Let me relate one of Dr. McCormick's duel anecdotes; he having witnessed the scenes he described, and assisted at them as attending surgeon. The events occurred near New Orleans - the parties well known there, all of them being men of wealth and great note in the cotton kingdom. Time, 1841.
The principals were Colonel Augustus Alston, a graduate of West Point, and Colonel Lee Reed; planters, both; chief men of their county; politicians, of course. Long-standing, bitter feud between the families, aggravated by political aspirations and disappointments; the whole county sympathizing with one or the other - eagerly, wildly sympathizing. The quarrel relieved the tedium of idleness; served instead of morning paper to the men, supplied the want of new novels to the women. At length, one of the Alston party, on slight pretext, challenged Reed, which challenge Reed refused to accept; no man but Alston for his pistol. Another Alstonian challenge, and yet another, he declined. Then Alston himself sent a challenge - Alston, the best shot in a state whose citizens cultivated the deadly art with the zeal of saints toiling after perfection. This challenge Lee instantly accepted. Weapon, the rifle, hair-trigger, ounce ball. Men to stand at twenty paces, back to back; to wheel at the word One; to fire as soon as they pleased after the word; the second to continue counting as far as five; after which, no firing.
Lee was a slow, portly man - a good shot if he could fire in his own way without this preliminary wheeling. He regarded himself as a dead man; he felt that he had no chance whatever of his life on such terms, not one in a thousand. He bought a coffin and a shroud, and arranged all his affairs for immediate death. The day before the duel, his second, a captain in the army, took him out of town and gave him a long drill in the wheel-and-fire exercise. The pupil was inapt - could not get the knack of wheeling. If he wheeled quickly, his aim was bad; if he wheeled slowly, there was no need of his aiming at all, for his antagonist was as ready with heel as with trigger, from old training at West Point. "Lee," said the captain, "you must wheel quicker or you've no chance." Stimulated with this remark, Lee wheeled with velocity, and fired with such success as to bring down a neighbor riding along the road.
Lee sent his coffin and shroud to the field. Mrs. Alston accompanied her husband. "I have come," she said, "to see Lee Reed shot."
The men were placed, and the second counted one. In swiftly wheeling, the light cape of Alston's coat touched the hair-trigger, and his ball whistled over Reed's head, who stood amazed, with rifle half presented. The word two, recalled him to himself; he fired; and Alston fell pierced through the heart. Mrs. Alston flew to her fallen husband, and found the ball which had slain him. In the sight and hearing of the witnesses of the duel, her dead husband bleeding at her feet, she lifted up the ball, and with loud voice and fierce dramatic gesture, swore that that ball should kill Lee Reed.
Now, observe the conduct of the "chivalry" upon this occassion. Note the Public Opinion of that community. Were they touched by Lee's magnificent courage? Were they moved to gentler thoughts by Alston's just but lamentable end? The Montagues and Capulets were reconciled over dead Juliet and Romeo:
A few days after, Lee was seated at the table of the hotel, in the public dining-room, at which also sat men, ladies and children - a large number - Dr. McCormick among them. Willis Alston entered, took his stand opposite Lee, drew a pistol, and shot him through the liver. The wound was not mortal. After some months of confinement, Lee was well again, and went about as usual, the bloody-minded Alston still loose among the people. They met at length in the streets of the town, and Alston shot him again, inflicting this time a mortal wound.
Then, there was a hideous farce of a trial. Every man in the court-room, except two, was armed to the teeth. Those two were the judge, and the principal witness, Doctor McCormick. The jurymen all had a rifle at their side in the jury-box - twelve men, twelve rifles. The prisoner had two enormous horse-pistols protruding from his vest. The spectators were all armed; the Lees to prevent a rescue in case of conviction, the Alstons to protect their man in case of acquital. The counsel for the accused admitted that their client had shot the deceased, but contended that the would then inflicted was not the cause of his death. Doctor McCormick was called, and took the stand amid the deepest silence, the prisoner glaring at him like the wild beast he was.
"Is it your belief that the deceased came to his death from the wound inflicted by the prisoner at the bar?"
"I have no belief on the subject," replied the witness. "It is not a matter of belief, but of fact. I know he did."
That night, the trial not yet concluded, the prisoner deemed it best to escape from prison. He went to Texas; met on a road there an old enemy, whom he shot dead in his saddle; and on reaching the next town, boasted of his exploit to the murdered man's friends and neighbors. Thirty of them seized him, tied him to a tree, and shot him, all the thirty firing at once, to divide the responsibility among them. And so the brute's career was fitly ended.
Nor can we pity the murdered Reed, brave as he was; for he, too, was a man of blood. They tell of an early duel of his so incredibly savage, that, in comparison with it, General Jackson's little affair with Charles Dickinson seems the play of boys. Picture it. Two men standing sixty feet apart, back to back, each armed with two revolvers and a bowie knife. They are to wheel at the word, approach one another firing, fire as fast as they choose, advance as rapidly as they choose. Pistols failing, then the grapple and the knife. As it was arranged, so it was done. Lee fired his last charge, but his antagonist was still erect. The men were within six feet of one another, when Lee, bleeding fast from several wounds, collected his remaining strength, and threw his pistol, with desparate force in his antagonist's face, and felled him with the blow. Lee staggered forward, and fell upon him. Drawing his knife, he was seen feeling for the heart of his enemy, and having found it, he placed the point of the knife over it and tried to drive it home. He could not. Then holding the knife with one hand he tried to raise himself with the other, so as to fall upon the knife, and kill his adversary by mere gravitation. This amazing spectacle was too much even for the seconds in a southern duel, one of whom seized the man by the feet and drew him off. It was found that his antagonist was dead where he lay; but Lee recovered to figure in another of these savage conflicts, and to die by violence in the streets.
General Butler in New Orleans by James Parton, pages 259-263
Mason Brothers, New York, 1864