into his boarding-house.
Then did the turtle-dove rampage up and down the pavement, defying his adversary to come out to mortal combat, and blaspheming like a veritable falcon. The grandeur of the demonstration was somewhat diminished by the circumstances that he was as pale as a sheet, and that in his nervousness he fired both his Derringers into the sidewalk, very nearly amputating his own toes, and leaving himself at the mercy of his antagonist. But, as the latter did not make a sally, the turtle-dove escaped with the palm of victory, and was thence- forth passably esteemed in New Orleans as possessing at least a showing of the high-toned valor.
The average Southerner, however, was not like this man; he was quicker to fight, and when he fought he meant business. How quick he was to fight, how prompt at believing that the combat had begun, how disposed to accept an insult as an injury, may be inferred from the charge of a Virginian judge in a case of trial for murder. “Gentlemen,” said his Honor, “the lie is the first blow.”
If this is not common-law at the South, it is, I believe, common sentiment. In the early part of 1868 I heard a South Carolinian of respectable position relate the particulars of a recent rencontre, or, in other words, murder, in which the victim was a Northerner.
“The most remarkable circumstance in the transaction,” said he, “and what struck all the by-standers with surprise, was that the fellow made no attempt to defend himself. Every one supposed, from his giving a desperate man the lie, that he was prepared for a fight; but he allowed himself to be shot down without offering the least resistance; in fact, he had no arms about him.”
Evidently the amazed narrator and his equally astonished listeners considered “the lie the first blow,” or something so near akin to it that it was not worth while to speculate upon the difference.
“There is something miraculous about the geography of Dixie,” said a Yankee to me; “the backwoods have always remained unnaturally near to the sea-coast.”
I am aware that Southerners will deny that blood-shedding is more common with them than with us, and will point to the murders of New York and Philadelphia as a set-off to their combats of honor and passion. But the two things are not parallel: our tragedies are crimes, so regarded by the community and so punished; their tragedies are gentilities which the public voice does not condemn, and for which the law rarely exacts a penalty. Moreover, duels and rencontres have been far more numerous south of Mason and Dixon’s line, at least in proportion to population, than murders north of it. As Bureau officer, responsible for the peace of a large district, it was my business to know what acts of violence occurred in it; and in the course of my inquiries concerning the affairs of my day I necessarily learned much of what had happened during years previous. I declare positively that I was quite amazed at the number of persons who bore marks of frays, and the number of houses which had been rendered memorable by scenes of blood.
Opposite my hotel was a building where an old gentleman had sought to cane his niece’s husband, and, before he struck a blow, had fallen dead under the youth’s ready pistol.
Do you see that tall and dignified man, a person of repute in the community, and an ex-member of Congress, who pauses to salute an acquaintance with such an ingratiating smile, such a musical intonation of voice, and such fluent speech? He has been attacked with knives and bludgeons; he has fallen down wounded, and been forced to scuffle for life; he has pulled trigger on three human beings, once with fatal effect; he will tell you of these things as “lamentable occurrences, which I very much regret.”
That other gracious personage, portly in build, dignified in bearing, with the intellectual forehead and the benevolent smile, a man of probity, a citizen of distinction, has also killed his antagonist.
That young fellow with the dark eyes and the silvery utterance has in his hand a huge cane which will never be the solid stick that it was before it came in contact with a human head.
If you will ride with me up a certain road I will show you four plantations within a few miles of each other, the former proprietors of which have either been slain in single combat or have slain others.
Yet Greenville has been a nest of turtledoves compared with some other portions of South Carolina. There was once a famous “gentleman of the old school” in Abbeville who ruled his district with the pistol, who during the course of his long and high-toned life killed several other high-toned fellow-creatures, and who consequently had himself elected to office whenever he pleased. Abbeville was renowned for its hundreds of shooting men, but this man shot straighter and quicker than any body else. Yes, pugnacious Greenville is a haven of Quakers compared with Abbeville, Newberry, and half a dozen other districts.
Of the Carolinian of the sea-coast who may pretend to dispute my statements I will ask whether he has ever heard of a now bland and dignified old planter, who won in his youth, by dint of frequent fights and duels, the surname of Tiger Bill. In one specially famous encounter this antique worthy, disarmed, prostrate, and held down, doubled his legs over his adversary’s back, and roweled him from loins to knees with Spanish spurs. And Tiger Bill was but the first among peers; he was a model for wide-spread and jealous imitation. Probably he has not an acquaintance who does not regard him with more respect than he would accord to John Howard or any other hero of peace and good-will toward men.
De Forest, J.W., “Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 38, Issue 224, January 1869; New York: Harper & Bros.
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