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This Day in History: The odd duel between Christopher Gadsden and Robert Howe

On this day in 1778, Brigadier General Christopher Gadsden and Major General Robert Howe engage in a duel.

Perhaps you remember Gadsden for the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag that was named after him?

Gadsden (left) and Howe (right)

The duel was the culmination of a long-running dispute over rank. Then-Brigadier General Howe had been put in charge of Continental troops in South Carolina. Soon thereafter, Howe was asked to go to Georgia; South Carolina native Gadsden was in charge of the troops during his absence. When Howe returned, Gadsden questioned the terms of Howe’s return and believed that he, not Howe, should retain command.

Matters degenerated. Gadsden handed in his resignation, insisting that Howe send it to Congress for approval. Congress failed to investigate the matter, as Gadsden intended. Instead, it simply accepted the resignation. Gadsden held Howe responsible.

In the meantime, Howe was promoted to Major General—surely another blow to Gadsden’s pride!

In Philadelphia, few people realized how serious the problem was becoming. But in South Carolina, everyone knew what was happening—and they were also taking sides! (To some degree, the issue had become a dispute about who was to command troops: an officer appointed by Congress or a local officer.) Matters came to a head when Gadsden wrote an incendiary letter about Howe in July 1778. Howe had had enough. He demanded satisfaction. The duel was set for August 30 under the Liberty Tree.

On the morning of the duel, the place was packed. People had even climbed into the Liberty Tree to get a better view. The two men decided to relocate to a more private location.

You won’t believe what happened once the duel began.

The two men simply stared at each other in silence. According to a contemporary newspaper account, Howe finally said: “Fire, Sir.” Gadsden replied: “Do you fire first, Sir.” Howe concluded: “We will both fire together.” But, still, the two men just looked at each other. Finally Howe lowered his gun and asked: “Why don’t you fire, General Gadsden?” “You brought me out, General Howe, to this ball play, and ought to begin the entertainment.”

Howe’s first shot barely clipped Gadsden’s ear. Gadsden then put his pistol at right angles with Howe and wasted his shot. Howe took the deliberately missed shot as an apology, although Gadsden would insist that the apology was for the personal insults, not for contesting Howe’s right to command in the first place. In the end, the two men parted rather amicably.

Gadsden seems to have later regretted at least some part of this entire affair. He later became an advocate of laws to outlaw dueling.

So many unexpected twists and turns in our history, aren’t there?

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