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For other authors named Barbara Holland, see the disambiguation page.

21+ Works 1,588 Members 38 Reviews

About the Author

Barbara Holland is a Virginian and long-time observer of the Washington scene.

Works by Barbara Holland

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Common Knowledge



My aunt sent this to me for my b-day, and it's now in my commute bag. I'm looking forward to reading it.
lschiff | 3 other reviews | Sep 24, 2023 |
I'm only a chapter or two into this book, but I need to say that Anthony Bourdain needs to read an audiobook of this. He and Barbara Holland must have the same editor or grammar teacher or elocution class, because the phrasing is spot on. Very enjoyable.
masterdeski | 4 other reviews | Jan 1, 2018 |
A fun popular history of dueling. Author Barbara Holland writes with dry humor:

"Aside from the occasional separatist movement in Quebec, Canada today seems a placid place. Americans think of it as bland and law-abiding and a bit self-righteous; Europeans, when they think of it at all, feel it must be something like Australia, only colder."

I was amazed at the amount of carnage in the 19th century. The Irish went at each other with pistols over any minor insult; according to the Irish rules for duels it was very ungentlemanly to fire in the air or deliberately miss your opponent (both parties were required to reload and shoot again). A duel was a serious thing and must be taken seriously – about one duel in four in Ireland ended fatally. In England, dueling was practically a requirement to hold high office; Prime Ministers Bath, Shelburne, Pitt, Fox, Canning, Wellington, and Peel all fought duels (Disraeli challenged Daniel O’Connell but was turned down). In American you didn’t mess around with wimpy little pistols; in a duel between John Hampton Pleasants, (editor of the Richmond Whig), and Thomas Ritchie, Jr. (coeditor of the Richmond Enquirer – the mainstream media was a lot more exciting in those days) Pleasants showed up with a revolver, two dueling pistols, a bowie knife, and a sword cane; Ritchie had four pistols, a revolver, and a cutlass. (Pleasants was hit four times but slashed Ritchie with his sword cane before dying).

Bystanders got into the act; at a duel on a sandbar in the Mississippi between Dr. Maddox and Samuel Welles, both of Rapides, Louisiana, practically the entire town showed up, including Colonel Crane, Major Wright, General Currey, both Bowie brothers (Resin and Jim) and assorted other friends and relations. The principals exchanged shots, missed, and decided honor had been satisfied; the spectators disagreed and went at it. Colonel Crane and Jim Bowie fired at each other without effect; then Crane knocked Jim Bowie on the head with a dueling pistol, and Major Wright stabbed him with a sword cane. The sword cane was poor quality and bent after partially penetrating Bowie’s chest, whereupon Bowie stabbed Wright in the heart with his eponymous knife. In the meantime, the fight became general and ended with six killed and fifteen wounded (not including either of the principals).

American politicians were not immune. Andrew Jackson killed at least one man and reportedly suffered numerous wounds. Cousins Senator Armistead T. Mason and Colonel John McCarthy of Virginia fell out over allowing Quakers to buy out of military service; they fought with muskets at four (!) paces. Oddly, McCarthy survived; Mason got his musket tangled up in his overcoat while raising it and only blew McCarthy’s arm off.

Things weren’t that much better across the pond; both Russia and Prussia had military ordinances requiring officers to fight duels if insulted. In Russia, it went even further; you could be forced to fight a duel if a third party decided you had been insulted, thus allowing a harmless jest between friends to become a deadly encounter the next day. (I understand it didn't change much in the Communist era, where a third party could denounce you for a conversation. In fact, I understand agents would deliberately have "provocative" conversations within earshot of others and then arrest listeners for failure to denounce. Personally, I think I'd rather take my chances with a duel; I think the mortality rate was less than the Gulag). The Erast Fandorin novels describe the Russian "handkerchief" duel, in which the participants each held the corner of a handkerchief and blazed away with dueling pistols. The advantage was supposedly that it could be done indoors, although one expects people in the next apartment might be inconvenienced by stray bullets. While Holland doesn't mention the handkerchief duel, she does mention the American "bandanna" duel, in which the interested parties each held a corner of a bandanna in their teeth and then fought with Bowie knives; presumably spectators wore raincoats.

Despite the amusement value, dueling cost a lot of lives that would have been better to have been lived out: Alexander Hamilton and Stephen Decatur in the US; authors Pushkin and Lermontov in Russia, and the mathematician Evariste Galois in France.

Holland attributes the popularity of dueling to testosterone (although noting that various women in history fought lethal duels) and suggests the NRA is a remnant of the need to express masculinity. She speculates, only half in jest, that a return to rapiers might make everybody more polite; and on a final note, comments that before the invasion of Iraq the vice president of Iraq sent a challenge to the US, suggesting a duel between the respective presidents and vice presidents rather than a war. It was not accepted.
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1 vote
setnahkt | 6 other reviews | Dec 10, 2017 |
This is more of an explanation than a history of dueling, for those scratching their heads over the practice. The practice of defending one's honor traveled from Europe to America leaving plenty of wounded and quite a few corpses in its wake. Some of the more famous duels in history are highlighted. Holland gives a readable explanation of the exageratted ritual and ettiquette involved in attempting to best one's rival. The transition from swords to pistols was interesting and even more deadly, with the law mostly tending to look the other way. Good reading for the swashbucklers and pistoleros among you.… (more)
varielle | 6 other reviews | Jan 31, 2017 |



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