Col. Leonidas Metcalfe became embroiled in a duel during the Civil War for events beyond his control. In late 1861 he arrested Lt. William Casto and six other southern sympathizers on orders from his superior officer. Casto felt offended by Col. Metcafe after being imprisoned in Fort Lafayette, a federal prison in New York Harbor.
After pledging “to give no aid or comfort to enemies of the United States,” he was released.’ After he returned to Maysville, Kentucky, he promptly challenged Metcalfe to a duel. Col. Metcalfe relayed to Casto, through his friend Isaac Nelson, that he wasn’t under the slightest obligation under code duello the code of duelists, to grant his request.
“Mr. Casto, you said I have done you a great wrong,” Metcalfe’s message read. “I have never had any acquaintance with you, have never exchanged a word with you and did no wrong of which you speak. You have no right under the dueling code to make any demand of me. I consider myself under no obligation to accept it. I make this statement lest, in accepting your invitation I shall be misunderstood as admitting your right to challenge. I have no desire to allow anyone to gain reputation at my expense in that way so I will grant you the meeting that you desire.”
As an officer of the U.S. Army, Metcalfe could be court-martialed for accepting the challenge. Kentucky had strict laws against participating in duels in any capacity. Despite these considerations all parties to the duel remained steadfast in administering their duties and moved forward with every effort to keep the affair quiet. Rifles were selected as the weapons, sixty yards to be the distance, “on the fishing shore” on the Kentucky bank of the Ohio River.
Rumors surfaced that Casto had spent a month to six weeks in preparing for the duel while Metcalfe had only 48 hours. It was generally known however that former Maysville mayor Casto knew little about firearms while Union Colonel Metcalfe was regarded as an ace shooter.
The day of the duel was warm and bright. The principals, their seconds, surgeons and friends arrived in two-horse carriages from Maysville along the river road to Dover fishing shore. The stretch of Ohio River bank was a smooth sand-bar, reported to be a secluded spot and an ideal place for an affair of honor.
While the exact location on the grounds was being selected and measured Casto and Metcalfe’s seconds checked the condition of the dueling weapons, Colt 56 caliber revolving rifles which were made available to the participants by Thomas Green. They found them to be in excellent working order and made sure they were loaded in only one chamber.
Col. Metcalfe had two surgeons available and they proceeded to spread out their surgical instruments on two blankets.
There was a “toss up” of a coin to see who would give the orders in a loud distinct voice as to be heard by Casto and Metcalfe. The loser of the flip would have their choice of positions. The two men were told their weapons must not be removed from the time they are told to “present arms” before the word “fire,” nor should they fire after the word “stop.”
As the five o’clock hour approached Casto and Metcalfe moved toward their positions, facing each other, sixty yards apart.
“Mr. Casto, are you ready,” Isaac Newton, Casto’s second, soon asked. “Yes’” he answered. “Col Metcalfe, are you ready.” “Affirmative,” the 43 year old son of former Kentucky governor Thomas “Stone Hammer” Metcalfe answered.
“Fire one,” two loud bursts from the Colt 56 rifles, then interrupted the commands of the starter although he then continued “two, three. Stop.”
Casto immediately jerked slightly to the left after the firing, staggered a short step and sank to the ground. A bullet had struck him a little under the heart. Casto’s shot was high and to Metcalfe’s right, leaving the Union colonel without harm.
The two surgeons representing Col. Metcalfe volunteered their services to[J1] Mr. Casto as he had no surgeon present. His situation was hopeless however. He remained unconscious and expired after fifteen minutes on the field of honor. He was 38 years old. Casto’s body was soon taken in a small rowboat to Dover, two miles upriver. His body was then transferred to the Bostona for the short trip to Maysville. The Bostona was a packet boat, a regular passenger and freight hauler.
The funeral for William T. Casto, a prominent lawyer and former mayor of Maysville was held the following day. He had considerable wealth but had no family. According to the Cincinnati Daily Commercial the funeral was attended by a large crowd of relatives, citizens and southern sympathizers.
“Everything was done in accordance with the code of the duello. The final service and completed without dignity,” the newspaper reported.
Many prisons lamented the passing of Mr. Casto who had fallen victim to the practice of dueling.
Dueling had been outlawed in Kentucky for more than fifty years. Dueling continued however for several years thereafter. Copyright 2018 Jadon Gibson
Editor’s note. Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN.