Duellist’s Grave

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Jacqueline Tingle as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2017.

The Duellist’s Grave historical marker was dedicated in 1954. View the Duellist’s Grave historical marker listing.

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1. Public Notice for Howell Duel, December 11, 1823. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

2. Correspondence for Howell Duel, December 1823. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

3. Button Gwinnett (1735-1777), photographic print, c. 1890-1940. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

4. Lachlan McIntosh (1727-1806), drawing, 7.5” x 10.5”, Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

5. Lachlan McIntosh and Button Gwinnett Dueling Pistols, May 16, 1777. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

6. Lachlan McIntosh Historical Marker, McIntosh Family Plot in Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah. Courtesy of Jacqueline Tingle.

7. Moon River Brewing Company formerly the Old City Hotel, Savannah. Courtesy of Jacqueline Tingle.

8. Duelist’s Grave Historical Marker, Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah. Courtesy of Jacqueline Tingle.

9. Tombstone of James Wilde, Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah. Courtesy of Jacqueline Tingle.

The following essay is by SCAD student Jacqueline Tingle, 2017.

Dueling Culture and Codes

Early American history includes rich and complex narratives of dueling as a custom to settle affairs of honor among gentlemen. Several famous statesmen such as Andrew Jackson, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton participated in duels. The status of these men and the stories surrounding their affairs of honor perpetuate a legendary status concerning the practice in history. However, the historic reality of dueling is often quite different. Dueling developed as an elite response to rudeness or an affront of character. The primary motive of a duel was typically superficial with the goal of preserving appearances and avoiding public disgrace.[i] Since duels regarded upholding public appearances, the practice was reserved for white males of a particular social status. In other words, poor men, women, and slaves did not duel.[ii] Most duels began with insulting language or behavior, and an attack on one’s word was viewed as the greatest offense. Being called a liar was a direct assault on the public appearance a man put forth, and one’s willingness to back up his words under threat of injury or death equated a viable defense of one’s public projection.[iii]

John Lyde Wilson, South Carolina’s 49th governor, remarks on the nature of duels as an act of self-preservation in his famous “Code of Honor.” He states, “The principal of self-preservation is co-extensive with creation; and when by education we make character and moral worth a part of ourselves, we guard these possessions with more watchful zeal than life itself.”[iv] The idea that character and moral worth become integral with a man’s appearance upon education are crucial to the cultural practice of dueling. A gentleman desired to seem dignified in both words and physical appearance. This sentiment is articulated in letters describing prestigious men by their noble features. It is echoed again in anti-dueling laws, which call for physical mutilation of the bodies of those involved in a duel.[v]  While anti-dueling laws were largely unsuccessful, they demonstrate that legislators recognized the importance of appearance to men of honor.[vi] Some of these laws called for a perished duelist to be buried without a coffin with a stake driven through the body, for the body to be delivered to a surgeon for dissection, or for the hanging of the body in cage to rot on a public square. These laws also requested for the survivor to be executed in a comparable fashion.[vii] The purpose of this type of punishment for dueling was to tarnish the appearance of the duelists. Men of lesser social status enacted similar though less severe practices of public mutilation when settling quarrels through the practice of eye-gouging, which left visible marks of shame.[viii]

These testaments to the significance of appearances for men of honor are certainly fascinating, yet they represent a small percentage of the actual outcomes of duels. Most duels did not end in injury or death of either participant, and the social codes that governed the arrangement of a duel were set up to prevent violence and facilitate agreement between parties. Codes for dueling require that a challenge be presented in writing in “the language of a gentleman.”[ix] The written challenge was to be posted (Fig.1) in a public place or sent as correspondence (Fig. 2) with a second, an impassive friend of the challenger.[x] The role of the second in dueling culture is central to aid in bringing about a peaceful resolution to an insult given or make the arrangements for the contest. Duels were not intended to persist until the death of one of the participants. In fact, code dictates that, “If after a fire, either party be touched, the duel is to end.”[xi] Code also insists on the presence of a surgeon at the dispute.[xii] Most gentlemen did not delight at the thought of killing or being killed in an affair of honor. The cause for romanticized notions of duels in present times exist due to the fact that historical records survive almost exclusively for duels in which one the participants perished. A duel was not likely to make the newspaper if it didn’t end in death, and the death of a celebrated soldier or statesman is likely to receive much greater documentation than that of a civilian.

When examining the history of dueling in Georgia, a few instances are notable and well documented through newspaper and preserved personal correspondence. These accounts date back to the founding of the colony when the first settlers arrived from England. Georgia’s founder, James Oglethorpe, is even quoted as remarking at a dinner party, “Undoubtedly a man has a right to defend his honor.”[xiii] An account of these instances will reveal how the culture and codes of dueling influenced the state’s early history.

The Duel of Button Gwinnett and Lachlan McIntosh

The duel between Declaration of Independence signer, Button Gwinnett (Fig. 3), and Revolutionary War general, Lachlan McIntosh (Fig. 4), is the most documented instance of dueling in early Georgia history. Political envy was the basis of their quarrel. Button Gwinnett owned a plantation on St. Catherine’s Island near Sunbury.[xiv] He was sent to the Provincial Congress of 1766 as a representative of St. John’s parish, and then he was elected as a delegate to attend the Continental Congress in Philadelphia where he endorsed the Declaration of Independence.[xv] Gwinnett became a member of the Georgia Council of Safety that same year and played an instrumental role in passing the State Constitution the following year.[xvi] Shortly thereafter, he was elected the President and Commander-in-Chief of Georgia.[xvii] Lachlan McIntosh came to Georgia at the age of nine and was the son of a Scottish immigrant.[xviii] The McIntosh family settled in Darien, Georgia where they adopted the lifestyle of a coastal planter. Lachlan became an early sympathizer of American independence.[xix]  He was elected to the Provincial Congress of Georgia in 1775, and in January of 1776 he was selected by Congress to command the first Continental battalion in Georgia.[xx] This marked the beginning of his Revolutionary War tour, which earned him the respect of General Washington.

The beginning of the quarrel between the two men was initiated when McIntosh was appointed as the brigadier-general in charge of three infantry regiments and one regiment of dragoons to serve the Continental military. Gwinnett had aspired to head this brigade, which led to his feelings of antagonism.[xxi] As Commander-in-Chief, Gwinnett removed McIntosh from the mission and took responsibility to personally command the brigade. The mission ended in failure and embarrassment for Gwinnett, and John Adam Treutlen was elected to replace him in office. Gwinnett soon thereafter caught word that McIntosh had criticized him in the company of members of the Executive Council.[xxii] This insult prompted Gwinnett’s challenge. The men met on the morning of May 16, 1777; at the short distance of four paces both men collapsed with a thigh injury after the initial exchange of shots (Fig. 5).[xxiii] Gwinnett passed away three days after the meeting, while McIntosh recovered to continue a prolific military career. McIntosh is most famously remembered as “the man who killed Button Gwinnett,” and his military decorations are often downplayed (Fig. 6). The consequences of the duel for both men, in terms of death and a life and legacy defined by one shot, are a testament to the dreadful realities of the cultural practice.

The Duel of James Stark and Philip Minis

One of the most intriguing instances of dueling in early Georgia is the dispute between James Stark and Dr. Philip Minis. The formalities for arranging a duel were never completed, however the quarrel still ended in fatality. The trouble between the two men arose when James Stark berated Minis publicly at Luddington’s Barroom. Stark is quoted as saying, “he ought to be pissed upon” and “he is not worth the powder and lead it would take to kill him.” He also made anti-Semitic comments about Minis, calling him a “damned Jew” or “damned Israelite.”[xxiv] Word got back to Dr. Minis, who decided not to take immediate action. It was not until a few months later that Minis issued a formal request for an apology from Stark, or “that satisfaction which one gentleman should afford another.”[xxv]

Stark gave no such satisfaction and made arrangements with his second, Mr. Wayne. The measures called for a meeting to fight with rifles at five in the afternoon.[xxvi] Minis’ second, Spalding, did not agree to the terms set forth on account of weapon or time, however Stark ignored the complaints, appearing for a duel that had not been agreed upon. He returned to mock the honor of Dr. Minis for refusing to show.[xxvii] On August 10, 1832, Dr. Philip Minis shot James Stark at the City Hotel, killing him instantaneously. Dr. Minis was accused of deliberate murder.[xxviii]

This tale of gentlemanly honor exemplifies the harsh ridicule a man could publicly endure should he decide not to engage in such affairs of dignity. Many tourists in Savannah that participate in haunted pub-crawls enjoy the story of James Stark and Philip Minis. The site of the murder still exists on Bay Street as Moon River Brewing Company (Fig. 7).

The Tragedy, the Poem, and Contemporary Reminders of Dueling Culture   

The most prominent public reminder of dueling culture in Savannah is the Historic Marker that indicates the Duelist’s Grave (Fig. 8) in Colonial Park Cemetery. The marker indicates the tomb of James Wilde (Fig. 9), who fell in a duel against Captain Roswell Johnson. James Wilde was the brother of famous poet and statesman, Richard Henry Wilde, and his death by duel is linked with his brother’s famous poem, “My life is like a summer rose.”[xxix] The only records of the duel exist in the City Hall burial book and on the tombstone inscription, and the reason for duel is unknown.[xxx] The poet divulged to a friend in correspondence that his poem was cut short by the death of this brother. The poem was intended to celebrate the military exploits of his brother.[xxxi] The sorrow expressed in the poem and on the tombstone inscription are the most noticeable public tokens that recall the sad and ominous reality of dueling culture in Savannah.

Dueling is often romanticized in popular culture today, though the reality of dueling culture was quite disconcerting. Hamilton the musical and American western genre films in particular pay homage to this practice. Vestiges of dueling culture also remain in contemporary politics; however, they take on a much different form. The concept of posting in a public place still exists in the name-calling that is prevalent among politicians on Twitter, especially the act of discrediting someone’s word in an attempt to smear his public image. While the dishonor that derives from this sort of posting may still effect political gain and public influence, it no longer carries much threat beyond the political realm. Dueling disbanded in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.[xxxii]

[i] Kenneth S. Greenberg, “The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South,” The American Historical Review 95, no.1 (February 1990): 58.

[ii] Ibid., 58-62.

[iii] Ibid., 63.

[iv] John Lyde Wilson, Code of Honor: A Civil War Era Rulebook for Duels and Dueling (Lexington, KY: Readaclassic, 2017), 6.

[v] Greenberg, “The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South,” 67.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Wilson, Code of Honor, 10.

[x] Ibid., 10-14.

[xi] Wilson, Code of Honor, 21.

[xii] Ibid., 24.

[xiii] Thomas Gamble, Savannah Duels and Duelists (Savannah, GA: The Oglethorpe Press Inc., 1997), 4.

[xiv] Ibid., 11.

[xv] Ibid., 11-13.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Alexander A. Lawrence, “General Lachlan McIntosh and His Suspension form Continental Command During the Revolution,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 38, no.2 (June, 1954): 104-105.

[xix] Ibid., 107.

[xx] Ibid., 107-108.

[xxi] Gamble, Savannah Duels and Duelists, 13.

[xxii] Ibid., 15.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Dr. Richard D. Arnold, Dairy of Dr. Richard D. Arnold (excerpts August 9-16, 1832). Dairy. Collection number MS0027, Georgia Historical Society, Richard Dennis Arnold Papers, August 10, 1832.

[xxv] Ibid. Malcolm Bell, Jr., “Ease and Elegance, Madeira and Murder: The Social Life of Savannah’s City Hotel,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 76, no. 3 (Fall 1992): 560.

[xxvi] Arnold, Dairy of Dr. Richard D. Arnold (excerpts August 9-16, 1832), August 12, 1832.

[xxvii] Bell, Jr., “Ease and Elegance, Madeira and Murder,” 560.

[xxviii] Arnold, Dairy of Dr. Richard D. Arnold (excerpts August 9-16, 1832), August 10-14, 1832.

[xxix] Ibid., 151.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid., 152.

[xxxii] Robert Baldick, The Duel: A History of Dueling (London: Spring Books, 1965), 202.

Arnold, Dr. Richard Dennis. Dairy of Dr. Richard D. Arnold (excerpts August 9-16, 1832). Richard Dennis Arnold Papers. Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, GA.

Baldick, Robert. The Duel: A History of Duelling. London: Chapman and Hall Ltd., 1965.

Bell, Malcom Jr. “Ease and Elegance, Madeira and Murder: The Social Life of Savannah’s City Hotel.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 76, no.3 (Fall 1992): 551-576.

Gamble, Thomas. Savannah Duels and Duelists, 1733-1877. Savannah, GA: The Oglethorpe Press Inc., 1977.

Greenberg, Kenneth S. “The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South.” The American Historical Review 95, no. 1 (February 1990): 57-74.

Lawrence, Alexander A. “ General Lachlan McIntosh and His Suspension from the Continental Command During the Revolution.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 38, no. 2 (June 1954): 101-141.

Wilson, John Lyde. Code of Honor: A Civil War Era Rulebook for Duels and Dueling. Lexington, KY: Readaclassic, 2017.