PISTOLS AND POINTED PENS The Dueling Editors of Old Virginia By Virginius Dabney Algonquin Books. 193 pp. $15.95

John Moncure Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner during the Civil War, knew how to make his words count. As Virginia prepared to leave the Union, the ardently secessionist Daniel directed his attentions to certain personages whose opinions were otherwise: among these were "the Jackass from Petersburg, the Hyena from Monongalia, the curly-headed poodle from Richmond" and a certain Col. Marmaduke Johnson, "the sleek fat pony from Richmond, who neighed submission: one master for him would be as good as another; what he went in for was good feeding, and he believed he could get that from Old Abe as well as anybody else."

According to Virginius Dabney, Daniel was "the most brilliantly slashing writer of newspaper editorials in Virginia in the 19th century," but he was hardly the only one. There was, for example, William Elam, editor of the Whig in the late 1870s, who pounced on a competing journal as follows: "Not only does the State lie, but its 'editor and owner' lies, and the poor creature who may have written the article in question also lies -- all jointly and severally -- deliberately, knowingly, maliciously and with the inevitable cowardice that is always yoked with insolent bravado." On another occasion Elam directed his fire at a politician of low habits:

"Edward B. Miars, the notorious thug, cowardly ruffian, big brute, boisterous bully, dangerous desperado, tough dive keeper, low rum seller, ex-monkey house man, evil doer, terror of society, and defier of all law and order, is behind prison bars in Portsmouth jail, where he was committed yesterday ... for ten days to await the result of his latest victim's injuries."

Such were the halcyon days of ol' Virginny, land of corn and cotton and calumny, and thus did the Virginia gentlemen comport themselves. The journalist or writer of today, his freedom to slander and vilify compromised by such niceties and nuisances as taste, professional ethics and libel laws, can only groan in envy as he reads, in "Pistols and Pointed Pens," of the words and deeds of these undeservedly forgotten scriveners. How fortunate it is, therefore, that they have been recalled from the mists of history by Dabney, himself a retired Richmond journalist of distinction if not, alas, of especially mean or spiteful disposition.

Not merely did the gentlemen of 19th-century Virginia take verbal swipes at each other, they delighted in going after their opponents' hides with live ammunition. The "code duello" was alive and well in those days, though ostensibly it was illegal, and the editor at whom a real or imagined slur had been directed was as likely to reach for his pistol as for his pen. Though the mortality rate in the Fourth Estate was lamentably low, the noise level was exceedingly high, as cannonade after cannonade filled the air. Not surprisingly, an enthusiastic participant in these tribal rites was the aforementioned John Moncure Daniel:

"The preposterous irrationality of devotees of the code duello is nowhere better illustrated than in the circumstances surrounding a duel fought by Daniel in 1852, apparently his first. He and Edward C. Johnston of the Whig got into a discussion of the artistic merits of Powers' statue, the 'Greek Slave.' They differed strongly in their views, and in an incredible fit of fatuity decided that the way to settle the matter was on 'the field of honor.' They exchanged shots, but fortunately both missed."

Precisely why this was fortunate is anything but clear, as their survival merely freed both men to commit further inanities -- as, of course, both proceeded to do. As another writer quoted by Dabney points out, "Men shot each other for gambling debts, for a dispute over billiards, an uncomplimentary word in an editorial, a jest at table, a refusal to take a glass of whiskey, or, most of all, for disagreements in politics." In the 19th century many of those disagreements centered upon the volatile issue of race; it is surprising, given the extreme nature of Virginian sentiment on that subject, that the entire press was not wiped out of its own accord.

But violent though the 19th-century press was, not merely in Virginia but in most other states, it was neither as savage nor as splenetic as this review may lead the reader to conclude. It is simply more fun to write about quarrelsome journalists than about those who merely go about their daily business. As is made plain by Dabney's account, if not by his book's title and subtitle, that is what the 19th-century Virginians largely did. Doubtless they had more moments of high if pointless drama than do their 20th-century counterparts, but they were journalists first and marksmen second -- and, as Dabney quite conclusively demonstrates, far more accomplished at the former than the latter.