By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013-2014, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
The honor system is something that is familiar to almost everyone. It is defined as a system whereby persons are trusted to abide by a certain code of conduct without supervision or surveillance. But there is another type of honor system that held individuals to a code of conduct that frequently led to tragic consequences. This honor system was usually referred to as a matter of honor or an affair of honor, and one such incident involving two Confederate generals took place on September 6, 1863 at 15 paces with Colt Navy revolvers.
The principals involved were John Sappington Marmaduke and Lucius Marshall Walker, whose nickname was Marsh Walker and who was a nephew of James K. Polk. During the battle of Helena, Arkansas on July 4, 1863, the main Confederate attack was in the center, but to the north the cavalry units of Marmaduke and Walker were to give further weight to the main attack by assaulting Union positions on this part of the battlefield. Marmaduke’s unit made its assault, but its left flank became exposed to a Union counterattack, because Walker’s unit failed to provide support. This is because Walker believed that doing so would lead to his unit becoming dangerously exposed. Marmaduke wrote in his after battle report that his failure to capture his objective resulted from lack of support from Walker’s unit. Marmaduke’s claim led the commander of the Confederate army at Helena to charge in his report that Walker had not done his duty. Further animus was added to the relationship between Marmaduke and Walker when the defeated Confederate army was withdrawing from Helena to Little Rock. The cavalry units of Marmaduke and Walker were acting as rear guard with Walker in command, since he was the senior officer. At one point, Marmaduke’s unit was to draw the pursuing Union cavalry forward into a narrow area where Walker’s unit would attack it. Marmaduke did draw the Union cavalry forward, but Walker had continued to withdraw with the rest of the Confederate army, with the result that Walker’s unit was not present to attack the Union cavalry, and Marmaduke and his unit were nearly captured. Marmaduke was understandably angry and demanded that his unit be transferred from under Walker’s command.
When Walker learned that Marmaduke had made statements about his conduct, he sent a message to Marmaduke that precipitated a heated exchange, and the messengers played more than just a delivery role. Marmaduke’s messenger was his friend Captain John Moore, and Walker’s messenger was Colonel Robert Crockett. The name of Walker’s messenger should be familiar, because Walker’s messenger, Robert Crockett, was the grandson of Davy Crockett. The exchange of messages began ostensibly as a request for information, but quickly escalated in gravity, and seemingly without the knowledge of the principals.
From Walker to Marmaduke: “General, I am informed that you have pronounced me a coward, and that I so acted…You will please inform me whether you have been correctly reported.”
From Marmaduke to Walker: “General, I received your note…stating that it had been ‘reported’ to you that I had ‘pronounced you a coward.’…I do not recognize the right of yourself or anyone else to call for ‘explanations’ when your information is based upon nameless ‘reporters.’ In this case however I will waive it. I have not pronounced you a coward, but I desire to inform you that your conduct as commander of the cavalry…was such that I determined no longer to serve under you.”
From Walker to Marmaduke: “Your note…is so far satisfactory in what relates to the questions contained in my note…But you say that my conduct as commander of the cavalry…was such that you determined no longer to serve under me. The above language is capable of many different constructions, and I therefore demand an explicit explanation of your meaning.”
The next message was not from Marmaduke to Walker, but from Marmaduke’s messenger (Moore) to Walker’s messenger (Crockett). In it, Moore acknowledged receipt of Walker’s message and then stated that Marmaduke “disclaims the use of the specific term coward in relation to General Walker,” but that Marmaduke holds himself responsible for the inferences that may be drawn from the statements in his note. Moore’s note went on to say that these statements “were predicated upon” the “scrupulous care with which General Walker avoided all positions of danger” and “the fact of his refusal to make his appearance upon the field of battle.”
Crockett replied in a note directly to Moore, in which he first acknowledged receipt of Moore’s note and then stated in regard to that note, “It presents but one alternative. As the friend of General Walker, and without consultation with him, I demand in his behalf of General Marmaduke the satisfaction due to a gentleman. You will please to confer with me at your earliest convenience, so that proper preliminary arrangements can be made for a meeting at once.”
Moore then replied to Crockett in a note, “It affords me pleasure, as the friend of General Marmaduke, to accord to the demand of satisfaction. I shall be pleased to meet you at your earliest convenience, and arrange the necessary terms.”
In other words, Walker’s messenger issued the challenge of a duel without informing Walker of this, and Marmaduke’s messenger accepted the challenge on Marmaduke’s behalf. After the messengers arranged the terms of the duel, the commander of the Confederate army learned of the impending duel and issued orders to both parties to remain at their posts. However, Walker, for some unknown reason, did not receive the order, and Marmaduke simply ignored it. On the morning of September 6, 1863, the principals and their parties arrived at the appointed place; Walker brought a surgeon and Marmaduke an ambulance. After the location was prepared, Marmaduke and Walker faced each other, aimed, and shot, but neither man was struck. Marmaduke fired a second time and hit Walker in the abdomen. Then, in a most incongruous act in this whole incongruous affair, Marmaduke rushed to the fallen man into whom he had fervently desired to put a hole, immediately after accomplishing his goal of putting a hole into him, and offered Walker the use of his ambulance. As Marmaduke knelt next to Walker, Walker forgave Marmaduke for what had happened. The surgeon pronounced the wound fatal, and Walker died the next day.
Both Marmaduke and Walker suffered dire consequences from their duel. Walker’s dire consequences are obvious; he was mortally wounded in the duel. Marmaduke was arrested by his commanding officer as a murderer, since dueling had been outlawed in Arkansas in 1820. However, that commanding officer, realizing that the enemy was closing and that he had already lost one cavalry commander and could ill afford the confinement of the other, decided to suspend the arrest and return Marmaduke to his command. Eventually the matter was quietly dropped, and Marmaduke was never prosecuted. Nevertheless, the men who had served under Marsh Walker were not so inclined to forget what Marmaduke had done. On at least one occasion after the duel when Marmaduke ordered a charge, one of Walker’s former brigade commanders refused to do so on the grounds that he and his men would not serve under Marmaduke. After the Civil War, Marmaduke served as governor of Missouri, having been elected in 1884 as the first ex-Confederate to win a major political office in that state. Marmaduke’s other distinction is that he was the last Confederate officer to attain the rank of major general. Until the day he died in 1887, Marmaduke regretted that he had been responsible for Walker’s death.
Marsh Walker, Marmaduke’s dueling adversary, never saw the post-war period. He left behind a wife and four children. From our perspective, Walker’s death seems senseless. But from the perspective of the duelists, the affair looks entirely different. An 1836 manual on dueling says this. “It is certainly both awful and distressing to see a young person cut off suddenly in a duel, particularly if he be the father of a family; but the loss of a few lives is a mere trifle, when compared with the benefits resulting to Society at large…The man who falls in a duel, and the individual who is killed by the overturn of a stagecoach, are both unfortunate victims to a practice from which we derive great advantage.” These lofty words sound reassuring, but Marsh Walker may have felt differently as he lay dying and realized that he would never again see his wife and children and that he would never see his children grow to adulthood. Nevertheless, as Walker was being transported in Marmaduke’s ambulance, he told Robert Crockett, his messenger, to tell his wife that the duel was necessary to preserve his honor. Such was the honor system that claimed Marsh Walker.