The Uses of Dueling

The field of honorIn the society of frontier Arkansas, as in the rest of the South, all respectable white men were expected to conform to a code of honor.  But that code imposed some special requirements for the status of  “gentleman,” qualities that constituted a key part of a person’s social rank.

Donald P. McNeilly, the author of The Old South Frontier, lists some of these requirements:  “bravery, …graciousness, loyalty, duty,  as well as a dash of impetuosity.”  War, politics, and duels served as the stages for the display of these qualities, but if those were lacking, there were always high-stakes gambling and hard drinking.  The key was demonstrating your indifference to danger; losing your life or fortune was a trivial matter compared to losing your honor.

The Mexican War seemed to offer a wealth of opportunities for the display of courage and the acquisition of honor.  But honor was unfortunately more elusive than expected.

In response to a call from Governor Thomas S. Drew, leading Arkansas planters and politicians scrambled to form their own volunteer companies.  Albert Pike had already raised a company of guards several years earlier; equipped with striking uniforms and drilled regularly in the streets of Little Rock, they were much in demand for parades. Others of the Arkansas volunteers, however, had not been trained., drilled, or taught to obey military orders.  At the battle of Buena Vista, the inexperienced Arkansas troops, under Colonel Archibald Yell and Lieutenant John S. Roane, retreated in disorder, and Yell was killed.  In Pike’s telling (perhaps not to be taken at face value,) his own squadron then galloped to their aid, causing the Mexican troops to “flee precipitately in every direction,” thus ending the engagement along with the involvement of Arkansas troops.

Pike’s version of the story, in a letter to the Arkansas Gazette, painted his own contribution in glowing terms, and criticized Yell and Roane for their failure to properly train and discipline their troops.  He also published a poem in praise of his own efforts.  Roane responded with another letter, denying that Pike had taken any part in the battle—effectively calling Pike a liar, an insult that had to be avenged.  A challenge was issued.  The two men and their seconds and surgeons met on a sandbar in the Arkansas River.  Pike, demonstrating his coolness in the face of danger, ostentatiously smoked a cigar before the duel began.  Each of the antagonists fired twice, missing each other completely but proving their own bravery, and giving their surgeons the chance to practice that delicate refinement of the dueling ritual, the reconciliation of the uninjured combatants.

As McNeilly sees it, with the proper cynicism of a 21st-century scholar, the whole combat was a staged performance, engineered by Pike, and accepted by Roane, as a means of re-establishing their personal honor in the wake of the inglorious performance of the soldiers under their command.  On the other hand Pike’s most recent biographer, Walter Lee Brown, retells the story in a tone of admiration bordering on reverence for the valor of his subject, both  in the duel and in the military engagement that preceded it.  The Southern ideal of honor is not dead yet.

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