Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

Alexander Keith McClung


"Born in Virginia, a nephew of Chief Justice John Marshall, McClung came to Mississippi in 1832. He was a lawyer and an editor. He served as an officer in the War with Mexico. His death, which occurred in Jackson, was self-inflicted." [Ernestine Clayton Deavours, The Mississippi Poets 134 (Memphis: E. H. Clarke & Brother, 1934)]

McClung served as U.S. Charge d'Affaires to Bolivia from 1849 to 1851. He seems also to have been involved in a number of duels.

Just before the Mexican War, the Menifee's of Kentucky became embroiled in a dueling fiasco in Vicksburg with a Col.. Alexander Keith McClung (aka the Black Knight). McClung shot his first Menifee at 60 yards with a Mississippi rifle before a large betting crowd. Six other revenge-seeking Mennifee's followed the first to the grave in separate duels. McClung ended his own life sometime later with a dueling pistol. [Dueling in America]

McClung's dueling activities seem not have lessened his attractiveness to women. A woman named Clay, of Alabama, in her memoirs, provides the following account of her relation to McClung:

Having finished the curriculum of the institute presided over by Miss Brooks, I was sent to the "Female Academy" at Nashville, Tennessee, to perfect my studies in music and literature, whence I returned to Tuscaloosa all but betrothed to Alexander Keith McClung, already a famous duelist. I met him during a visit to my Uncle Fort's home, in Columbus, Mississippi, and the Colonel's devotion to me for many months was the talk of two States. He was the gallantest lover that ever knelt at a lady's feet! Many a winsome girl admired him, and my sweet cousin; Martha Fort, was wont to say she would "rather marry Colonel McClung than any man alive"; but I—I loved him madly while with him, but feared him when away from him; for he was a man of fitful, uncertain moods and given to periods of the deepest melancholy. At such times he would mount his horse "Rob Roy," wild and untamable as himself, and dash to the cemetery, where he would throw himself down on a convenient grave and stare like a madman into the sky for hours. A man of reckless bravery, in after years he was the first to mount the ramparts of Monterey shouting victory. As he ran carrying his country's flag in his right hand, a shot whizzing by took off two fingers of his left.

I was thrown much in the company of Colonel McClung while at my uncle's home, but resisted his pleading for a binding engagement, telling him with a strange courage and frankness, ere I left Columbus, my reason for this persistent indecision. Before leaving for the academy at Nashville, I had met, at my Uncle Collier's, in Tuscaloosa, the young legislator, Clement C. Clay, Jr., and had then had a premonition that if we should meet when I returned from school I would marry him. At that time I was an unformed girl, and he, Mr. Clay, was devoted to a young lady of the capital; but this, as I knew, was a matter of the past. I would surely meet him again at Uncle Collier's (I told Mr. McClung), and, if the attraction continued, I felt sure I would marry him. If not, I would marry him, Colonel McClung. So we parted, and, though at that time the Colonel did not doubt but that mine was a dreaming girl's talk, my premonitions were promptly realised.

[Virginia Clay-Clopton, A Belle of the Fifties; Memoirs of Mrs. Clay, of Alabama, Covering Social and Political Life in Washington and the South, 1853-66 (1905)] [online text]

Henry S. Foote in his account of The Bench and Bar of the South and Southwest (1876) says of McClung:

He never enjoyed a large and lucrative practice at the bar, for which only one good reason could be assigned—he never devoted himself arduously to his chosen profession. He had read many works of science and general literature, but he had never looked into many law books. With the elementary principles of jurisprudence he was thoroughly conversant, and no man delighted more than he did in reading, or in listening to the oral enunciation of, a profound, ingenious and lucid legal argument. The ordinary questions of meum and tuum had no charms for his proud and soaring intellect. His argumentative powers, when fully brought forth, were such as to awaken the highest admiration. Had he been able to endure the viginti annorum lucubrationes (as Blackstone calls them), there is no knowing the height of celebrity which he would have been capable of attaining. Many likened his intellect to that of his illustrious uncle, Chief Justice Marshall; and his eulogy upon the life and character of Henry Clay . . . will compare favorably with any of the numerous eulogies delivered upon the renowned orator and statesman of Kentucky, which his lamented decease evoke. Growing tired of life, he died by his own hand, a few years subsequent to this his latest great intellectual achievement.

[Henry S. Foote, The Bench and Bar of the South and Southwest 104-105 (St. Louis: Soule, Thomas & Wentworth, 1878)(Buffalo, New York: William S. Hein & Co., 1994)(reprint)]

Invocation to Death
Swiftly speed o'er the wastes of time,
   Spirit of Death.
In manhood's morn, in youthful prime,
   I woo thy breath.
For the glittering hues of hope are fled
   Like the dophin's light;
And dark are the clouds above my head
   As the starless night.
Oh, vainly the mariner signs for the rest
   Of the peaceful haven,
The pilgrim saint for the shrines of the blest,
   The calm of heaven;
The galley slave for the night wind's breath,
   At burning noon;
But more gladly I'd spring to thy arms, O Death,
   Come soon, come soon!

[Ernestine Clayton Deavours, The Mississippi Poets 134 (Memphis: E. H. Clarke & Brother, 1934)]


Sketches of our Volunteer Officers
(Southern Literary Messenger, 1865)