The Dueling Soulés, Part Two

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Back in part one, Pierre Soulé’s son Nelvil challenged the Duke of Alba to a duel to defend his mother’s honor. They swung heavy swords at each other for half an hour and then called it good, promising to burn all the letters the affair generated and put it behind them. 

The insult came on November 15, 1853. Shortly thereafter Nelvil’s father, the American minister to Spain, came down sick with a fever, sore throat, and possibly pneumonia. Pierre Soulé remained in bed from November 18 until the 30th and did not consider himself fully recovered for another week. Once he had recovered, Soulé hit on the idea of getting satisfaction himself.

For the elder Soulé the insult might have burned more than for his son. Nelvil grew up in the United States. Pierre Soulé had suffered firsthand the cruelties of European reactionaries. If his son had claimed the right to pursue the Duke of Alba over the matter, then Soulé could instead go after the Marquis de Turgot. The latter had antagonized Soulé on the grounds of his low birth and youthful revolutionary politics, and he had hosted the party. Surely he had some responsibility for ensuring his guests behaved. On December 14, the day of his son’s duel with the Duke, Secretary Perry of the American legation delivered Soulé’s demand for an apology or a fight. Perry also served as Nelvil’s second against the Duke, making for an eventful day.

Turgot sneered that he answered such demands with a pistol and pre-duel negotiations began. His seconds asked Soulé to withdraw the challenge because, after all, Turgot had not insulted his wife. If Soulé had to shoot someone, he ought to shoot the Duke of Alba. Soulé refused to back down. He believed, as he told Marcy when giving an account of himself, that Napoleon III planned the entire insulting affair in order to discredit Soulé and spread hostility to the United States in Spain. Thus the two men met, after having to duck out quickly to dodge the police. They each shot once, missing, but on the second round Soulé’s shot hit the Marquis de Turgot above and to the side of his right knee.

Soulé gave the usual apologies. Napoleon appointed Turgot Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor for his trouble. Oddly enough, this did not really resolve things between the two men and make them best of friends. While Soulé could write to Marcy that the whole business came from Paris and that Turgot acted on Louis Napoleon’s orders, but nobody else believed it. The Spanish court broadly sympathized with Nelvil, but Pierre? Ettinger quotes the opinion of a the Boston-born wife of a prominent Englishman then visiting Madrid, Ellen Twistleton:

It was a piece of bad temper on Soulé’s part, for which the unfortunate host pays by being lamed for life after a long illness. It makes me cross, every time I think of it, that such a blackguardly thing should have been done by our representative.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy, Secretary of State

While the usual American hotheads thought Soulé entirely in the right, if for no reason other than his nationality, he made the other prominent ministers in Europe look bad by association, adding still more to the difficulties that a generally anti-American spirit combined with Marcy’s orders on official dress had caused. They got no help from how the European press went wild with inaccurate accounts of the business. Kinder reporters simply called the entire Madrid diplomatic corps mad. The American press split, with some delighted that It certainly didn’t help matters that the Soulé’s had taken haughty Europeans down a peg. Other papers demanded Soulé’s recall.

Marcy got the correct story from a friend of his then in Paris, which had Soulé destroying his own effectiveness in Madrid. The duel got Soulé ostracized by the Spanish court, which from then on invited him only to official business where protocol demanded it. He might get it in his head to shoot someone else, after all. Who next? The Queen?

Ettinger has Marcy’s answer when called to comment on the affair:

we are here too far removed from the theatre where the events occurred, and too ignorant of the many causes which could have created it, to form a decided opinion on the subject; what we can do is to regret sincerely that it happened.

In other words, Washington would not recall Soulé but regarded the whole affair as an embarrassment. The Cabinet would not fire him, but if Soulé did them all a favor and resigned they had their eyes on James Gadsden, fresh off his Mexican success, to replace him.

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