The gunpowder explodes as the ball careens outward at approximately 1,000 feet per second. Tree limbs crack and leaves rustle as the shot flies toward the glow of the moon, far above the head of the man -or teenager really- he’s no more than 16 years old.[i] He breathes a sigh of relief, then quickly draws his surprised visage into a determined glare, hiding his anxiety. He gives a curt nod, shakes the hand of the man with the flintlock, faces about, and walks off, perhaps with more of an upright gait than with which he arrived at the scene.
This is a typical night in the colonial port city of Charleston, South Carolina. The air has a salty taste and the streets smell of fresh fish and stale horse manure. And the people, well, they’re full of life. And they’re full of honor.
In very much the same way that many in Charleston today are not (I blame the university).
One of the things that draws me toward the good and noble truths of the proud Southron people is the culture of honor that permeates the aggregate population. Sure, the big cities like Charleston or Atlanta (or most of Florida) are filled with rude and insincere people. But take a drive down any country road and, before you know it, you’ll end up in the presence of down-to-earth people thriving on cornbread and colloquialism.
Much of the heritage and tradition of America has been replaced in modernity. Honor has made way for relativism and integrity has been overshadowed by convenience. This is mostly due to the fundamental democratic flaws associated with modern Western civilization. Yet there is still a rugged and resilient backbone that permeates the South. Unlike most of America, the people are still taught manners, they are gentler, and they are kinder. There is a semblance of honor that, to lose, would mean to cease to be Southern. In the South, more than any place in America, people identify as “Southern” before other characteristics.
One aspect, however, that has been lost is the idea of dueling culture that is prevalent throughout the South’s traditional culture of honor. When most think of dueling in the United States, they tend to consider their public educational history of the famed duel between Aaron Burr, a narcissist, and Alexander Hamilton, an adulterer. Out for blood over politics, these men met in New Jersey where Hamilton was fatally wounded in a duel, only to die a day later. This duel took place to settle vengeance, not to satiate honor. This is a nuanced point, so remember it.
Typically, duels have occurred throughout colonial America, and for much longer, the American South, to satiate honor. Some man has slighted another. To settle their difference, they would count paces, fire at each other, shake hands, and walk away, the slate clean once again.[ii] The Southern people have always had an antagonistic relationship to cowardice, but not to violence, which is and of itself, a neutral action.
Dueling culture was ideal for the Southern people in that this respectable (and respectful) institution forced men to confront their issues before each other, and of course, before God. They were one bullet away from meeting Him. They dueled over a wide range of issues, from financial problems to women to intangible ones like slighted honor and perceived disrespect.
Think on this: Is this institution, wherein honor was satisfied and men were appeased, not preferable to the modern system of handling problems: In court, through Facebook posts and gossip, and through pent-up frustration? In the agrarian South, men knew where they stood with each other. Can you not think of a single person in your life with whom you are uncertain as to where you stand?
The last official duel took place in South Carolina in 1880 between Colonel Ellerbe B.C. Cash of Cheraw and Colonel William M. Shannon of Camden. This duel was the capstone of a long rivalry of wit and words that had occurred long before pistols were ever thought necessary. On the night of the duel, Shannon pulled out his pistol and saluted his fellow Confederate veteran which, for some reason, Cash failed to repeat. The duel ended quickly as Colonel Shannon bled to death in under a minute. Public outcry forced the South Carolina legislature to act against the practice of dueling, thereby turning a singular case into a loss for an entire people.[iii]
A lesser known history places the actual last duel in South Carolina in Charleston in 1962. The salt air is as fresh as it would be in colonial America, and the men are barely old enough to be in college. For one reason or another, “pistols on the Battery” is the outcry of two drunk and underage college students. No one is killed. No one is even injured, yet, as the duelist puts it, the highest form of honor is satisfied.[iv]
There is something deeply spiritual about preferring tangible and life-altering consequence because of erroneous action than saying “I forgive you” and calling it a day. As orthodox Christians, we must realize that respect is tantamount to honoring God. We are called to treat others with dignity and respect. When the consequences of our actions may end in death, a different outlook is necessary regarding slighted feelings against our neighbors. We are slower to speak and quicker to listen. Honor is everything, and we honor God by honoring our culture and by honoring our people.
Is pistols on the battery not preferential to spite on Facebook?
[i] Famed Southern Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown has done much research into dueling culture and believes that teenage duels were far from uncommon in Southern society of the past.
[ii] While duels did end in death, typically men would fire over the head of each other or up into the air. The formality showcased a violent, but at the same time, civil end to conflict.
[iv] Dr. Fleming is an esteemed member of the Abbeville Institute. He took part in this unofficial last duel. For more information on his story, and to listen to scholarly reasoning on dueling culture, listen to his piece online: https://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/lectures/dueling-and-southern-honor/.