A "Friendly" Mexican War Duel?
James P. Fyffe (l) and Carr B. White (r) - two gentlemen buried in the same cemetery in Georgetown, Ohio. Men who knew each other prior to the Mexican War and lived in the same small community in Brown County. Later these two men would serve as commanding officers of Ohio infantry regiments during the War of the Rebellion. And yet these two men, during the Mexican-American War, fought a duel along the return trip to Ohio.
Both Fyffe and White joined the First Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the heady days of manifest destiny. The First Ohio was formed in May and June, 1846, and was heavily involved at the fighting at Monterrey, Mexico that following September. White served as second lieutenant in Company G and was promoted to captain in February, 1847. This promotion created bad blood between White and Fyffe, who had also served in Company G. The misunderstanding grew to such a level that Fyffe issued a "challenge to mortal combat" to which White accepted immediately. James F. Harrison, grandson of former president William Henry Harrison and colonel of the Eleventh Ohio Infantry during the Civil War, acted as Fyffe's second, and Ferdinand Van Derveer, later colonel of my home county's Civil War regiment, the Thirty-Fifth Ohio Infantry, was White's second. The two seconds tried to diffuse the situation, to no avail. The duel had to be put off until after the First Ohio mustered out, as Zachary Taylor, commanding the force the First Ohio was a part of, made it clear that dueling in his army would not be tolerated. Hence the duel would not occur in Mexico, although one story stated that it did.
On May 17th, Van Derveer informed Harrison:
Dear Sir, - In accordance with your request, I hereby give you, in writing, a statement of the preliminary arrangements entered into between you and myself concerning an affair wherein Lieutenant Fyffe and Captain White are the principals. Time, 1st of June; eight o’clock in the morning. Place, battle-ground below New Orleans. Weapons, pistols. Distance, fifteen paces. Any alterations may be made by the consent of both parties.
It is interesting that the initial location chosen for the duel was the site of the Battle of New Orleans. However, once again the movement of the regiment prevented the duel from taking place on Old Hickory's battlefield. As the regiment moved north along the Mississippi River, the steamboat on which they were being transported stopped to take on wood along the Arkansas shore and that taking on fuel would be a two hour process. It was decided to conduct the duel during this lull. At daybreak, June 10th, Fyffe and White met in a cotton field to settle their differences. Harrison had taken ill, so Fyffe's second was taken by Lieutenant James Moore. Neither White or Fyffe had fought a duel, and Fyffe did not even have a pistol. White had slipped into New Orleans two purchase a pair of long dueling pistols, and he allowed Fyffe to use one of his pair. With pistols loaded, the men facing each other only twelve paces apart (a change from the original terms), Fyffe's back to the Mississippi, and with the sun at his back, Fyffe's outline was silhouetted in the morning sun. With their right sides facing each other, Van Derveer counted out "one, two, three - fire!" and both men fired, and missed. The shooters were convinced by the interjection of others present that honor had been served, and the two men shook hands after both explaining and making concessions on their respective positions.
One story mentions that men from the regiment were straining to see the duel from the steamboat, but could not due to the distance and the vegetation along the shore. The story goes on to mention that after waiting what seemed to be a frustrating amount of time, the two men were seen walking back to the boat, arms draped over each other's shoulders. Did the men purposely miss as they were friends?
After the Mexican War Fyffe opened a law practice in a building that was owned by White in Georgetown, so the men must have been on friendly terms by this point. White would go on to have his own successful Civil War career in the Twelfth Ohio, while Fyffe died in January, 1864, after battling a long illness said to have been contracted at Shiloh, having served as colonel of the Fifty-Ninth Ohio.