the historical image of Texas that endures along
with cowboys and Indians and the
Alamo is the classic gunfight. The showdown at high noon on the dusty main
street of a Western town has its roots in the “gentlemanly” duels cultivated almost
to an art form in the South for decades. Dueling was a major issue during the
Republic of Texas years when the army tried to crack down on the practice, which
usually resulted in the loss of at least one fighter to what might be called unfriendly
friendly fire. |
The editor of the Austin Sentinel newspaper responded
to an 1837 duel between two Army officers by writing, “We would opine that there
was enough fighting to be had on the frontier without resorting to private combats.”
Albert Sidney Johnston, Commander in Chief of the Army following
Sam Houston, was particularly
vexed by duels. He once had to slap the pistol from one officer’s hand to keep
him from shooting another officer. Another time, a colonel called on Johnston
to serve as an impartial judge in an impending duel with a rival officer. Before
Johnston could remind the colonel that dueling was against army regulations, the
other duelist arrived and opened fire.
Though Johnston was largely responsible
for enforcing the Texas Army’s ban on dueling, he was not one to let a challenge
to his own honor go unanswered. When General Felix Huston challenged Johnston
to a duel, Johnston accepted.
Johnston and Huston could both be termed
“Fighting Kentuckians” since both men hailed for that state. Their duel came on
Feb. 5, 1837, not long after Sam
Houston appointed Johnston as the Texas’s Army’s senior brigadier general,
making him the Army commander. Huston was forced to relinquish command by becoming
a junior brigadier general.
Huston’s foul mood over the matter turned
murderous when Johnston had the general order announcing his appointment read
to the assembled troops. Huston was so offended he challenged Johnston to a duel,
and Johnston accepted.
The duelists met on the Lavaca River in Jackson
County, near a large oak tree that has become known as Dueling Oak, to
settle a matter that, to our eyes now, seems to have already been settled. In
recognition of Huston’s reputation as an expert marksman, Johnson’s second (sort
of a reserve duelist as it were) suggested that the two men agree to fire at each
other from the hip, and that is how that particular duel was fought.
intended to wait until Huston took aim before firing his own pistol, hoping the
sound of his gun would upset Huston’s aim and timing. Johnston and Huston each
fired three times at the other until, on the third exchange, Huston shot Johnston
through the hip. The attending physician, noting that the ball had injured Johnston’s
sciatic nerve, assured Johnston that he was going to die.
his fallen foe, offered condolences and said he would be happy to serve under
him. How much comfort this actually gave Johnston isn’t known, but he never held
the duel or its results against Huston.
Johnston lingered near death for
several months and eventually recovered and resumed command of the Texas troops.
He would go on to wider fame as a Confederate General during the Civil War. Huston
soon left the Army and returned to the United States.
was often the case, Sam Houston
was contrary to ordinary when it came to the matter of dueling. If such records
were kept, Houston would certainly be the hands-down winner for most challenges
to a duel declined. He responded to one challenge by saying, “This is number twenty-four.
The angry gentleman must wait his turn.” He turned down a challenge from former
Texas President David G. Burnett by saying he “never fought downhill and never
Texas passed a bill that outlawed dueling in 1840, and for the
next 99 years all state officials were required to take an oath asserting that
they had never taken part in a duel. By that time the gentlemanly dueling pistols
had been replaced by rapid fire revolvers and eventually machine guns, which made
“duels” more a matter of superior firepower and a good place to take cover.
W.T. Jack might have actually seen a glimpse of that future. When he was challenged
to a duel he agreed but only if the duel took place with shotguns across a table.
Under those terms, dueling would never have been much of a problem in the Texas
or any other army.
Central Texas" February
24, 2010 Column
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