Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton engaged in an infamous duel in 1804, and a number of South Carolina College students nearly got tangled up in duels in the years before the Civil War. History records only one duel involving South Carolina College students that ended in fatality — and this is the strange story of that tragedy.
Once upon a time, when a gentleman thought his honor had been besmirched, he might attempt to settle the score with swords or pistols — “I challenge you to a duel!”
I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re going back to the early 1800s when two students at South Carolina College got into an argument over a trivial matter that ended in a duel. The incident didn’t take place on campus, but the consequences were deadly nonetheless.
Before I tell the tale, here’s just a bit of historical background on the practice of dueling. In the 1600s and 1700s, a duel was usually an affair between people in the upper classes of society. There were many examples of noblemen engaged in duels and a few instances of noblewomen doing the same. By the 1800s, pistols had replaced swords as the dueling weapon of choice, although that wasn’t always the case — more on that at the end.
The practice of dueling began in Europe and made its way to America. Most everyone is familiar with the story of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton fighting a duel in 1804. Hamilton lost his life, but more than two centuries later his name lives on as the title of a popular musical. He’s also the face of every $10 bill.
In 1807 — just three years after the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel and two years after South Carolina College had opened its doors — two of the college’s students had too much to drink one day and sent challenges to one another. They never actually got around to fighting the duel, but the college expelled both of them anyway just for sending the challenges. The student body petitioned on their behalf, and the two men were later readmitted to continue their studies. The college president, Jonathan Maxcy, lectured the student body on the evils of duelling, but just a few months later, two more students were suspended for the same offense, and they were not allowed to return to campus.
Fast forward to 1828 when South Carolina College student Jonathan Waters of Newberry considered himself insulted by something that fellow student James Tradewell of Richland had said or done. Waters bought a pair of pistols, flung them on the table in Tradewell’s dormitory room and challenged him to a duel. Friends intervened and both students were suspended but nothing more took place.
And now we come to the main story. In 1833, two students at the college, A. Govan Roach of Colleton District and James G. Adams of Richland, routinely sat across from one another during meals at the Steward’s Hall. The custom of the day dictated that when the bell rang and the doors were opened, students hurried in and took hold of whatever dish was on the table where they were sitting.
It might be bread or butter or meat or what have you, but the rule was the same. The first to grab the dish was its rightful owner. On a fateful evening in 1833, Govan Roach and James Adams strode into the Steward’s Hall as friends and left as bitter rivals — and it all began when they both put their hands on a platter of trout.
“Govan, sir, would you please unhand the trout?”
“James, my hand was clearly on this plate.”
“You are mistaken.”
So these two students, neither of them more than 20 years old, grabbed a plate of fish and neither would let go. An eyewitness account claims that the two glared at each other for some time before Roach let go of the fish platter and spoke.
“Sir, I will see you after supper.”
Roach then got up and left the dining hall, and Adams quickly followed him. There was no wrestling or punching when they met outside. In fact, the accounts suggest it was all very prim and proper.
“Sir, what can I do to insult you?”
“This is enough, sir. You will hear from me.”
Each student went to his campus dormitory room, which in that year would have been either Rutledge or DeSaussure. Adams immediately sent a challenge to Roach who immediately accepted.
As I mentioned earlier, duelling was highly frowned upon by South Carolina College. In fact, it was explicitly outlawed. Unfortunately, neither Roach nor Adams was thinking about college rules and regulations in the heat of the moment, and equally unfortunately, none of their friends apparently made any attempt to put an end to the nonsense before it got out of hand.
The duel was fought the next day about 10 miles from Columbia at a place called Lightwood Knot Springs. Pistols were the chosen weapons, and the men stood 10 paces apart. The custom back then was for an observer, perhaps one of the seconds, to yell the following:
“Are you ready? Fire! One!”
After the word ‘fire,’ the men were supposed to raise their pistols and take aim, pulling the trigger at the word ‘one.’ On the first attempt, however, the flap of Roach’s coat caught his arm and prevented him from raising his pistol into firing position. Adams didn’t take advantage of the situation. He waited until the command was given again.
“Are you ready? Fire! One!”
Both pistols discharged and both men fell to the ground. Adams died a fews hours later. Roach was carried back to campus and never really recovered from his gunshot wound. He died a few years afterward. The two students who acted as seconds for Adams and Roach were expelled by the Board of Trustees. Here’s university archivist Elizabeth West.
Elizabeth West: “A plate with food on it is not something that we think of when we think of dueling and affronts to someone's honor. Nobody really won. And again, they were the very best of friends. Very, very close. And it just seems like such an oddity that what we probably perceive as a very minor thing led to this act of violence against two people who were very close and they essentially killed each other.”
Gun violence was a sad thing back then just as it’s a sad thing today. Fortunately, that incident in 1833 was the only reported duel involving South Carolina College students that ended in death. There were some close calls, though. In 1838, just five years after Adams and Roach fought over a plate of fish, two other students fought over who would be president of the Clariosophic Society — one of the two literary societies on campus.
Preston Brooks was up for the presidency of the Clariosophics, and he understood that fellow student Lewis Simons would not campaign against him. When Simons did campaign against him, Brooks called Simons a ‘falsifier.’ Simons subsequently challenged Brooks to a duel.
Brooks told Simons he would fight with his fists but would not engage in a duel with deadly weapons. Simons bought pistols and presented them to Brooks, who still refused. They ended up getting in a fist fight and Simons was expelled — probably because it became known that he was the one pushing for an actual duel. Brooks was suspended but, though he returned to the college, never graduated.
By the end of the Civil War, the practice of duelling in the United States had all but ended. There are, after all, more civil ways of defending one’s honor.
Just as a sidenote, I thought I would mention that none other than Abraham Lincoln was nearly caught up in a duel with a state official in Illinois. This was 20 years before Lincoln was first elected president. Friends of the two men intervened and talked them out of what might have been a history-altering duel.
Another notable American who nearly got into a duel was the writer Mark Twain. That confrontation never took place reportedly because the newspaper editor who had challenged Twain got wind of a possibly exaggerated report of Twain’s marksmanship and he didn’t want to find out whether it was true.
To ensure that we end this episode about duelling on a lighthearted note, let’s consider the tale of 19th-century German leader Otto von Bismarck who challenged his political rival Rudolf Virchow to a duel. Because Virchow was the one challenged, he had the choice of weapons and he, being a scientist as well as a politician, selected two pork sausages from his laboratory, one of which had been inoculated with a disease-causing roundworm. He sent this message to Bismarck: “Let his excellency do me the honor to choose whichever of these sausages he wishes and eat it, and I will eat the other.” Bismarck wisely declined, and the duel was called off.
That’s all for this episode, but there’s more to come. On the next episode of Remembering the Days, we’re going to look back at the origins of The Gamecock student newspaper in 1908 and revisit some of the stories and editors in the many decades since.
Thanks for listening today. I’m Chris Horn and forever to thee.