Civil War duel - one of the last "affairs of honor" in the Bluegrass State
(Mayfield, KY, May 8, 2012) - On this date in 1862, Mason County Southern sympathizers were mourning the death of former mayor William T. Casto, who died in a duel with Yankee Col. Leonidas Metcalfe.
On May 8, 1862, Metcalfe, 43, slew Casto, five years his junior, in one of the last – if not the last – “affairs of honor” in Bluegrass State history.
“This tragic ending of an out-moded social custom, growing out of a Civil War incident and one of the most noted in Kentucky, caused a deep sensation throughout the community,” wrote J. Winston Coleman Jr. in Famous Kentucky Duels. “Many persons lamented the passing of William T. Casto, lawyer and former mayor of Maysville who fell ‘a victim to the murderous practice of duelling’ in a state where the vicious code had been outlawed for more than fifty years.”
Maysville, the seat of Mason County, was pro-Union. Casto was pro-Confederate.
Hence, on Oct. 2, 1861, Yankee Gen. William O. Nelson, also a Kentuckian, ordered Metcalfe, son of ex-governor Thomas “Stonehammer” Metcalfe (for whom Metcalfe County is named), to arrest Casto and six other "secesh" as traitors. The Yankees imprisoned all seven.
Ultimately, all but Casto signed an oath of allegiance to the United States, a capitulation which opened their jail cells. Casto wanted out, too, though he refused to swear the loyalty oath.
Not until Feb. 21, 1862, did Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton agree to the Kentuckian’s release. But there was a catch. Casto had to sign a statement promising he wouldn’t give aid or comfort to the Confederates, Coleman wrote.
Casto was happy to get back home. But local Southern sympathizers probably helped keep his blood boiling against Metcalfe, who was still around, Coleman wrote. The colonel commanded a Kentucky regiment posted near Maysville.
On May 6, 1862, Casto sent a note to Metcalfe, demanding a duel. “Having done me great wrong under any circumstances, you cannot deny me…the satisfaction due from one gentleman to another,” Coleman quoted the missive.
Never mind that dueling was illegal in Kentucky. Forget that army regulations forbad the practice.
Of course, in 19th century Kentucky, a man’s honor trumped the law. So Metcalfe agreed to Casto's challenge.
Yet Metcalfe's note of acceptance was decidedly dismissive. “I have never had any acquaintance with you, have never exchanged a word with you to my knowledge, and consequently have not done you the wrong of which you speak.” Thus, Metcalfe also claimed, Casto's challenge was groundless “under the code of honor or any other code.” The colonel concluded that he was under no obligation to duel with him.
But the duel was on.
Because he was the challenged party, Metcalfe got to choose the weapons. He opted for the Colt revolving rifle, the first repeating rifle the U.S. Army adopted.
Casto and Metcalfe agreed that their field of honor should be beyond Mason County. So they agreed to shoot it out in adjacent Bracken County, near Dover.
Casto and Metcalfe stood 60 yards apart, aimed and fired. Casto missed. Metcalfe didn't.
The colonel's bullet hit Casto just below his heart, passing clear through him. He slumped to the ground.
Often, duelists brought along doctors in case they got shot. Casto was without medical help. So physicians who attended "Colonel Metcalfe volunteered their services, but their efforts to save his life were of no avail,” Coleman wrote. “Casto lived for about fifteen minutes, though unconscious all the time.”
-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at email@example.com.