In 1880, Col. Ellerbe B.C. Cash of Cheraw and Col. William M. Shannon of Camden met midway between their homes — near the Darlington County line — and fought the last duel in South Carolina. The tragic and frustrating tale of their conflict resonated across the country, and sounded a death knell for the practice of dueling in America.
The Cash-Shannon duel was not a clear-cut case of impugned honor and necessary vengeance, but a series of private insults and public escalations that spawned a very real discord between the two parties over several weeks prior to their final, violent meeting.
In 1878, Cash’s intemperate brother-in-law, Robert Ellerbe, engaged in a fierce fight with a litigious Camden blacksmith named Conrad Weinges. One year later, a judge decreed that Ellerbe must pay Weinges $2,000 in damages for his injuries, but this debt went unpaid because the insolvent Ellerbe already owed $10,000 to his sister — Allen Cash, wife of E.B.C. Cash — over her unpaid share of their family’s estate.
Weinges’ attorneys challenged the veracity of this claimed debt. A random, penciled margin note on a legal summons even theorized that Mrs. Cash and her brother colluded to fabricate this debt in order to cheat Weinges of his settlement money.
When Col. Cash learned of this insult to his wife, he was incensed and penned a challenge to both DePass and Shannon. Cash’s friends intercepted this fiery missive, and he later wrote a milder letter to Shannon inquiring about the insulting margin note.
Shannon claimed to know nothing about the note, and explained that as assistant counsel, he did not prepare any of the suit papers. The two men exchanged letters expressing relief that they could remain friendly, and tensions briefly eased.
In February of 1880, a Camden judge ruled against Mrs. Cash’s estate claim, saying the $10,000 debt was in excess of the property claimed. The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed this decision in favor of Mrs. Cash, but the trial process — couched in presumption of her dishonesty — took a hard toll. Allen Cash died a couple of months after the final verdict.
Col. Cash and Robert Ellerbe remained bitter over her loss, and issued formal challenges to DePass and Shannon, respectively. Shannon refused to duel with Ellerbe, claiming (in a posthumously published letter) that Ellerbe’s claims against him were false, and that Ellerbe was “in no condition or relation of life my equal or entitled to recognition.”
In late May, DePass accepted Cash’s challenge, and the men arranged to face off on two separate occasions: once at Dubose’s Bridge in Bishopville, and again at Wright’s Folly in North Carolina. The Camden Anti-Dueling Society knew of their plans, and both times DePass was arrested before he could present himself.
Frustrated to the point of fury, Cash denounced both attorneys and local anti-dueling advocates in newspapers. His son, Boggan Cash, added fuel to the fire by penning and circulating a poem about William Shannon — a poem with a pointedly insulting final verse:
“My daddy was a gin maker
No fighting man was he
As long as I have legs to run
No man will shoot at me.”
Boggan also made overtures to take up the fight on his father’s behalf and settle the matter with any willing young men of the Shannon family.
Though Shannon felt offended by the poem, he wrote to Col. Cash with a request to keep their disagreement between themselves. Cash responded with more vitriol and insults, decrying Shannon as a “poltroon” and a “coward” for refusing to duel Ellerbe, and for misrepresenting his intentions to sue Allen Cash for fraud.
At wit’s end, and apparently unable to negotiate a cure for hostilities that did not involve bloodshed, Shannon put pen to paper on June 27 and advised Cash to prepare for a “hostile meeting.” The reckoning the Cash family yearned for was finally happening.
Shannon’s second, W.E. Johnson of Camden, won the right to serve as signalman. Owing to Col. Cash’s partial deafness, Johnson would fire a shot in the air giving the right to open fire, and would then shout “One, two, three, halt,” after which point neither man could fire.
Pistols were inspected and loaded. The duelists positioned themselves in the traditional side stance, but 15 paces apart instead of the regular 10 paces. Some historians have speculated that the longer range was used because both Cash and Shannon were known as fine marksmen.
Just before they exchanged shots, Shannon — the 58-year-old father of 14 children — raised his hand and offered a salute to his fellow Confederate veteran. For whatever reason, Cash failed to return this gesture of respect.
Johnson fired the start signal. On the count of one, Shannon fired first and hit the sand at his opponent’s feet. On the count of two, Cash fired through a haze of gunpowder smoke, and his aim was true. The ball struck Shannon approximately one inch below his right armpit, opening a wound one inch wide and six inches deep.
Witnesses reported that Shannon held still for a moment and then turned to Johnson as if to say something. No words came; his pistol slipped from his hand, and William Shannon collapsed into his friend’s arms. He bled to death in less than one minute.
A stunned silence fell over the crowd of spectators; it must have seemed like such a civilized affair, with no shouting or blows exchanged, yet they had just seen a man shot to death before their eyes.
“I watched Col. Shannon’s friends wrap his body in a blanket and put him in a wagon to take him back to Camden,” said eyewitness J.D. Stokes of Bishopville. Stokes watched the duel from 100 yards away, and shared his recollections with writer Harris Mullen in 1949.
“Folks were awful upset,” said Stokes.
Cash reportedly asked his second, W.B. Sanders of Sumter, whether the terms of the dueling code were satisfied, and Sumter was aghast.
“My God, what more could we ask? Do you not see that Col. Shannon has been killed?” replied Sumter.
The deed was done and could not be undone. His debt of honor paid, Cash headed north for Cheraw, but his peace at Cash’s Depot was short-lived.
News of Shannon’s death quickly spread across the state and beyond, igniting a storm of outrage over the idea that two civilized men could not settle their differences but by an exchange of gunfire. As the furor grew, state law enforcement came under pressure to investigate Shannon’s death as a murder.
After a Kershaw County coroner’s inquest, Col. Cash was tried twice for murder. The first ended in a mistrial. Judge Cothran convened the second trial in June of 1881 in Darlington County, and state Attorney General Youmans prosecuted Cash. Despite the AG’s personal attention, state laws against dueling were inadequate to mark the practice as murder, and the 12-man jury found Cash not guilty.
This legal exoneration did not restore Col. Cash’s reputation. Though his friends remained loyal, Cash endured ceaseless criticism from politicians, writers and activists seeking to abolish dueling. Cash answered their charges with sharp words, and even published a book relating his account of events. In many of his self-defenses, Cash — without irony — hailed the character of the late Col. William Shannon.
“I do not believe a braver man ever bit the dust,” said Cash of the man he previously denounced as a deplorable coward.
Worn down by the constant protest against him, Cash died in 1888 at the age of 65.
In the midst of public outcry over the Cash-Shannon duel, the South Carolina legislature passed a stricter and more effective law against dueling. Only two other legal duels, one in Louisiana in 1882 and one in Texas in 1887, were fought before the practice was condemned nationwide.
Printed in The News and Press on Aug. 7, 2013.