My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Knife Assault on Alexander H. Stephens


Alexander Hamilton Stephens (1812 – 1883) was a remarkable man. He served as a US Representative from Georgia before and after the Civil War, was vice president of the Confederacy during the War, and served as governor of Georgia from 1882 until his death the following year. Though diminutive in stature, he was universally respected for his intellect and courage. Abraham Lincoln knew and admired him.

One of the remarkable things about the Old South is how often people of the highest social status resorted to physical violence. In 1848, Stephens barely survived a vicious knife attack by a political opponent, Judge Francis Cone. The fight is described in Georgia's Landmarks, Memorials, and Legends, by Lucian Lamar Knight:
Alexander H. Stephens was not an athlete. It is doubtful if the former Confederate Vice-President ever tipped the scales at more than ninety-six pounds, his exact weight in 1843, when he made his maiden speech in the national House of Representatives. Throughout his long career in public life, he presented the typical look of an invalid, wan and emaciated. But Mr. Stephens was an utter stranger to the sense of fear, either moral or physical. He was game to the core, and every ounce of flesh which gripped his spare bones contained as much real pluck as Caesar ever displayed in Gaul. 
On the steps of the old Thompson Hotel, in Atlanta, during the fall of 1848, there occurred an incident which well illustrates the courage of Mr. Stephens. It will also serve to show that he bore a charmed life. At this time he encountered somewhat unexpectedly Judge Francis H. Cone, of Greensboro, with whom he was then on strained terms. Judge Cone had severely criticized Mr. Stephens for something which the latter had either said or done in Congress, and among other choice epithets which the Judge is said to have used was the term "traitor." Difficulties almost immediately ensued. Mr. Stephens probably infuriated Judge Cone by returning his vituperative adjectives, whereupon Judge Cone, delving underneath his broadcloth [coat], whipped out a knife with which he made a leap toward Mr. Stephens. The latter was doubly at a disadvantage, not only because in avoirdupois he was a pigmy beside Judge Cone, but also because he was unarmed, except for an umbrella which shot out from his left elbow. With this somewhat unheroic weapon, Mr. Stephens sought to parry the blow of Judge Cone; but he was soon overpowered by his antagonist and fell bleeding upon the floor.
"Retract!" demanded the irate jurist, who now bent over his prostrate foe.
"Never!" replied Mr. Stephens, the blood gurgling from his wounds, but the proud spirit of the man still unquenched. Again the knife descended, severing an intercostal artery, but Mr. Stephens still refused to retract. He continued to grapple with his adversary, growing momentarily weaker and weaker, until at last rescue came from some of the hotel guests who, hastening to the scene of encounter, separated the belligerents. Though Mr. Stephens received the best medical attention, he lay for weeks hovering between life and death. Finally he arose from his sick bed to renew his campaign for reelection. But he never fully regained the use of his right hand which was frightfully lacerated in the struggle; and his penmanship as well as his person bore the marks of the encounter as long as he lived.
In justice to Judge Cone, who was one of the ablest lawyers in the State and a man much beloved in his social and domestic relations, it may be said that he was completely upset by his violent anger and did not perhaps stop to think of the difference in physical strength between himself and Mr. Stephens. They had once been good friends, in spite of professional tilts and rivalries; and later on in life the cordial relations of earlier years were resumed.
From other reports I have read, I believe Cone's knife was of the dirk style, rather than a bowie. However, the story illustrates how quick gentlemen were to engage in mortal combat in the ante-bellum South. It's hard to imagine any American politician of the last 50 years displaying Stephens' level of physical courage.

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