Obsession with Honor

Obsession with Honor Led Gentlemen to Duels

In early Arkansas “gentlemen” were very concerned about their honor. Calling someone a “blackguard,” “liar,” or “paltroon” might be enough to cause a fight, or even a duel in the period before the Civil War.

The duel was a controlled fight, usually with pistols. The proper duel required as much etiquette as a formal dance. Notes were exchanged by representatives of the opponents, trying to work out a settlement of the disagreement. If that did not work, the representatives, called “seconds,” set the time, place, and weapons for the duel.

At the appointed time and place, the seconds prepared one-shot pistols for firing, and handed the pistols to the combatants, call the “principals.” The principals stood at a set distance from each other. After a signal was given, the two men (hardly any women are known to have dueled) raised their guns and fired.

If neither man was hit, the seconds would reload the pistols and the principals would shoot once or twice again. After that, honor was satisfied, and the men could go on, confident they had upheld the gentlemen’s code.

The only problem was that often something did happen. Many times one of the principals was wounded or died in the exchange of shots. That is why dueling was officially illegal in Arkansas. When men in Arkansas fought their duels, they usually rode on horseback to Indian Territory or to sandbars in the river between two states. There they were out of the reach of the Arkansas law.

The best-known duel in early Arkansas occurred between two of the most powerful politicians in Arkansas Territory. In 1827, Representative to Congress Henry Conway suggested that Secretary of the Territory Robert Crittenden was a liar. Crittenden challenged Conway to a duel. After their friends could not resolve the matter, the two men met on the east side of the Mississippi River near Montgomery’s Point. Crittenden shot Conway in the side, but everyone thought that the wound would not be fatal. They were wrong. Conway died on November 9, 1827.

The last formal duel in Arkansas occurred between two Confederate generals during the Civil War. On September 6, 1863, with Union troops only a few miles away, Generals John S. Marmaduke and Lucius M. Walker decided that honor required them to fight each other rather than the Yankees. The generals used six-shooter revolvers, and Walker died after the second shot.