3/15/10 - the gunfighter

In today's excerpt - while most demobilized soldiers return to ordinary lives, a disproportionate number have always returned to a life of crime. Examples abound—from the returning veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War who filled the ranks of motorcycle and street gangs to the veterans of the Mexican-American War who became the outlaws in the early West. There is no better example, however, than the veterans of the American Civil War, whose numbers filled the ranks of the James and Quantrill gangs and became prominent among the cowboys and gunfighters in the most storied days of the American West. Their close familiarity with death gave them advantage against all that they encountered. This was made worse by the bitterness between North and South that remained etched in their minds:

"Among the gunfighters [of the American West] death was never far away; many of them had lived with death as a companion and were conditioned to it. Those who had fought in the Civil War were especially haunted by the specter of imminent death. For most men, the ending of hostilities had meant that they could stop killing and return to normal lives. But veterans of frontier conflicts, spies, sharpshooters, and guerrillas were conditioned to view killing as a means to an end. The unwary sentry whose throat had been cut, the unarmed men shot down for the information they could reveal meant little to such men. Self-reliant and independent men who had learned to abide with death found the restrictions of civilized society intolerable. The idea of a life without danger in a world where they were not masters of their own destiny appalled them. To them there was only one alternative—an occupation suited to their particular talents. A Kansas newspaper editor [in 1867] noted the effect that the Civil War had had on the men who later became scouts and guides for the United States Army against the Indians:

" 'What a pity that young men so brave and daring should lack the discretion to sheath their daggers forever when the war terminated! But such is the demoralizing effect of war upon those who engage in it and certainly upon all who love the vocation. We learn from a gentleman who has frequently met these wild and reckless young men that they live in a constant state of excitement one continual round of gambling, drinking, and swearing interspersed at brief intervals with pistol practice upon each other.

" 'At a word any of the gang draws his pistol and blazes away as freely as if all mankind were Arkansas Rebels and had a bounty offered for their scalpes [sic]. How long these Athletes will be able to stand such a mode of life; eating drinking sleeping (if they can be said to sleep) and playing cards with their pistols at half cock remains to be seen. For ourself we are willing to risk them in an Indian campaign for which their cruelty and utter recklessness of life particularly fit them.'

"Pointed, but undiscerning comments of this nature, reveal a lack of understanding of the feelings, reactions, and motives of the men who got into gunfights. A man who could draw his gun and shoot another man without hesitation had a cold-blooded attitude toward life that most people were spared. The man-killers of the West, thus had an advantage over men basically reluctant to kill. When his life was threatened, the gunfighter could and would shoot to kill. Although he might appear calm and cool-headed under fire his inner feelings were probably in turmoil. This man facing death and wrestling with thoughts and emotions was a far cry from the gunfighter of fiction. For him each fight which could easily be his last was a fight for life—his own."


Joseph G. Rosa


Age of the Gunfighter: Men and Weapons on the Frontier, 1840-1900


University of Oklahoma Press


Copyright 1992, 2002, 2007 by Salamander Books. Ltd.


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