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Monday, November 29, 2010

Civil War Bowie-Knife Duel

The following account of a bowie-knife duel was included in The Pictorial Book of Anecdotes and Incidents of the War of the Rebellion (1867), by Richard Miller.
Bowie-Knife Conflict at the Battle of Pea-Ridge. 
While the fight was raging about Miser's farmhouse, at the battle of Pea-Ridge, on Friday morning, a Union soldier belonging to the Twenty-fifth Missouri regiment and a member of a rebel Mississippi company, became separated from their commands, and found each other climbing the same fence. The rebel had one of those long knives made of a file, which the South has so extensively paraded, but so rarely used, and the Missourian had one also, having picked it up on the field. The rebel challenged his enemy to a fair open combat with the knife, intending to bully him, no doubt, but the challenge was promptly accepted. The two removed their coats, rolled up their sleeves, and began. The Mississippian had more skill, but his opponent more strength, and consequently the latter could not strike his enemy, while he received several cuts on the head and breast. The blood began trickling rapidly down the Unionist's face and running into his eyes, almost blinding him. The Union man became desperate, for he saw the secessionist was unhurt. He made a feint; the rebel leaned forward to arrest the blow, but employing too much energy, he could not recover himself at once. The Missourian perceived his advantage, and knew he could not lose it. In five seconds more it would be too late. His enemy glared at him like a wild beast, and was on the eve of striking again. Another feint; another dodge on the rebel's part, and then the heavy blade of the Missourian hurtled through the air, and fell with tremendous force upon the Mississippian's neck. The blood spurted from the throat, and the head fell over, almost entirely severed from the body. Ghastly sight--too ghastly even for the doer of the deed! He fainted at the spectacle, weakened by the loss of his own blood, and was soon after butchered by a Seminole who saw him sink to the earth.
A great story, but one that I didn't include in my book, for several reasons. For one thing, it is told in Raymond Thorp's book,  Bowie Knife, and since I assume anyone interested in the subject is familiar with that book, I repeated as little of the material it contained as possible. Secondly, the story is so obviously made-up that I felt it would insult the reader's intelligence to waste his time with it. Who could have provided such a blow-by-blow account? A dead giveaway in phony accounts is the use of boiler-plate phrases like "His enemy glared at him like a wild beast," which writers of 19th-century fiction were not able to resist.

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