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A Mexican War Duel

War has always provided opportunities for ambitious men to stand out from the crowd, and during the Mexican War the 1st Ohio was full of “gallant young men, ambitious to distinguish themselves and attain promotion by deeds of chivalry and daring.” Butler County resident Ferdinand Van Derveer was one, as was every other officer in the regiment, so promotions were highly sought after and very competitive. One of the regimental officers Van Derveer had befriended was Carr B. White of Brown County, Ohio. White had served as a 2nd Lt. in Company G and then as regimental adjutant. In February of 1847, White had been elected captain of the Company G, which created bad blood between him and 1st Lt. James P. Fyffe of the same company. The “misunderstanding between them became so serious that Fyffe issued a “challenge to mortal combat” to White who promptly accepted. Ferdinand Van Derveer was not part of their argument, but White asked him to act as his second during his personal difficulty. So it was, that regimental adjutant James F. Harrison, acting as second to Fyffe, “bore the cartel” to Van Derveer. The two of them first tried to defuse the situation and prevent the duel, but White and Fyffe were each determined to uphold their personal honor. Scheduling turned out to be a bit of a problem, because commanding General Zachary Taylor had made it clear that he would not tolerate any dueling under his command. The two seconds met to sort the issue out and it was agreed that the confrontation would be delayed until the 1st Ohio had mustered out. On May 17, 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.”  


Upon arriving in New Orleans, the regiment’s travel schedule interfered with the scheduled duel.  There was not time enough in their New Orleans stopover in which to fight a proper duel, so it was agreed that White and Fyffe would face off at the first opportunity on the way north. On June 10, 1847, the steamboat tied off on the Arkansas shore to take on wood. The captain informed everyone that it would take two hours to load fuel. Both parties agreed that this would be “the proper place to settle all difficulties between the belligerents.” It was daybreak, and very few people were on the deck when the dueling party slipped quietly ashore. 1st Lt. Harrison had fallen ill, so his place was taken by Lieutenant Jim Moore of Butler County. Colonel Weller attended as an independent witness, and the final member of the debarking party was the regimental surgeon, Dr. Chamberlin, known to everyone as “Old Medicine.”    

Neither White nor Fyffe had ever fought a duel. Fyffe had no pistols, but White, apparently deadly serious in his intent, had slipped into New Orleans long enough to buy a pair of long dueling pistols that fired a large heavy ball. The duelists agreed to use White’s pistols, and the last minute preparations were made. “The pistols were duly loaded in the presence of all parties, and cuts drawn as the choice of positions, and who should give the word.”  Just as the sun began to rise in the east, White and Fyffe faced each other in a cotton field a few hundred yards from the Mississippi River. Fyffe had his back to the river and was nicely outlined for White by the rising sun. They stood only twelve paces apart, three less than had previously been agreed to, each with his right side facing his opponent and pistol arm hanging at the side. When each man was in position, Ferdinand Van Derveer, having won the dubious honor, commanded, “Are you ready? One, two, three – fire!”  White and Fyffe both immediately raised their arms and fired. Two pistols cracked, and two men remained standing. Both men, inexperienced duelists firing unfamiliar weapons for the very first time, missed their shot.  

The two independent parties, Weller and Chamberlin immediately stepped in, and convinced the two shooters that even without any impact, they had both behaved well and their honor was intact. No second shot was required. Their anger having been released by the blast of the heavy caliber pistols they still carried in their hands, White and Fyffe explained their positions to each other, each made concessions to the other, and setting pistols and differences aside, they shook hands. As they walked back to the boat, Van Derveer had an immense feeling of satisfaction that after all the preparations and waiting, the duel had been a bloodless one.


Why is this event of interest to Civil War enthusiasts?  Well, because it involved four men who commanded regiments in the Civil War. 

• Ferdinand Van Derveer, second to Carr B. White, commanded the 35th Ohio, served as a brigade commander and was later promoted to brigadier general.  He was the only Civil War general officer from Butler County.

• James F. Harrison, second to James P. Fyffe, commanded the 11th Ohio Infantry.

• Duelist Carr B. White commanded the 12th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, served as a brigade commander and was given a brevet to the rank of brigadier general.

• Carr’s opponent, James P. Fyffe commanded the 59th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He later served as a brigade commander and chief of staff to General William H. Lytle.

Source: Butler County Cyclopedia, page 202