Book Review: Anatomy of a Duel: Secession, Civil War, and the Evolution of Kentucky Violence


by Stuart Sanders

Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2023. Pp. vi, 255. Illus., notes, index. $30.00 paper. ISBN: 0813198461

War, Reconstruction, and Vengence

On the afternoon of July 18, 1867, several men walked into a saloon in Stanford, Kentucky where another man was playing checkers. They were armed with Spencer repeating rifles and they filled the man with bullets before he had a chance to rise from his chair. Some said the victim, Maj. James Bridgewater, was the leader of a feared criminal gang who had long terrorized the district. Others said that he was a brave and honorable Union man who stood up to a band of Regulators. The killers (“young men of the best families”) surrendered and were acquitted a few days later, on grounds of self-defense: all agreed that the victim had made murderous threats against them and they thought they’d better kill him before he killed them. The jury accepted this explanation. No one came to court to testify for the dead man.

How could a public assassination like this have come about in a long-settled state led by a cultured upper class that had given many statesmen to the nation? The author helps us to understand the context of this lawlessness through examination of a specific event, a duel that took place on May 8, 1862 between William T. Casto, a secessionist of Mason County, Kentucky, and Leonidas Metcalfe, an outspoken Unionist, of the same area. In weaving the history around the causes and consequences of this event, the author reveals an enduring and devastating aspect of the Civil War that is not addressed in familiar narratives. By destroying cultural restraints on personal conflict, the war fueled habits of personal and political violence that characterized the South for decades afterward.

As many observed, the antebellum South was an honor culture driven by a distinctive brew of ancestral values, a hierarchical society, and the domineering habits of slavery. Violence in defense of manly honor was central to it up and down the social scale. For the upper classes, this had evolved into the code duello (described in interesting detail by the author), which distinguished gentlemen’s conflicts from the brutal fist and knife fights of the lower classes. Here, aggression was transformed into a kind of performance, whose stately complexity provided opportunities for satisfying honor in multiple ways, both with and without blood. More practically, it slowed things down: in the time it took for friends to negotiate terms, many duels were defused. This ritual provided the necessary demonstration that one was not a coward, without which a man could not live in Southern society. Dueling was always illegal and much denounced, but these concerns were widely ignored. Men of great eminence, such as Henry Clay, fought duels. Deaths were rarely brought to court, and if they were, they inevitably ended in acquittal for self-defense.

The secession crisis exploded in the middle of this culture, multiplying occasions for intense conflicts between neighbors that were hotly personal as well as political, and with very direct implications for the liberty and security of the participants and their families. The author describes in detail the cold ruthlessness with which the national government dragged Casto and other known secessionists into detention in the months after Fort Sumter, spiriting them in the night across the Ohio River beyond the reach of Kentucky judges. It is a reminder that, in wartime, holding the border states for the Union cause was serious business. There was no place there for gentlemen’s rules.

Casto spent several months in detention without charge or trial, brooding on his wrongs in the degrading pigsty of Fort Lafayette. The author deftly highlights how Casto’s sense of personal honor blended seamlessly with his conception of his freedom and rights as an American, both of which were outraged. When he was finally released in February 1862, he came out in a fighting mood, ready to kill the man whose influence he blamed for putting him there. Metcalfe did not even remember Casto: he had fingered many such men for detention. He allowed Casto a fight by gentlemen’s rules, but chose Colt revolving rifles, lethal military weapons that were very far from conventional dueling pistols. He was an expert rifle shot: once Casto missed his shot, Metcalfe killed him with a 56-caliber bullet through the body.

This duel is the hinge between the antebellum culture of honor and the surge of violence that took hold in the aftermath of the war. By 1865, guerilla warfare and harsh military rule had made a shambles of Kentucky society, a dangerous ground for a postwar future of banditry, vigilantism, and racial terrorism throughout the state. The author’s account demonstrates how the large-scale political violence that we associate with Reconstruction was founded in and seamless with personal violence no longer subject to prewar social restraints. The government’s inability to establish a monopoly of violence ensured that personal conflicts could not be resolved peacefully, even if social mores would permit it. And those conflicts took a quantum leap in lethality due to the free availability of weapons of war: the Spencer rifle and the Colt revolver.

In this environment, the illegal but universal habit of carrying concealed weapons took hold, sparking spontaneous conflicts between enemies on the street. The author describes one of a number of these, between political enemies meeting by chance in the post office. Fought in the midst of a crowd of people, this brawl ended in the death of both parties: one shot at close range with a pistol to the belly, the other knifed repeatedly until stabbed in the heart. Ministers, businessmen, and, increasingly, organized women’s groups, protested vigorously against the lawlessness, but the politicians responsible for addressing the problem were the very parties participating in it. The author names a long list of men with successful political careers who were not hampered at all by involvement in violence. When a citizen was asked about a particularly brutal shotgun killing of a judge in the streets of the state capital, he said “to tell you the truth, there is so much of that kind of thing done among us that unless we lose a brother, father or some close kin, it doesn’t excite us much.”

As progressive businessmen argued at the time, Kentucky’s reputation for barbarity and insecurity deterred the outside investment and immigration that the state needed to progress economically and socially. Thus, violence was a direct factor in preserving Kentucky’s ossified Southern-pattern social and political system and in holding its citizens in a state of poverty and underdevelopment for many decades.

Fighting was men’s business, but the deaths that resulted very often left widows and children who had lost their breadwinner and protector. It would be interesting to know how those women saw the matter. Did they fear the outcome of every trip their husbands took to town? Or was getting shot just one of many risks in life, on par with disease and accidents? Similarly, one woman noted how conflicts tended to spring up on courthouse Sundays in the large groups of drunken men that collected in saloons on those occasions. This suggests a connection to women’s activism in advocating prohibition. Like fighting and shootings, drinking in saloons was an all-male activity, and prohibitionists often cited harm to women and children in support of their cause.




Note: Anatomy of a Duel is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Rock Miller   

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