Dueling in Pensacola
From the book: Pensacola’s Finest, available on Amazon
By Mike Simmons
The story of men having differences with other men and settling them is as old as history itself. On the schoolground, the little kid gets picked on repeatedly by the bully. Finally, the little kid stands up and punches the bully in the nose…only to discover that the bully is not as tough as he pretends to be.
The tradition of one man standing up for his honor (or his lady’s honor) has certainly changed over the years. In today’s culture, if one man offends or insults another, fists will fly…or worse. Often, the cowardly approach is usually the action of choice, as in vandalism or a drive-by shooting. Suffice it to say that the accepted definition of honorably handling disagreements has changed over the years.
Not long ago, the words “Let’s take it outside!” were heard, usually by one man to his soon-to-be opponent. Perhaps they, like when they were children, were not supposed to roughhouse inside. Or maybe…they didn’t want the women to witness the fight in case they got whipped!
In medieval Europe, the honored tradition of dueling became popular. This practice continued into the new world, especially among members of the military. There exists an account in 1386 in France of the duel between two knights. Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris entered into a duel after Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite, accused Le Gris of raping her. When Carrouges challenged Le Gris to a duel, it was on. The story is documented in the book “The Last Duel” and a movie by the same name. On the 29th of December 1386, both men met at the field of the Abbey of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, squared off on horseback. Like a stock car race, thousands attended the match, eager so see blood spilled. Each man had a shield, sword, lance, battle axe and a long dagger – kinda like having plenty of backup firearms today. When the signal by the marshal was given both men drove their horses at each other. After several passes with no injury, Le Gris severed the spine of Carrouges horse, and Carrouges impaled Le Gris horse with his battle axe. On foot, the two fought with swords. Le Gris then stabbed Carrouges through his thigh. In response, Carrouges tackled Le Gris, tore his helmet off and put his knife through the throat of his adversary, ending the battle.
In the Old South, when one gentleman besmirched another – especially regarding his wife – the offended party was expected to show great indignation, saying something like “Ah dumand satisfaction, Suh!” Interpreted, this meant an apology, explanation, or proof of the offense was expected to be provided. The satisfaction could be immediate, or it could come within a day or two, giving the offender time to gather his evidence, give his apology – written or verbal – or explain his remark. However, if the offending party was unable offer proof, and could not or would not explain or apologize, it was part of “The Code” of a gentleman to challenge the offender to a duel. If the challenge was not accepted, the challenged offender would be considered a coward, and the practice of “posting” – posting a declaration in several public places that the man was a coward – took place. If he accepted the challenge, written accounts of the incident were requested from each participant and witness who were present at the time of the offense. This was required so that it would be clear that there was an intentional affront, that the insult was meant to be – an insult. If the challenge and acceptance stood, a time and place would be agreed on. This administrative work was carried out by each duelist’s second. A second was a friend or colleague chosen by each man to communicate, clarify and, if possible mediate. If the duel occurred, the second stood aside to shoot the opponent if he cheated. The challenged person chose the type of weapon – pistols, long guns, swords, knives, daggers, axes or clubs could be used. Sometimes, a pair of dueling pistols or swords was provided, and these could amount to quite a sum – according to the status of the participants. Most of the time, though, each man used his own weapon. Pistols were the most common.
Often, according to the popularity of the duelists, a crowd would gather to watch. Occasionally, the challenge became quite the social event. If possible, a surgeon was on hand to patch up one or both parties. The parties stood an agreed distance apart, and the seconds would, one last time, ensure that this was the last resort. If so, the duel would begin. With bladed weapons, the duel proceeded much like what we know as a knife fight, with both parties circling and trying to find an opportunity to cut the other. However, if firearms were used in the duel, both parties had to stand still and take the shot of the other while shooting. The challenged shot first. Hit or miss, the challenger shot next, if he was able. To feint, duck or run-for-cover was considered cowardly. Usually, if conflict went this far, both parties would be shot – maybe killed. Often one party would be shot and the other killed. The “winner” was often arrested and, if the “loser” died, the winner was charged with murder. Bad outcomes on both ends.
During the 1800s, local laws were passed in many communities outlawing the long tradition of dueling, although the laws did little to curb the practice. Popular opinion ruled. Dueling in Florida became illegal on December 28, 1824 – it was considered murder. If a duel was said to be scheduled, the local police showed up and stopped it, arresting one or both parties if necessary. Often, the police were not aware of the scheduled incident, arrived too late, or chose to turn a blind eye to the matter if they felt it should proceed. However, when the War between the States was over, many people reconsidered the value of human life, and the popularity of duels declined.
In Pensacola, legend has it that the plush green grass grew beautifully on that hill due to the blood of the men who had fought so many duels there. The actual location is a beautiful 16-acre spot on the southeastern corner of town is known as Dueling Oaks. The place – covered in magnificent live oaks – overlooks Pensacola Bay, near the more modern 17th Avenue Trestle. As was stated many times, it is truly a beautiful spot to die. Most of the challenges were not as formal as described above. Often, the challenged talked it out, exchanged money, or fought it out. However, if a duel was scheduled, everyone knew where it would be, including the police. There are instances of duels being fought in other locations, however. Palafox Street is one example.
A story goes that a young lieutenant in General Andrew Jackson’s regiment was challenged to a duel and was killed. Jackson reportedly was very fond of the young man. This was another reason that Jackson was keen to leave Pensacola.
Stephen Mallory, a man from Key West, met a young lady named Angela Moreno, of the wealthy Moreno family of Pensacola. After they wed, the couple raised a family (9 children) in Monroe County, Florida. Stephen held several government offices, including United States senator from Florida. When the Civil War broke out, he was appointed Secretary of the Navy of the Confederacy by President Jefferson Davis. At the end of the war, Mallory spent a year in prison for treason. After his release, he returned to live with his family in Pensacola, unable to hold office. Returning to practice law in Pensacola, he ironically became an outspoken proponent for the education of African-Americans, who were now free.
This caused problems between Mallory and the local newspapers. William Kirk, a local editor, was very critical of Mallory’s actions, and his attacks were often personal. On May 7, 1868, Kirk took offense to some of Mallory’s statements and challenged him to a duel at The Dueling Oaks. When the challenge was discovered, officers from the Pensacola Police Department arrested Mr. Kirk. As soon as Kirk was released, he challenged Mallory again at the same location. A constable was summoned and arrived just in time to stop the duel before the shooting began (Brackett, p51).
On March 4, 1881, the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad was chartered, and on June 1 of the same year, construction began. The track ran through the middle of Dueling Oaks and across the 17th Avenue trestle, also known as Graffiti Bridge. Later, the southern half was made into Frascati Park, and the northern half was eventually purchased by the Wilder family.
There is another story of two men in Georgia who were faced with a duel – to keep their honor. Neither man was a fighter, so neither was comfortable with a fight to the death. On the agreed upon day, both men met in a field with the marshal in the middle. When the go ahead was given, both men aimed and shot. Both missed. They shot again – missed again. The marshal called the men together and said “I think that, because both of you have failed to score, the Lord has decreed that the duel should not proceed. Now, shake hands and walk away. One of the men, obviously relieved, said, “Shake hands? My hands have been shaking for the last half hour!”
Okay, admit it. As primitive as it sounds, there is something about a duel that is really exciting and manly. Some say that boxing matches, wrestling matches and other sports have taken the place of duels. Uh…NO! What about golf? Video games? COME ON!!!