Waynesboro Heritage Museum | 420 W. Main St., Waynesboro, Virginia 22980 | Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. | Phone: (540) 943-3943

The Last Duel in Virginia Was in Waynesboro

Dueling in Waynesboro?  With pistols at 20 paces and with seconds? Yes, indeed.

Dueling was outlawed in Virginia in 1810 after the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton, ex-Secretary of the Treasury and Vice President Aaron Burr. Hamilton was on the losing end of the duel and died from his wounds.

However, 011 June 30, 1883, two newspaper editors, Richard F Beirne, Sr. and Col William C. Elam engaged in the outlawed activity. Beirne, editor of the Richmond The State newspaper was 38 years of age and weighed 225 pounds. Elam, editor of the Whig, a Richmond morning paper was tall, weighed 140 pounds and was 47 years old.
The problem: Beirne, an Irish Democrat, published a virulent editorial against Col. Elam, a member of the Readjusters political party (now the Republican party) and “Boss” Billy Mahone, a Virginia Whig leader. Elam responded the next day by berating Beirne’s politics and a reference to a failed earlier duel. After reading that article, Biere challenged Elam to a duel and Elam accepted. Both had dueled with others in the past.

The original date of the duel was June 23 to take place near Hanover Junction but the editors and their seconds were spotted by the authorities and all fled the area in different directions. Bierne, however, was caught but escaped from the sheriff on June 25. He fled to Greenbriar County, West Virginia, getting himself out of the state. Elam hid in Richmond. The seconds, three friends and Bierne’s brother backing Bierne and two friends and a physician backing Elam, secretly arranged a new location: the quiet little town of Waynesboro. It was a distance of about 210 miles for each. The two sides telegraphed the change of location and date by coded messages.

With the sheriff’s deputies watching the rail stations, both sides approached the new site by back roads and at night. They traveled over mountains, through the valleys and encountered rain swollen rivers and creeks. Bierne slept in his buggy the night before the duel and Elam approached the field on horse guided by a friend carrying a lantern.
At dawn, in a hollow called the Devil’s Punch Bowl on New Hope Road, the two men, both CSA veterans, held Navy Colt revolvers with all six chambers loaded. Eight paces was the distance. Bierne’s large bulk was thought to be at a disadvantage, but Elam was nearsighted which balanced out the sides. Neither had met the other before the duel.
At the count, which was to be “Gentlemen are you ready? One, two, three, fire”, witnesses say both shot between “one and two.” Both missed. But Elam’s bullet grazed

Bierne’s jacket and Bierne requested two more volleys. The next volley hit Elam in the thigh. Bierne tipped his hat and strolled away. As the doctor probed for the ball in this thigh, Elam smoked a cigar given to him by a second. He was carried away to Louisa for 10 days of recuperation before returning to Richmond.
Neither editor stopped their fiery attacks on each other and other political parties.

Courtesy of the Waynesboro Historic Commission and the Waynesboro Heritage Foundation

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