Fate and Cowardice in September 1863

The few days of July of 1863 marked a pivotal time for the Confederacy’s war efforts – the Army of Northern Virginia was decisively defeated in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi fell to the Army of Tennessee, and the Confederate attacks against the Union garrison at Helena, Arkansas failed. In these defeats, Confederate commanders sought to find reason for these failures by placing blame on one another.


Major General John Sappington Marmaduke. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives.

At Helena, Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke, commander of the Missouri Cavalry Division in the Department of Arkansas, believed that Brig. Gen. Lucius Walker’s Arkansas Cavalry Division failed to support the attack after they fled to safety. Just months later at Reed’s Bridge, Marmaduke once again placed blame on Walker, whose troops were absent from the field over fear they would be flanked. Instead of pursuing a court martial or even putting the issue to rest, Marmaduke and Walker tried to resolve the matter via a dual – one of a few uses of dueling between general officers in the Civil War.

In the mid-nineteenth century, honor, courage, and chivalry were at the pinnacle of Southern manhood. According to historian Gerald Linderman, “the single most effective prescription for maintain other’s assumption that one was a man of honor was to act courageously.”[1] He goes on to say that, “manliness, godliness, duty, honor and knightliness constituted in varying degrees the values that Union and Confederate volunteers were determined to express through their actions on the battlefield.”[2] Nothing could be more damaging for a Southern gentleman to be questioned over his courage, which is why Walker proceeded to challenge Marmaduke to a duel.

Both Marmaduke and Walker originated from upper-class, aristocratic Southern families. The son of the eighth Governor of Missouri and plantation owner, Marmaduke attended Yale, Harvard, and later the United States Military Academy (Class of 1857) before serving as a junior officer in the United States Army. Prior to Helena and Reed’s Bridge, he was known for his feisty nature and stubbornness, particularly when he resigned his commission in the Missouri State Guard when ordered to hold a defenseless position with ill-trained troops. Marmaduke was also combat wounded at Shiloh, where he commanded the 18th Arkansas Infantry, and was promoted in November 1862 to brigadier general. He first commanded a cavalry brigade at the Battle of Prairie Grove, less than one month after his promotion.

Tennessee native Walker, on the other hand, was the nephew of President James Polk, fellow West Pointer, and a successful businessman. Soon after the war broke out, Walker was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the 40th Tennessee Infantry. Though defeated at Island No. 10 and Kentucky Bend, his leadership earned him a promotion to brigadier general. Walker’s relationship with Lt. Gen. Braxton Bragg deteriorated from 1862 until March 1863, when Bragg determined Walker was unfit for command. In March 1863, Walker was transferred from Bragg and given command of a cavalry brigade in the Trans-Mississippi Department under Lt. Gen. Theophilus Holmes.


Brigadier General Lucius Walker. Courtesy of Wikimedia. 

The first rifts between Marmaduke and Walker stemmed from the failed Confederate attack at Helena – a prominent Federal base and garrison along the Mississippi River – on July 4, 1863. Though Vicksburg officially surrendered that same day, the Southern strategy was to threaten and take Helena to relieve pressure off the Vicksburg defenses and reinforce the Mississippi River line. It would not be an easy task, due to the extensive fortifications surrounding the river town. Beginning on June 22, Confederate forces began their advance to converge on Helena, which was hindered as word of their approach reached the Federal defenses.

At daybreak on July 4, Confederate troops advanced from the north, west, and south on the Helena defenses. Marmaduke’s cavalry moved south along the Old St. Francis Road against the fortifications at Rightor Hill, while Walker’s division moved south along the levee, protecting the left flank of the advance. Lack of proper communication and intelligence led to Walker failing to advance on Marmaduke’s right flank, thus hindering their ability to take Helena from the north. Marmaduke was livid.

In his after-action report from the Battle of Helena, Marmaduke explained his side of the story, while also defending his division’s retreat at the fault of Walker:

“I had the force on my left (of infantry and artillery) thoroughly protected by the levee, which engaged a large part of my force, and, one every attempt to advance, enfiladed my line. It was from the sharpshooters and artillery on my left and rear that I suffered my greatest loss, and not until they were dislodged could I have advanced. I twice dispatched to Brigadier-General Walker to advance and assist me in dislodging them. It was not done . . . The attack upon Fort Rightor by my command was a failure. I have every reason to believe that my troops would have carried it had it not been for the force on my left and rear, which occupied that position after daylight, and which could and should have been prevented from taking that position, and after they had gained the position, could have been driven from it by General Walker’s brigade, which did not come to my support of my left till after 7 a.m.; and during the whole engagement his force was more than half a mile to my left and rear . . . Walker’s brigade not only did not prevent re-enforcements from going to Fort Rightor, but the enemy after sunrise actually passed to my left and half a mile to my rear, and held that position during the day.” [3]

On July 7, 1863, Walker submitted his after-action report, which attempted to defend his actions and retreat:

“I effectually compiled with the part assigned to me in the order of attack by preventing the enemy from throwing troops to Rightor Hill, which they were constantly trying to do, and made two strong efforts and were repulsed. I protected Brigadier General Marmaduke’s left flank. My command was engaged in front of his left. At about 2o’clock I was informed by General Marmaduke that he had withdrawn his command. I had hard fighting to protect my left flank, and when my right became exposed I commenced to get loose from the enemy and retired.” [4]

Holmes ultimately sided with Marmaduke, agreeing that Walker’s performance was lacking. In his report, Holmes speaks of this issue – “It was the peculiar duty of Brigadier-General Walker why this service was not rendered.”[5] To both Holmes and Marmaduke, Walker should have remained on Marmaduke’s left, protecting his advance and remaining on the levee. Walker was essentially the entire Confederate force’s left anchor. If Walker could no longer hold his position, should not he alert Marmaduke of the incident instead of retreating? Since we historians cannot witness the event firsthand, we have no ability to judge their actions – particularly whether Walker’s performance was sub-par. However, we can certainly look at what transpired and how Helena would later result in Walker’s death.

Just over one month after the Helena incident, the Confederate army retreated toward Little Rock, Arkansas and both Marmaduke and Walker’s cavalry were assigned as rearguard. With the Federals in pursuit, Marmaduke proposed a plan to ambush approaching Federal cavalry at Brownsville, with Walker’s men playing a vital role. Instead, Walker failed to act, which left Marmaduke’s force completely vulnerable. In Price’s report, he wrote, “My troops, which were under the immedate [sic] command of Brigadier-General Marmaduke, behaved admirably, and the enemy was repulsed with heavy loss. General Walker, fearing from the indications given that the enemy was about to flank his position, withdrew his troops after dark.”[6] The tension was far from over.

On August 27, 1863, Marmaduke and Walker’s cavalry sought to slow down the Federal advance at the Bayou Meto. To review the strategy of attacking the Federal positions at the Bayou Meto, Marmaduke sought Walker’s presence for a meeting. Walker refused to leave his headquarters, knowing he was the superior officer over Marmaduke. Infuriated by Walker, Marmaduke offered his resignation unless he was transferred from Walker’s command. Even though there were fractures in Confederate leadership, skirmishing along the Reed’s Bridge resulted in a Confederate victory.

The disagreements between Walker and Marmaduke were so severe that their staff became involved in the affair, leading the two Southern commanders into a duel. Col. Robert H. Crockett of Walker’s staff openly challenged Marmaduke on behalf of Walker, while Capt. John C. Moore of Marmaduke’s staff accepted. Both subordinates accepted the duel without communicating with the officers they represented.

The duel was scheduled for September 6, 1863 at Godfrey Le Fevre Plantation just seven miles south of Little Rock, and the news had trickled through Price’s ranks. Price himself “sent to each of them an order to remain closely at his headquarters for twenty-four hours,” because of the “great inconvenience and danger of an entire change of cavalry commanders in the very presence of the enemy.”[7] Yet, the two generals still faced off – a duel to the death.


Present-day location of the duel. Courtesy of Battlefield Wanderings. 

Armed with Colt Navy revolvers of five rounds each, Marmaduke and Walker both stepped off at fifteen paces. Their first shots were misses. Marmaduke was the first to fire the second shot, which tore into Walker’s side. As Walker fell, his shot fired into the air.

Immediately, Marmaduke rushed over to Walker to check on his wounded enemy. Apologetic and remorseful, Marmaduke offered his wagon for Walker to be cared for in nearby Little Rock. As he lay dying, Walker penned his enemy a short note:

“See General Marmaduke and tell him that before taking the sacrament, I forgive him with all my heart, and I want my friends to forgive him and neither prosecute nor persecute him.” [8]

In the wake of the duel, Sterling Price arrested Marmaduke for two reasons: for disobeying orders to not duel with Walker and for violating Arkansas anti-dueling laws. However, he was released soon by Price due to the gap in cavalry command and to smother the flames of bitterness. At 5:00pm on September 8, 1863, “Marsh” Walker succumbed to his mortal wounds. He was later buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. Marmaduke’s Civil War career certainly did not end with the duel. He served as a cavalry division commander throughout the Trans-Mississippi – though many times controversial – notably in Price’s Missouri Raid of 1864. After the war, he resided in Carondelet, just south of St. Louis, where he became heavily involved with post-war politics. As a Confederate veteran, Democrat, and the son of a Missouri governor, Marmaduke was elected Governor of Missouri. He died of pneumonia in 1887 while in office.

1. Gerald R. Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (New York: The Free Press, 1987), 12.
2. Linderman, 16.
3.  John S. Marmaduke, After-Action Report of Attack on Helena, July 25, 1863, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880), ser. 1, vol. 22, part 1, 437.
4. L.M. Walker, After-Action Report of Attack on Helena, July 7, 1863, OR, ser 1., vol. 22, part 1, 433.
5. Theophilus Holmes, After-Action Report of Attack on Helena, August 14, 1863, OR, ser. 1, vol. 22, part 1, 409.
6. Sterling Price, After-Action Report of Operations July 24-September 25, November 20, 1863, OR,  ser. 1, vol. 22, part 1, 520.  
7.  Price, Addenda. OR, ser. 1, vol. 22, part 1, 525.
8. Mark K. Christ, Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle for a State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 2010), 174.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s