Dueling in the Republic of Texas

By: Thomas W. Cutrer

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: October 3, 2019

The great Southern vogue in dueling reached its peak in Texas in 1837 and 1838. The practice, though strictly forbidden by regulations, was most popular among the officers of the Army of the Republic of Texas. "We would opine," wrote the editor of the Texas Sentinel in the wake of one duel between army officers, "that there was fighting enough to be had on our frontier without resorting to private combats." The custom was enthusiastically cultivated, however, and the journalist, in common with most Texans of his day, concluded "not...to sermonize on the subject." According to a law approved by the Texas Congress on December 21, 1836, "Every person who shall kill another in a duel, shall be deemed guilty of murder, and on conviction thereof shall suffer death," and "Every person who shall be the bearer of any challenge for a duel, or shall in any way assist in any duel, shall, on conviction thereof, be fined and imprisoned at the discretion of the court before whom such conviction may be had."

Nevertheless, a strikingly high percentage of army officers and national officials were either killed or received debilitating wounds in duels. In June 1837, for example, army surgeon Chauncey Goodrich, "a truculent Mississippian," and Levy L. Laurens, reporter for the House of Representatives, faced each other with rifles at twenty yards after the former had falsely accused the later of the theft of a $1,000 bill. Laurens was mortally wounded. Col. James H. Milroy in Gen. Thomas Jefferson Green's brigade frequently quarreled with his fellow officers and offered numerous challenges. In 1836 a Captain Graham killed a Captain Stanley on Galveston Island over the question of precedence in choosing cuts of beef for their respective companies. In 1837 a lieutenant killed a sergeant in a duel, and Maj. Stiles Leroy killed Maj. James W. Tinsley in a dispute over a horse. In May 1840 "two heroes of San Jacinto," Col. Lysander Wells of the First Cavalry, one of Sam Houston's favorites, and Capt. William D. Redd of the First Infantry, a protégé of Mirabeau B. Lamar, both died after meeting on a field of honor at "Seguin's Ranch," a few miles below San Antonio. The difficulty, according to John J. Linn, "was occasioned by some unimportant dispute, and the fiery spirits adjourned the matter to the `code of honor.'" First fire was simultaneous from both pistols. Redd was shot through the heart as his bullet "went crashing through the brain" of Wells.

Albert Sidney Johnston, as commanding general of the Texas army, prevented one duel by jerking the pistol from the hand of a "Major V____," and was unwittingly involved in another when one of his colonels called to ask the general to serve as a neutral judge in an affair of honor. Before Johnston could reply, the second principal arrived and opened fire on the colonel, leaving the commander a hapless bystander. The most famous duel fought between officers of the Texas army, however, involved Johnston as a principal. In December 1836 Felix Huston, a swash-buckling Mississippi planter, slave trader, and soldier of fortune, was appointed junior brigadier of the army. He held the command of the army briefly, until superseded by Johnston in January 1837. Huston considered Johnston's appointment an attempt "to ruin my reputation and inflict a stigma on my character," and accordingly, on February 4, 1837, issued his new commander a challenge. Huston and Johnston met the following day on the Lavaca River. Huston, according to Linn, was "a most expert marksman," and Johnston "made no pretension at all in that line." After three exchanges of fire Johnston was seriously wounded by a ball passing through his hips. Although he lingered near death for several days and recovered only after months of suffering, Johnston never resented Huston's challenge or his wound, since he considered their meeting "a public duty" and believed that he could never have commanded the respect of the army if he had "shown the least hesitation in meeting General Huston's challenge."

Sam Houston was challenged by but refused to fight Commodore Edwin W. Moore, David G. Burnet, Mirabeau B. Lamar, Albert Sidney Johnston, and others. Most representative of these nonaffairs of honor is perhaps the controversy between Houston and Vice President Burnet. In 1841 each abused the other without stint in an acrimonious newspaper debate. Burnet called the hero of San Jacinto "Big Drunk," "Half Indian," and other insulting monikers, and Houston accused Burnet of being "an ex-hog thief." Thereupon Burnet despatched the speaker of the House of Representatives, Branch T. Archer, with a "note." Houston refused to accept the challenge, which Archer returned to Burnet unopened, and the matter was allowed to drop.

Texas Rangers, too, were affected by the dueling mania. When Ben McCulloch ran for a seat in the House of Representatives of the republic against Alonzo B. Sweitzer, Sweitzer accused McCulloch of "moral cowardice" for refusing to debate him during the election campaign. Three weeks after the election, Gonzales County was raided by Indians. Mathew Caldwell called out the rangers in pursuit and dispatched McCulloch and Sweitzer to pick up the marauders' trail. Both claimed credit for discovering the route by which the Indians had left the county, and a bitter dispute arose between them. With what Victor M. Rose characterized as "a base and slanderous charge," Sweitzer challenged McCulloch to a duel, but McCulloch declined, stating that personal quarrels while on campaign must be put aside in the face of community crises. McCulloch's unwillingness to fight Sweitzer while on campaign was a result neither of Houston's humane example nor of cowardice. Whether he had read the document or not, McCulloch was abiding by the code duello as set down in 1838 by former governor John Lyde Wilson of South Carolina. According to Wilson's rules, a gentleman, when insulted in public, must "never resent it there" if he has "self command enough to avoid noticing it" so as not to "offer an indignity to the company." He must, however, "let the time of demand" upon his adversary after the insult be as short as possible.

The issue between Sweitzer and McCulloch was dropped for the time as the rangers continued their pursuit of the raiders. The Indians outdistanced their pursuers, however, and the party turned back toward the settlements. As the company lay camped some nights later on the east bank of the Blanco River, Ben and Henry McCulloch approached Sweitzer's campfire. After joining the group around Caldwell's fire, Ben asked, "Captain, has your pursuit of the Indians ceased, and if so, do you have any reasonable expectation of a fight between this place and Gonzales?" When Caldwell replied that the expedition was at an end, Ben declared that the time had come to settle his grievance with Sweitzer and, rifle in hand, called upon him to defend himself. Sweitzer rose, leaving his rifle and pistols on the ground, claiming that he was not prepared to defend himself. McCulloch pointed out to him that his arms were within reach and promised him ample time to pick them up and use them. When Sweitzer declined the offer, McCulloch declared him "too base and cowardly to fight," except when drunk. In accordance with the code duello, since Sweitzer would not fight as a gentleman and since McCulloch could not afford to shoot him "like a dog," Ben contented himself by pronouncing his antagonist "a black-hearted, cowardly villain, in every respect beneath the notice of a gentleman."

Soon after the company returned to Gonzales, Reuben Ross, "a gallant but rash man," delivered a formal challenge to McCulloch from Sweitzer. McCulloch refused to recognize Ross's principal as a gentleman, he being, in Governor Wilson's terms, "one that has been posted, one that has been publicly disgraced without resenting it," and therefore declined to meet him. Ross was a man McCulloch respected, however, and as Sweitzer's second, he was bound by the code of honor to tender himself in his friend's stead. "The true reason of substitution," according to Wilson, "is the supposed insult of imputing the like inequality" charged upon a second's principal, and "when the contrary is declared, there should be no fight," for individuals were free to differ in their estimate of another individual's character and standing in society. Ben freely stated that he believed Ross a gentleman and his social equal. Nevertheless, on the next day, formal notes were exchanged between Ross and McCulloch and a meeting was arranged. On October 6, 1839, they faced each other with rifles at forty paces in a field two miles north of Gonzales. Ross, a trained duelist, fired at the word. His ball struck the under portion of McCulloch's right arm, passing from wrist to elbow, and causing him inadvertently to fire. Although McCulloch was severely wounded-some believed mortally-both men declared their honor satisfied, and Ross sent his personal surgeon to attend to McCulloch's wound. Ross told McCulloch that he regretted the circumstances that compelled him to "meet so brave a man in a private encounter," and expressed the hope that his wound was not serious, as he claimed to have never been McCulloch's enemy. "I assure you," Ross said, "that it would afford me great pleasure to henceforth claim you for a friend." The two shook hands. The force of the antidueling law is well illustrated by the fact that although McCulloch was indicted for "contriving and intending to break the peace of this Republic, setting at nought the quiet and good morals of this community" by "wickedly, willfully, and maliciously" accepting Ross's challenge, the district attorney choose not to prosecute, and the case was discharged.

William R. Hogan, The Texas Republic: A Social and Economic History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946; rpt. 1969). William Preston Johnston, The Life of General Albert Sidney Johnston (New York: Appleton, 1978). John J. Linn, Reminiscences of Fifty Years in Texas (New York: Sadlier, 1883; 2d ed., Austin: Steck, 1935; rpt., Austin: State House, 1986). Gerald S. Pierce, "A Minor Tragedy in the Texas Army: Lysander Wells and William D. Redd," Texas Military History 5 (Fall 1965). Victor Marion Rose, The Life and Services of Gen. Ben McCulloch (Philadelphia, 1888; rpt., Austin: Steck, 1958).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Thomas W. Cutrer, “Dueling in the Republic of Texas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dueling-in-the-republic-of-texas.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
October 3, 2019