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The Con Rea - Bill Evans Duel

 

A Lauderdale County Duel

A Lauderdale County Web Exclusive
by Bill White

 

A Question of Honor

"This is a mortal wound..." murmured General Alexander Hamilton to his physician Dr. David Hosack, his words barely perceptible as he lay wounded on a popular New Jersey dueling ground. He had been shot, in one of America's most infamous duels, by former vice president Aaron Burr. Hamilton died the following day. Fortunately, this tragic event did not define the outcome of most, or even many, duels of the era.
 


Hamilton - Burr Duel

The classic duel has been used through out the history of man. In medieval times the duel, called "judicial combat" was thought to be sanctioned by God in that He protected the duelist who was "in the right." Near the end of the eighteenth century a gentlemanly group of Irishmen created the "Code Duello" codifying the rules of dueling engagements. This code was "Americanized" in 1838 by South Carolina Governor John Lyde Wilson.

In fact, the chances of being killed in a duel were slight. The flintlock pistol, the predominant dueling weapon used in the United States, was heavy, smooth-bore and difficult to aim. Further, they often misfired and the "code" usually required that they be fired within three seconds of the order being given. To take a longer time aiming the weapon was considered to be dishonorable. [History, see below.]

The duel was the chief method of resolving some "insult" directed from one gentleman to another. It is important to understand that duels were fought between "gentlemen." They were not fought between men of so-called "common" upbringing, only between those of "higher" standing in society. The instigating insult could be as slight as criticizing ones political views or as great as injuring ones immediate family, as was often the case in duels.

Mississippi, sometimes even Lauderdale County, was well known for its duels. In 1857, Constantine Rea (pronounced "Ray") was challenged to a duel by another Lauderdale County citizen, William Evans. Con (as he was called in the county) Rea was the popular and "feisty" publisher of the Marion Lauderdale Republican newspaper. His editorials were often provocative, occasionally inflammatory but always made his readers think, considering and reconsidering their positions on topics of importance to the development of the county. He was quick to attack and relentless toward any perceived malfeasance of public officials, laziness in industry (especially the railroad industry) and, through his editorials, attempted to right the counties wrongs or, at least, encourage his readers to take a stand.

Righting the counties wrongs was, of course, part of his job. In a time when most of the information available to the citizens of an area was the newspapers, editors felt obliged to speak out on any topic that was believed to be troubling to the counties interests. Many newspaper editors spoke out as did Rea and many were challenged, time and again, to fight, literally, in defense of their views.

Mississippi editors, especially those in the Vicksburg area, were frequently called upon to defend some published item of perceived insult. In 1838, Dr. James Hagan, the editor of the Vicksburg Sentinel, was challenged by the editor of the Vicksburg Whig over some dispute concerning their respective editorial positions. Later, in 1843, Hagan was assassinated on a Vicksburg street by a man who admitted to the murder, justifying it with an article written by Hagan that reflected poorly on his father, Judge George Adams. In June of 1842 another Sentential editor, James F. Fall dueled with T. E. Robins of the Railroad Bank. Fall was wounded during the contest. Shortly thereafter, Captain Walter Hicky, yet another editor for the Sentinel, fought with a Dr. Macklin who was mortally wounded. James Ryan and a man named Jenkins both editors of the Sentinel were killed by R. E. Hammet of the Whig and H. A. Crabbe, respectively. On the basis of the activity in Vicksburg alone, one might assume that dueling was an occupational hazard of newspaper editors in Mississippi. [Truman, 306]

In Lauderdale County, in fact in all counties in the State of Mississippi, dueling had been outlawed by in the Mississippi Constitution of 1817 and the law had been strengthened in 1836. In the 1836 constitution, the practice of disfranchisement was continued, as in 1817, and the holding of public office prevented to those having participated in duels. The law even required, in the oath of office of Mississippi public servants, that they swear that they had taken part in no duels. This article remained a part of the constitution until it was removed, 141 years later, in 1977.

"Article VII, Section 2. The legislature shall pass such laws to prevent the evil practice of dueling as they may deem necessary, and may require all officers before they enter on the duties of their respective offices, to take the following oath or affirmation: 'I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I have not been engaged in a duel, by sending or accepting a challenge to fight a duel, or by fighting a duel since the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty-three, nor will I be so engaged during my continuance in office. So help me God.'"

At the appointed time, Rea and Evans, hoping to circumvent the Mississippi law, proceeded to the state line and crossed over into Alabama at a place that was then known as Ross' Ridge. Interestingly, under the State of Alabama constitution of 1819, which remained in effect until 1861, dueling was also outlawed. Possibility, it was believed that duelist could not be held responsible in Mississippi for a duel fought outside of that jurisdiction. Apparently this was a valid assumption since Con Rea later served in the state legislature of Mississippi and, in order to do so, would have had to have taken the Mississippi oath of office.

As was customary, each man brought his second, a person to speak for him in negotiating the specific rules of the contest. Durr indicates that William Evans second may have been Mr. Buck Hancock (Possibly William M. Hancock) when he writes "Mr. Buck Hancock loaded Mr. Bill Evans' gun." Rea's second remains unknown. However, the record further indicates that Con Rea brought a Dr. Knot as his physician, while William Evans brought Dr. D. U. Ford. It is possible that Dr. Knot, Mr. Rea's physician, also acted as his second, but this would be unusual.

There was apparently quite a large crowd of onlookers gathered to watch. Among the group was former slave Frank Durr. At the time, Durr would have still been a slave and the property of Marion resident E. A. Durr. This suggests that E. A. Durr and, perhaps, members of his family as well as other prominent members of the Marion community had turned out to observe the event. It is from Frank Durr's report of the event that we learn some of the details.

According to Durr, the people gathered to witness the event were asked to sit down, the horses and carriages or wagons (Durr says "...horses and things...") were moved back well out of the field of combat. Those present were admonished to remain quiet and maintain order. Durr also comments that both races were present "Black and white witnessed the fight."

It would have been the job of the seconds to lay out the field of combat and Durr indicates that sixty yards was stepped off and a board (plank, as he called it) was placed "to show the distance." There should have been two boards or marks. One for each combatant, separated by a distance of sixty yards as the parties had apparently determined. Rea and Evans would have each taken a position behind the marks, separated by the agreed upon distance.

The duelist, then faced away from their opponent, turning their backs to each other, their already cocked weapons at their sides, awaited the count.

The crowd would have been hushed, silently awaiting the outcome. Among the people watching must have been the relatives of the combatants, friends of both men and many respected members of the Marion community, anxiously waiting to see if one would die and another survive.

A second began to call out the count: "READY!" Each man would have raised his pistol to the ready position, arm bent at the elbow, barrel point to the sky. Then the count, "one..., two..., THREE!" Suddenly, both parties wheeled around and quickly taking aim, fired.

But the outcome was somewhat anticlimactic at best. Both duelist remained standing, Rea uninjured, Evans with only a slight wound, possibly to his leg, near his knee. The seconds would have huddled at this point each inquiring if the challenger, Evans, was satisfied. It was his honor that had been impugned and it was he who must have satisfaction, ending the combat.

He was not satisfied, the fight must continue.

Again the weapons were loaded. Again the positions were taken. Once again came the count and the report of the weapons. This time, for all their trouble, Evans received another minor wound, some reports say to his other, uninjured leg. Rea remained uninjured. A third round was required.

Accounts differ slightly on the number of rounds fought, but it is clear that in a final round, Evans wounded Rea in the vicinity of his knee. It was also a minor wound and would not trouble Rea in the years to come but, at last, having finally drawn blood from his opponent, Evans seemed satisfied. The two men, no doubt relieved that no one would die that day, likely shook hands and, as Durr said, "...made friends that day on the grounds."

Later, a writer for the Jackson Mississippian newspaper, Wilmuth S. Rutledge, reported in the 26 May 1854 edition:

"...an account of the 1854 duel between editor Con Rea and William Evans... The two men drank champaign [sic] amicably together, just before taking their positions, and then opened fire with rifles, at seventy yards,... At the fourth round, Rea was shot in both thighs, while Evans was cut by a ball near both his knees." [Oslen, 173]

Who actually has the correct report of the incident is of little consequence after more than 150 years. Durr was quite old and writing about an event that occurred fifty years distant when he wrote his account in 1908. He remembers pistols and that there were three rounds of firing. The reporter for the Mississippian remembers rifles, which seems unlikely but is quite possible, many duels of the time were fought with Mississippi "Yeager" Rifles. The United States Model 1841 rifles were plentiful at the time and solid, reliable weapons.


1841 Mississippi Rifle
"Yager"

In any event, years later in 1864, his newspaper career on hold for the duration of the War for Southern Independence, Major Con Rea, then an officer in the Army of the Confederacy was the Commander of a group of sharpshooters fighting on the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta, Georgia. During the engagement, he received a serious wound to the leg. The severity of the wound caused the amputation of his right leg. Although he was returned to Meridian to recuperate, his condition steadily worsened until he died, according to reports, of Gangrene, on 14 September 1864.[Jacob]

The once fiery voice of the Lauderdale Republican was, at last, silent. Nevertheless, Lauderdale found in the works and deeds of this loquacious young man a role model of high regard. She found a fighting spirit that rises above the tragedy of war and conflict, an exemplary life embodying her struggles and her successes and a cherished memory that lives still in the hearts and minds of the Empire County.

Suffice it, in the end, to say that there once was a time when honor, above reproach, was of such value to southern gentlemen that they would jeopardize all that they had and all that they were in its defense. Let us remember that there was a time when chivalry lived in the old south. And, let us also be thankful that men have found other ways to settle their differences with honor and dignity in the years since.

Author's note:
This article is based on the writing of former slave Frank Durr as published in "Bits and Pieces Volume 1." "Bits and Pieces" is one of the works referenced below and is available from the Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History's web site. Click below to visit the web site and read the list of documents available.

Visit Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History

Works Cited

Dawson, Jim, "Bits and Pieces Volume 1" Meridian: Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History, Inc., 1995.

"The History of Dueling in America.", Public Broadcasting Service, PBSOnline. 4 February 2008 <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/sfeature/dueling.html>

Olsen, Christopher J., "Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi: Masculinity, Honor, and the Antiparty Tradition, 1830-1860" New York: Oxford University Press, 2000

Jacob, Jennifer. "Major Constantine Rea: a brave and gallant officer" The Meridian Star, 23 November 2007

Truman, Major Ben C. "The Field of Honor: Being a Complete and Comprehensive History of dueling in all Countries." New York: Fords, Howard, and Hulbert Publishers, 1884

 

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