Duels took place in South Carolina from colonial times until 1880, when the General Assembly officially outlawed the practice. The practice of dueling reached its peak between 1800 and 1860. Though it occurred throughout the English colonies and the United States, the practice was concentrated in the South, and South Carolina was the site of a disproportionate number of duels. Some late twentieth-century scholars have linked the practice of dueling to the practice of plantation slavery, since white planters in South Carolina placed themselves at the top of a highly volatile and stratified society, in which honor and dishonor were matters of great public importance. Duels could be fought for any number of breaches in the code of honor that was supposed to inform personal relationships among South Carolina’s elite. The code of honor, a body of largely unwritten law understood by most members of the upper class, was a means to protect men’s status and manhood from real and perceived threats. One common thread appears to run through nearly all of the duels fought in the South: that of accusing someone else of lying, an accusation also known as “giving the lie.” To refuse a duel after being “given the lie” would prove one’s cowardice and thereby bring his honor and manhood into question.
Once a gentleman’s honor was called into question, a series of formal, highly ritualized steps took place. The rules governing dueling had developed over several centuries but were codified in Ireland in the 1770s in the code duello. An American version of the rules was published in Charleston in 1838 by John Lyde Wilson, who had served as governor of South Carolina from 1822 to 1824. The code duello provided that whoever gave the first offense must make the first apology, and that if no apology was forthcoming, a duel could ensue. The code duello also provided details about the proper positioning of the body and other particulars. Wilson’s American Code of Honor, unlike its Irish cousin, allowed blows to be returned but insisted that a formal duel follow. Once attempts at reconciliation were exhausted, the duelists and their assistants (principals and seconds) agreed to settle their differences on the field of honor, often in the presence of a surgeon, his assistant, and crowds that sometimes reached into the hundreds.
The dueling weapon of choice for a South Carolina gentleman was the pistol. During the colonial period cumbersome and inaccurate matchlocks and flintlocks were used, but the advent of the percussion pistol in the 1820s allowed for greater accuracy, and dueling pistols became elaborately decorated objects of art. Sometimes duelists and their seconds drew up excruciatingly detailed contracts. On the dueling grounds seconds flipped coins to determine which would give the “ready” and which would choose positions. Once all of the details had been worked out, the principals would take their places, and on hearing the signal, each would attempt to shoot the other. Even when large crowds of onlookers gathered, they usually remained silent during the proceedings, accentuating the solemn, genteel tone of the event. Duels did not always end in death; Wilson’s rules stipulated that any wound could end a duel unless the wounded party wanted another round. If any serious breach of dueling etiquette occurred, the seconds could shoot the offending principal—or each other in extreme cases.
Many of South Carolina’s leading colonial and antebellum men participated in duels as either principals or seconds. Though dueling had its detractors—most notably the clergy, the Society of the Cincinnati, and some newspaper editors—there was no serious social stigma attached to it until the later years of the nineteenth century. Dueling gradually fell out of favor, however, and the practice was eventually outlawed formally after the infamous Cash-Shannon duel of 1880. In July of that year Colonel E. B. C. Cash killed William Shannon in a duel. The Charleson News and Courier, edited by the English-born Captain Francis W. Dawson, denounced the duel. Cash, who had barely escaped lynching after the duel, was charged with murder. His first trial resulted in a hung jury and a second jury voted to acquit, but public opinion had shifted against dueling. In 1880 the General Assembly equated dueling with murder and required an oath of those holding public office that they would neither send nor receive challenges while in the service of the public. Though no known formal duels have taken place in South Carolina since the Cash-Shannon duel, violence, often a result of personal or political disputes between white men, continued to be fairly widespread.
Cochran, Hamilton. Noted American Duels and Hostile Encounters. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1963.
Greenberg, Kenneth S. Honor & Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Death, Humanitarianism, Slave Rebellions, The Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Matthews, Nancy Torrance. “The Duel in Nineteenth Century South Carolina: Custom over Written Law.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1979): 79–94. Williams, Jack K. Dueling in the Old South: Vignettes of Social History. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1980.