Rappahannock County officials pledged not to fight in bloody duels

No deadly dueling oaths required into 20th century

Imagine feuding members of the Washington Town Council, Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors or even the School Board stepping outside and settling disagreements by bloody duel.

Actually, such a scenario didn’t used to be so far fetched, even into the 20th century, when Rappahannock County sought to quell dueling engagements involving quarrelling members of the county government, whether pre-arranged between themselves or with members of the community.

During the early 1900s, before he could become a member of the Washington Town Council, Howell M. Miller swore in writing not to engage in bloody, often deadly duels. Courtesy photo

Take Howell M. Miller, who as witnessed by Rappahannock County Circuit Court Clerk W.C. Armstrong on Aug. 24, 1909, swore in writing before he could be seated as a member of the Washington Town Council: “I have not . . . fought a duel with a deadly weapon, or sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with a deadly weapon . . . and that I will not fight a duel with a deadly weapon . . . or aid or assist in any manner in fighting such a duel during my continuance in office. So help me God.”

Courtesy photo
Even Rappahannock School Trustees were required to pledge to stay away from the once common practice of deadly duels to settle personal scores. Courtesy photo

The same oath was required of Rappahannock County School Trustees, among them A.T. Coppage, who pledged May 1, 1905 that he would not participate or assist in deadly duels — at least “during my continuance in office.”

Whereas Miller, Coppage and company faced removal from their county posts for settling scores with matching pistols, that’s not to say they would have been tried in a court of law. While death by trigger became unlawful in Virginia, popular public opinion in those days considered “gentlemanly duels” little more than bloodshed, and certainly not murder.

Judges, particularly here in the South, similarly turned a blind eye to the otherwise gruesome tradition, hardly unique during the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, beautifully engraved and cased dueling pistols — commonly single-shot flintlock or black powder pistols that fired a lead musket ball, manufactured in identical pairs so duelers stood the same chance of survival — were found in the parlors and libraries of many stately Virginia homes.

Future U.S. presidents even found themselves confronted with dueling, although the only U.S. president to kill a man (prior to assuming office) was Andrew Jackson, who was painfully wounded in the process by his victim Charles Dickinson.

The quick-tempered Jackson, in fact, was so fond of dueling to solve his personal conflicts that historians counted more than a dozen such challenges during his lifetime. Abraham Lincoln early in his political career barely avoided being drawn into a duel, or else history might not have been the same.

Alexander Hamilton, of course, was the most celebrated casualty of dueling, the lawyer and politician Aaron Burr seeing to the Founding Father’s final breath. Countless other victims included U.S. congressmen and senators — among them Sen. Armistead T. Mason of Virginia, who lived in nearby Loudoun County — U.S. naval commodore Stephen Decatur, even spirited newspaper editors.

Consider the March 6, 1888 article in the Fredericksburg Free Lance, datelined “Culpeper” and headlined: “From Pens to Pistols: Virginia Editors in a Deadly Duel; A Newspaper War Ends in a Tragedy — Ellis Williams Shot Through the Heart, Edwin Barbour Seriously Wounded.”

Barbour was editor of the Piedmont Advance, while Williams edited the Culpeper Exponent. The pair’s bloody duel grew out of a “letter” published in the Advance weeks earlier signed by “Jack Clatterbuck” (no relation we know of to Rappahannock News columnist and office manager Jan Clatterbuck).

“The letter made some sharp and caustic allusions to Mr. Williams of the Exponent,” the Free Lance reported, describing the letter as “bitter.”

The furious Williams, however, suspected “Jack Clatterbuck” didn’t even exist, and demanded that Barbour reveal more about the writer’s identity. Barbour refused, and matters quickly grew worse.

“To day’s issue of the Advance,” the Free Lance continued, “contains an editorial in which the editor brands Mr. Williams as a liar, and further says that ‘his conduct in this matter has been cowardly in the extreme, and highly unbecoming a gentleman, of which class we shall no longer consider him a member,’ and winds up the article in this wise: ‘At times it becomes necessary for a gentleman to turn and strike the dog that is barking at his heels.’

“It was very evident this morning that there would be trouble, as both men were known to have been armed to the teeth,” the article stated. “Williams sent for Barbour to come down out of his office several times. This Barbour declined to do, when Williams, against the earnest protest of his friends, decided to go to the Advance office . . . to where Barbour was sitting and said, ‘How do you propose to settle the matter — by fist and skull or with pistols?’”

While Barbour wished to settle the argument “through our friends,” Williams wouldn’t allow it.

So, from “a distance of about six paces,” the two newspaper editors pulled their triggers. When the smoke cleared, Williams — nephew of U.S. Army Gen. Robert Williams, who married the widow of the late Stephen A. Douglass — was dead, and Barbour — the son of Virginia Del. James Barbour and nephew of Sen. John S. Barbour — severely wounded.

Even closer to home, given the Thornton family’s history in Sperryville and Rappahannock County, there is the tragic tale of cousins William Thornton and Francis Fitzhugh Conway, each of whom was smitten with Nellie Madison, a young niece of James Madison who was guest for a Christmas celebration in 1803.

William and Francis arrived for the holiday gala on horseback, recalled the late historian Robert A. Hodge in his book on Piedmont history, Francis having adorned his horse “with a brand new handsome bridal and during the evening made veiled references to Miss Nellie as to the ‘surprise’ he would reveal later that evening.

“Unfortunately, when departure time came and Francis was primed to ‘show off,’ the groom had switched bridles on the horses and it was William’s horse which made the greater impression on Miss Nellie. Angrily, Francis accused William of having bribed the groom. The denial simply aggravated the argument and the end result was a challenge to a pistol duel . . .

“At the word ‘fire’ both shots sounded almost simultaneously and each bullet passed through the region of the bladder in each combatant.” In short time, the two cousins were dead.

About John McCaslin 422 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.

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