Dueling

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Many modern-day Americans consider dueling to be a senseless act of violence, but for many Southerners, including North Carolinians, the act was many times a defense of honor.  

For many North Carolinian gentlemen, honor was to be defende dat all cost, for it had “personal credit” and “clear economic value” in the South, writes historian Joe Mobley.  Antebellum editor Charles B. Dew considered “the modern practice of dueling” to be a remnant of medieval knighthood and chivalry.  According to historian Michael O’Brien, Dew believed that the “specific forms of chivalry were swept away by the military transformations that rendered the knight a vulnerable anachronism and by the economic changes that made commercial professions a locus for different exertions [adventure, love, and warfare], chivalry’s spirit survived, in the mitigations of the laws of war, in ‘sensitiveness on the point of honor and the modern practice of dueling,’ and in modern manners and politeness.”  

Women’s opinions regarding duels, too, reveal that Southern society, and gentlemen in particular, prized honor. Southern novelist Caroline Howard Gilman, a native Bostonian who moved to Charleston, denounced dueling and labeled women who inflamed Southern gentlemen as “the courtesan of classic times.”   For Gilman, “Genuine honor lies in ourselves, and not in the opinion of the world. . . . It is neither defended by sword or buckler, but by a life of integrity and irreproachableness.”  

Antebellum Southerners developed a reputation for violence and dueling. Historian Richard Rankin remarks that the practice was uncommon before the Revolutionary War and that British and French officers popularized the practice. However, Grady McWhiney, historian and author of Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South, argues that the South was violent because of the “cultural traditions that Southerners brought with them.”  McWhiney concludes that few duels occurred in the antebellum North because Northern ancestry hailed primarily from England. In the South, many claimed Scottish and Celtic descent.

With their actions possibly confirming the beliefs of Dew and Gilman, Alexander Simpson and Thomas Whitehurst dueled in 1765 for the admiration of a woman. That was the first recorded duel in North Carolina history.  

After the John Stanly and Richard Dobbs Spaight Duel of 1802, North Carolina outlawed the practice. Yet it continued and was generally ignored by law enforcement.  At least 27 duels, writes Richard Rankin, occurred because of political disagreements. The last recorded duel between North Carolinians occurred between two Wilmingtonians in 1856.