The Forgiven Killing of Marsh Walker

September 7, 1863 (Monday)

The Union forces under Frederick Steele inches their way closer to Little Rock, Arkansas, the Confederates were literally at each others’ throats. Specifically, the rift between Generals John Marmaduke and Marsh Walker had deteriorated from resentment to the apparent inevitable.

John Marmaduke
John Marmaduke

By September 5th, Steele had decided to try and outflank the Confederates. The Rebel left was too strong, as reconnaissance soon discovered, but the right flank, nestled up against the Arkansas River, seemed to be merely hanging there, waiting to be hit. If his cavalry, which made up nearly half of his command, could find a way around it, there would be more or less clear roads all the way into Little Rock. The problem was the river. General John Davidson, heading the Federal Cavalry, could find no crossable ford. Davidson called for a pontoon bridge, but that would take time.

Time was exactly what the Rebels needed. Not that it really would help, but being attacked later certainly seemed better than sooner. Besides, there was that spat between Marmaduke and Walker. As Steele and Davidson drew closer, the two Confederate Generals grew father apart (though soon became of one mind).

The lines that the Federal Cavalry would be outflanking were held by Walker and Marmaduke’s troops. Technically, they were just Walker’s troops, and since they had all been Marmaduke’s several months before, there grew up a problem. Marmaduke’s Cavalry had been divided in two in order to give Marsh Walker something to command. Through the Little Rock Campaign, still more of Marmaduke’s men were siphoned off to Walker, until Marmaduke was a mere figurehead (or perhaps it was Walker). There was more to it, of course. Marmaduke had accused Walker of cowardice, and Walker took offense (to put it mildly).

Marsh Walker
Marsh Walker

It wasn’t that the two simply didn’t get along. There was a true and seething hatred between them. A few days prior, Marmaduke, fed up with Walker, demanded to either be moved to another commander or relieved completely. With nothing more he could do, Sterling Price attempted to transfer Marmaduke away. This, however, would take some time. On the 5th, Walker caught wind that Marmaduke was again calling his bravery and honor into question. A series of letter, the kind of which should seem obvious, flew between the two officers. Marmaduke insisted that Walker “avoided all positions of danger,” to which Walker responded with the demand for satisfaction.

It was decided that they would duel at the Le Fevre Plantation, seven miles south of the city. It would be regulation Colt revolvers at fifteen paces. The talk spread quickly through the camps to the headquarters of General Price. The commanding officer ordered boht Marmaduke and Walker to keep to their own headquartes for twenty-four hours (which was why it was incredibly fortunate that the Federals could find no way to cross the Arkansas).

Walker left his headquaters before the order arrived. Marmaduke read the order, but ignored it. They both arrived on the night of the 5th. The duel was scheduled for dawn the next day. When dawn came, both took their places. They marched off the fifteen paces, turned and fired. Both missed.

But this was a duel to the death, and each revolver had five shots remaining. Marmaduke was the first to get off another shot, which hit Walker in the side, knocking him back. As he fell to the ground, he fired, the shot flying harmlessly into the air.

Price: Walker, your death is mighty inconvenient.
Price: Walker, your death is mighty inconvenient.

Walker did not die right away. He was loaded onto Marmaduke’s wagon and hauled back to Little Rock, where he died upon this date (the 7th). Before passing, dictated a message to be delivered to his killer. “See General Marmaduke and tell him that before taking the sacrament, I forgive him with all my heart,” he told an aide, “and I want my friends to forgive him and neither prosecute nor persecute him.” Shortly after, he died.

Sterling Price quickly realized two things. First, that his orders for both generals to remain at their headquarters was ignored. Second, that he was now down an officer at an incredibly inconvenient time. Nevertheless, he placed Marmaduke under arrest. Price then realized that he couldn’t afford to be down one officer, let along two, and allowed Marmaduke to go free.

In his official report, Price explains for himself:

“Feeling, however, the great inconvenience and danger of an entire change of cavalry commanders in the very presence of the enemy, and when a general engagement was imminent, I yielded to the urgent and almost unanimous request of the officers of General Marmaduke’s division and his own appeal, and suspended his sentence, and ordered him to resume his command during the pending operations. I did this in spite of the apprehension that such leniency toward General Marmaduke might intensify the bitter feelings which had been already aroused in General Walker’s division by the result of the duel.”

Marmaduke would never be court martialed for the killing of Marsh Walker, and would go on at the head of his division for the rest of the war.

By this date, all was once more set right (apart from the death of Walker, of course). The next couple of days would see Marmaduke’s troopers filing into action as Steele’s Federals finally launched their attack.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p476, 525; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby; Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle for a State by Mark K. Christ; Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri by Dick Steward. []
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