The circumstances connected with the famous duel between Andrew Jackson of Tennessee and Charles Dickinson of Caroline county, Maryland, are herewith given as gleaned from several apparently reliable sources.
Jackson who had been retired from public life was then (1806) living on a farm along the Cumberland River in Tennessee, about ten miles from Nashville. He had a passion for fine horses and it became a principal branch of his farming business, to raise them from the best stock imported from Virginia and North Carolina. More for the purpose of exhibiting his stock and recommending it to purchasers, than to indulge in the practices common at such places, he brought out his favorite horses upon the race-courses of the day and lost and won in many a well-contested field.
Jackson owned a favorite horse, named Truxton, which be was challenged to run against a horse owned by a Mr. Erwin and his son-in-law, Charles Dickinson. The stakes were to be two thousand dollars on a side, in cash notes, with a forfeiture of eight hundred dollars. The bet was accepted, and a list of notes made out; but when the time for running arrived, Erwin and Dickinson chose to pay the forfeit. Erwin offered sundry notes not due, withholding the list which was in the hands of Dickinson. Jackson refused to receive them, and demanded the list, claiming the right to select from the notes described upon it. The list was produced, a selection made, and the affair satisfactorily adjusted. Afterwards a rumor reached Dickinson, that General Jackson charged Erwin with producing a list of notes different from the true ones. In an interview between Jackson and Dickinson, the former denied the statement, and the latter gave his author. Jackson instantly proposed to call him in; but Dickinson declined. Meeting with the author shortly after, Jackson had an altercation with him, which ended in blows. Here the affair ought to have ended. But there were those who desired to produce a duel between Jackson and Dickinson. The latter was brave and reckless, a trader in blacks and blooded horses, and reputed to be the best shot in the country. Exasperation was produced; publication followed publication: insults were given and retorted; until, at length, General Jackson was informed that a paper, more severe than its predecessors, was in the bands of the printer, and that Dickinson was about to leave the state. He flew to Nashville, and demanded a sight of it in the printer’s hands. It was insulting in the highest degree, contained a direct imputation of cowardice, and concluded with a notice that the author would leave for Maryland, within the coming week. A stern challenge, demanding immediate satisfaction, was the consequence. The challenge was given on the 23d of May, and Dickinson’s publication appeared the next morning. Jackson pressed for an instant meeting; but it was postponed, at the request of the other party, until the 30th, at which time it was to take place, at Harrison’s Mills, on Red River, within the limits of Kentucky. Dickinson occupied the intermediate time in practicing. Jackson went upon the ground firmly impressed with the conviction that his life was eagerly sought, and in the expectation of losing it, but with a determination which such a conviction naturally inspired in a bosom that never knew fear. As Dickinson rode out to the place with a party of friends, he fired at a string supporting an apple and cut the cord in two. It had been agreed that the two men should use pistols and stand eight paces apart facing the same direction and that at the word they should turn towards each other and fire as they chose.
Later, however Jackson and his second Dr. Overton decided it best and agreed that Dickinson shoot first. When all was ready and Overton gave the word, Dickinson fired and Jackson was seen to press his hand lightly over his chest while the dust flew from his clothes. Dickinson at first thought he had missed his man and was seized with terror. Jackson now had his adversary at his mercy and slowly pulled the trigger. There was no explosion; the pistol stopped at half cock which by the rules was not considered a shot. Again Jackson took deliberate aim and fired; the ball severed an artery and Dickinson fell. Jackson with his friend and surgeon, left the ground, and had traveled about twenty miles towards home, when his attendant first discovered that the general was wounded, by seeing the oozing through his clothes. On examination, it was found that Dickinson’s ball had buried itself in his breast, and shattered two of his ribs near their articulation with his breastbone. It was some weeks before he was able to attend to business. Dickinson was taken to a neighboring house, where he survived but a few hours.
The friends of Dickinson, and the enemies of Jackson, circulated charges of unfairness in the fight, but these were soon put down, in the estimation of candid and impartial judges, by the certificates of the seconds, that all had been done according to the previous understanding between the parties, and proof that Dickinson himself, though able to converse, never uttered a single word of complaint before his death. The Secretary of the Tennessee Historical Society furnishes the following:
“In regard to his (Charles Dickinson) latter end will say that his remains were buried on the farm of his father-in-law, Mr. Joseph Erwin, then some distance west of Nashville. But the city has so grown in the last fifty years that the grave is now within the bounds of the western district of the city. Until a few years ago it was marked by an old fashioned box tomb, although it had no inscription whatever. Since the farm has become a part of the city, this tomb has been removed and there is no mark of the grave except that we know exactly its position and are trying to have it permanently marked.
In regard to Mr. Dickinson will say that it is now generally admitted that the difficulty with General Jackson grew out of the sporting life of both of them and is attributed largely to differences growing out of a horse race.
I think the verdict of history is that Mr. Dickinson was a young man of promising abilities, but in keeping with the life of the day was high strung, impetuous, and probably imprudent. There is nothing, however, justified with reference to immoral character, no more than was characteristic of life in the South at that time.
James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson: In Three Volumes, Volume 1, New York: Mason Brothers, 1960, pp. 286-306
DUEL BETWEEN COFFEE AND McNAIRY.
Dickinson being still absent from Tennessee, the insulting language applied to him by General Jackson passed, for the time, without notice. But young McNairy, the “squire of high renown,” was prompt to respond to that part of Jackson’s communication which related to him. The Impartial Review, of the next week, contained the following sarcastic epistle from that young gentleman :—
“Mr. Eastin :—I would presume, from a view of the famous General s answer to Mr. Swann's publication in your last number, that part of the verdict to be expected from the public would be that the brave General is much more pleased in shedding bushels of ink than one ounce of blood, provided there is an equal chance that that one ounce should be extracted from his own dear carcase. But give him an advantage, and he is as brave as Julius Cæsar; such as this: give him a large brace of rifle-barreled pistols, and he will race a superannuated governor on the road as he travels, or he will meet Mr. Swann in some sequestered spot, that the alert General may obtain some dishonorable advantage when no eye can see him; or let him have a pistol, and he will shoot at a man that has none, and drive him off to Kentucky. God knows for what offense. I apprehend the General knows, too.
“Fie, fie upon it! General I Come out. You can make boys fight at six feet distance; risk yourself for once on equal terms, at least at ten yards. The risk is not great when you consider that your opponent will be under the impression that he has come in contact with the brave, magnanimous, invincible and honorable Major General Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee, but not commander of the navies.
”Let this suffice as a relish for the gentleman General until I shall have time to answer the charges exhibited by the braggadocio General; especially as it regards his honorable certifier, Mr. Coffee, who was under the necessity of being sworn, because he is not only honorable, but religious. The sagacious General would fain turn the public eye from the case of Mr. Swann and himself. Mr. Swann has a right to reply; after that, the pure General and myself will join issue; or I rather expect the General will demur, for all he has got to do is to say a man is no gentleman. Perhaps he is right; the community can not well spare such men. In due time the public shall have all the documents in my power to afford, and I wish them, if they please, to suspend an opinion as far as regards the statement made in his publication against me. It is none but the cowardly who are always the cause of such disputes coming before the public; they ought to be transacted in conclave; but the General knows the more noise there is made, the less danger there is of his sacred person.
“Nashville, February 15th, 1806. Nathaniel A. Mcnairy.
“N. B.—The people of the western country may think who are gentlemen and who are not, but it is reserved for the well born General to decide that point. N. A. McN.”
The gauntlet thus thrown down was taken up by Mr. John Coffee, and a duel was the immediate result. The events that transpired at this duel had an influence upon the more serious combat that followed it. Coffee’s second on this occasion was Major Robert Purdy, who thus relates what occurred on the ground :—
“On the 1st day of March, 1806, Mr. N. A. McNairy met Mr. Coffee in the State of Kentucky, agreeable to promise, to render Mr. Coffee satisfaction for an insult given by him (McNairy) in his publication in Mr. Eastin’s Impartial Review of the 22d ultimo; Mr. McNairy accompanied by his friend, Mr. George Bell, and Mr. Coffee by myself.
“Mr. Bell being requested by me to name for his friend the distance and mode of fighting, Mr. Bell observed, ‘the usual distance, thirty feet,’ which was agreed to. Mr. Bell pointed out the mode, which is as follows: first, the word, ‘Make Ready;’ at which time the parties were to raise their pistols; then, distinctly count, ‘one, two, three,’ and then the word ’Fire;’ at which time the parties were to fire; a snap or flash to be considered as a fire. Should either of the pistols go off before the word ‘make ready’ is given, it is to be considered as an accident, and at liberty to load again previous to the other’s firing. Should either of the parties fire after the word is given, ‘Make Ready,’ and before the word ‘Fire,’ the other is to fire at the word, should he think proper, or reserve his fire; all of which was agreed to by me.
“The ground was then laid off by Mr. Bell and myself, and we then threw up who was to give the word. I won it. We threw up for the choice of positions. I won it. Mr. Bell observed to me, that if either of the gentlemen fired before the word, it would be a hard case to shoot them. I answered, it would be equally disagreeable to me; but should either of them fire before the word, they would be disgraced, which they must well know. We then proceeded to load the pistols, and called the gentlemen up, to whom the stipulations agreed to were read over by me, and fully explained, and both the gentlemen said they understood them perfectly. I then cautioned them to be careful not to fire before the word.
“The gentlemen then took their positions, and I repeated to them once or twice how the word would be given, and cautioned them again not to fire before the word. Mr. Bell and myself took our positions, with a loaded pistol in our hands. I proceeded to give the word, ‘Make Ready,’ at which time both the gentlemen raised their pistols, and appeared perfectly calm and deliberate. I then proceeded to count ‘one, and about the word ‘two,’ Mr. McNairy fired, and shot Air. Coffee through the thigh. Mr. Coffee fired immediately after; but I am clearly of opinion it was in consequence of the wound he had received, that extracted his fire.
“I immediately walked up to Mr. McNairy with my pistol cocked, and observed to him (McNairy) that he ought to be shot; and also observed to him, that was it not for the agreement between Mr. Bell and myself I would shoot him. Mr. McNairy observed, it was an accident. I replied to him, that accidents of this kind on the held were inadmissible. Mr. Bell observed, that Mr. Coffee had also fired before the word. Mr. Coffee answered Mr. Bell, that he was wounded through the thigh, which caused his pistol to go off. Mr. Bell admitted it might be the case. Mr. Coffee then advanced towards Mr. McNairy, and said to him, ‘G-d d--n you, this is the second time you have been guilty of the same crime.’ I told Mr. Coffee to desist; that this was an improper place to have words. Mr. Bell observed that they were ready to take another fire. I replied, that I would not suffer Mr. Coffee to take another fire; that he had no right to do so, owing to the conduct of Mr. McNairy’s firing before the word. Mr. Bell then applied to me for a compromise. I then observed that Mr. Coffee would not, unless Mr. McNairy would disavow every thing he had said of Mr. Coffee in the public prints, and suffer this day’s transaction to be published, which I supposed Mr. McNairy would not do. Mr. Bell also observed, that Mr. McNairy would not. Mr. McNairy and myself had some conversation on the subject of a compromise between Mr. Coffee and himself. I answered him in the same way I did Mr. Bell. Mr. McNairy observed to me, that he always had a good opinion of Mr. Coffee, and that Coffee had been dragged into the business as well as himself. We then retired.”
Mr. George Bell, the second of McNairy, also published a statement not materially differing from the above, except with regard to what followed the accidental fire. “Mr. McNairy,” said Bell, “appeared to be very much hurt at his firing before the word, and insisted on me to tell Mr. Coffee that he would lay down his pistol, and that he (Coffee) might load his pistol, and stand at the proper distance, and have one shot at him, if that would satisfy him. I told Mr. McNairy that I did not think Mr. Coffee would do that, and this I think, I mentioned to Major Purdy, and he also observed that Mr. Coffee would not do it. As it has always been my wish to see men who have once been in habits of intimacy, as Mr. McNairy and Mr. Coffee had been, if possible, to become so again, I then mentioned to Major Purdy, if we could not bring about a compromise between Mr. Coffee and Mr. McNairy, at least, that they should be on speaking terms, and do business together as gentlemen. Major Purdy observed that we could not, except Mr. McNairy would disavow every thing that he had said of Mr. Coffee in the public prints. I then told Major Purdy that Mr. McNairy would never do that. We then parted.”</span>
A peppery note from Major Purdy concluded this business: “I have been informed,” said Purdy, “by Mr. George Bell, that a report has been in circulation, that when Mr. Coffee and Mr. McNairy were on the field of honor, that Mr. Bell had a great deal of difficulty to keep me from shooting Mr. McNairy, and that said McNairy had begged his life, and given a certificate of his improper conduct. Whoever stated such conduct as respects Mr. McNairy, is a liar and rascal.”
To General Jackson’s communication Mr. Swann published a reply of prodigious length, the main object of which was to prove, by certificates and affidavits, that Thomas Swann was a gentleman, and General Jackson a coward.
Among the eminent Virginians who certified to Mr. Swann’s gentlemanliness were Edmund Randolph and Edward Carrington. Mr. Randolph said: “I commit to paper with great pleasure what I know and what I believe with respect to Thomas Swann, Esq. He studied the law under my advice; and manifested the most steady attention to it during the time. I had no hesitation in anticipating that he would become an able lawyer; and I can with truth assert the acknowledged purity of his character.”
Eleven other men of known character testified in similar terms to Mr. Swann’s entire respectability.
Mr. Swann concluded his long communication with the following remarks: “The renowned General’s famous publication is fraught with rancorous abuse, and slanderous defamation; and contains charges which are not only unfounded, but entirely irrelevant to the point at issue; one of which made by Samuel Jackson (a character which perhaps bears as great an affinity to him in disposition as in name), although amply in my power to disprove, I conceive it would be too condescending to stoop to a serious refutation of, when I reflect it was made by a man whose conduct has rendered him unworthy the notice of a gentleman. I shall now conclude this address to the public by assuring General Andrew Jackson (to use a favorite expression of his own) ‘that I shall at all times hold myself answerable for any of my conduct.’”
Mr. Swann might have spared himself the labor of preparing his voluminous reply, for while it was yet in the compositor’s hands, events were transpiring which turned the attention of the public away from the subordinate belligerents, and fixed it upon the principals. Dickinson was at home again. He reached Nashville about the 20th of May.
On the 22d of May, General Thomas Overton rode out to General Jackson’s store at Clover Bottom with the information that Dickinson had written a most scurrilous attack upon Jackson, which he had placed in Mr. Eastin’s hands for publication, and it would appear in the next number of the paper. Jackson asked Overton to hasten back to town, get a sight of the article, bring him an account of its contents, and come prepared to give an opinion as to whether it was an article requiring “notice.” Overton complied with the request.
“It’s a piece that can’t be passed over,” reported Overton. “General Jackson, you must challenge him.”
To which Jackson replied, “General, this is an affair of life and death. I’ll take the responsibility myself. I’ll see the piece and form my own judgment of it.”
He mounted his horse, and rode to the office of the Impartial Review. The article was shown him as afterward published. The following is a copy of it:—
“Mr. Eastin :—In looking over the tenth number of your Impartial Review I discover that a certain Andrew Jackson has endeavored to induce the public to believe that some inconsistency had been attempted by me relative to his dispute with Mr. Thomas Swann. My letter to Andrew Jackson, as published by Mr. Joseph Ervin, is, I consider, a sufficient answer with any impartial person.
“I should have never condescended to have taken any notice of Andrew Jackson or his scurrilous publication had it not been promised by Mr. John Ervin, when he published my letter at length, which Mr. Jackson, for some cause unknown but to himself, had not the generosity to have published but in part .
“I shall take notice but of those parts of his publication which are intended for myself. The first is in his publication of the 8th of February, which reads thus: ‘Mr. Charles Dickinson’s information is referred to; see Mr. Dickinson’s letter. He states no such thing, but refers to a different list. These two correctative informants speak, one of different notes actually offered, the other of a different list of notes. Happy concordance! These two gentlemen possess the key of consistency.’
“I have no such accommodating disposition as to compare what I intend to offer to the public with that of any witness whatever, and, if it should differ, to correct in such manner as to correspond. What any person offers for publication, if called on, I think it is his duty to swear to. Andrew Jackson has had several disputes, which have appeared in different prints of this State, and, if his mode of publishing his thoughts on his different quarrels is such as to alter his publications to make them answer with those of his witnesses, I can only exclaim, 0 tempora! O mores!
“Another part of his publication, of the same date, is as follows: ‘He,’ alluding to Mr. Thomas Swann, ‘has acted the puppet and lying valet for a worthless, drunken, blackguard scoundrel,’ etc., etc. Should AndrewJackson have intended these epithets for me, I declare him, notwithstanding he is a Major General of the militia of Mero district, to be a worthless scoundrel, ‘a poltroon and a coward’—a man who, by frivolous and evasive pretexts, avoided giving the satisfaction which was due to a gentleman whom he had injured. This has prevented me from calling on him in the manner I should otherwise have done, for I am well convinced that he is too great a coward to administer any of those anodines he promised me in his letter to Mr. Swann. His excuse I anticipate, that his anodines have been in such demand since I left Tennessee that he is out of the necessary ingredients to mix them. I expect to leave Nashville, the first of next week, for Maryland. Yours, etc.,
“May 21st, 1806. Charles Dickinson.”*
One glance at this article revealed to General Jackson the nature of its contents. He hesitated not a moment. An hour later General Overton placed in Dickinson’s hands the following letter :—
”Charles Dickinson, Sir:—Your conduct and expressions relative to me of late have been of such a nature and so insulting that it requires and shall have my notice. Insult may be given by men, and of such a kind that they must be noticed and treated with the respect due a gentleman, although (in the present instance) you do not merit it.
”You have, to disturb my quiet, industriously excited Thomas Swann to quarrel with me, which involved the peace and harmony of society for awhile.
”You, on the 10th of January, wrote me a very insulting letter, left this country, caused this letter to be delivered after you had been gone some days, and viewing yourself in safety from the contempt I held you, have now in the press a piece more replete with blackguard abuse than any of your other productions. You are pleased to state that you would have noticed me in a different way, but my cowardice would have found a pretext to evade that satisfaction if it had been called for, etc., etc
”I hope, sir, your courage will be an ample security to me that I will obtain speedily that satisfaction due me for the insults offered, and in the way my friend who hands you this will point out. He waits upon you for that purpose, and with your friend will enter into immediate arrangements for this purpose. I am, etc., Andrew Jackson.”
Before the day closed, Jackson received, through Dr. Hanson Cutlet, a reply to his challenge. “Your note of this morning,” wrote Dickinson, “is received, and your request shall be gratified. My friend who hands you this will make the necessary arrangements.”
The seconds immediately conferred, agreed upon the time and place of meeting, and drew up their agreement in writing :—” On Friday, the 30th instant, we agree to meet at Harrison’s Mills, on Red river, in Logan county, State of Kentucky, for the purpose of settling an affair of honor between General Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson, Esq. Further arrangements to be made. It is understood that the meeting will be at the hour of seven in the morning.”
Upon reading this over to his principal, Overton found him most averse to postponing the meeting for a whole week. Catlet had given as a reason for the delay that Dickinson had not a pair of dueling pistols, and it would require time to procure a pair. This seemed a mere subterfuge to Jackson, who would, if he could, have fought that night. So he prompted his second to write the following note to Dr. Catlet: “Sir, the affair of honor to be settled between my friend General Jackson and Charles Dickinson, Esq., is wished not to be postponed until the 30th instant (say Friday) agreeable to your time appointed, if it can be done sooner. In order that no inconvenience on your part may occur, if you can not obtain pistols, we pledge ourselves to give you choice of ours. Let me hear from you immediately.”
No answer came that night, nor early the next morning. The impetuous Jackson urged Overton to write a second note to his adversary’s second: “Sir, I pressed you in favor of my friend General Jackson for immediate satisfaction for the injury that his feelings had received from a publication of Charles Dickinson. You replied that it might not be in your power to obtain pistols. In my note of yesterday, in order to remove any obstacles as it respected pistols, I agreed to give you choice of ours, the other we pledged ourselves to make use of. For God’s sake, let this business be brought to an issue immediately, as I can not see, after the publication, why Mr. Dickinson should wish to put it off till Friday.”
This produced a brief and barely civil note from Dr. Catlet: “Sir, I have received your notes of yesterday and this date, and can only answer that it will not now be convenient to alter the day from that already agreed upon.”
This settled the point in dispute. On the same day the seconds met again, and agreed upon the following: “It is agreed that the distance shall be twenty-four feet; the parties to stand facing each other, with their pistols down perpendicularly. When they are ready, the single word, Fiue, to be given; at which they are to fire as soon as they please. Should either fire before the word is given, we pledge ourselves to shoot him down instantly. The person to give the word to be determined by lot, as also the choice of position. We mutually agree that the above regulations shall be observed in the affair of honor depending between General Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson, Esq.”
This was Saturday, May 24th, 1806. The duel was not to take place till the Friday following. The quarrel thus far had excited intense interest in Nashville, and the successive numbers of the Impartial Review had been read with avidity. The coming duel was no secret, though the time and place were not known to any but the friends of the parties. Bets, I am informed, were laid upon the result of the meeting, the odds being against Jackson. Dickinson himself is said to have bet five hundred dollars that he would bring his antagonist down at the first fire. Another informant says three thousand. But I have small belief in any of the ill things said of this man.
The place appointed for the meeting was a long day’s ride from Nashville. Thursday morning, before the dawn of day, Dickinson stole from the side of his young and beautiful wife, and began silently to prepare for the journey. She awoke, and asked him why he was up so early. He replied, that he had business in Kentucky across the Red river, but it would not detain him long. Before leaving the room, he went up to his wife, kissed her with peculiar tenderness, and said:
“Good bye, darling; I shall be sure to be at home tomorrow night.”
He mounted his horse and repaired to the rendezvous, where his second and half a dozen of the gay blades of Nashville were waiting to escort him on his journey. Away they rode, in the highest spirits, as though they were upon a party of pleasure. Indeed, they made a party of pleasure of it. When they stopped for rest or refreshment, Dickinson is said to have amused the company by displaying his wonderful skill with the pistol. Once, at a distance of twenty-four feet, he fired four balls, each at the word of command, into a space that could be covered by a silver dollar. Several times he cut a string with his bullet from the same distance. It is said that he left a severed string hanging near a tavern, and said to the landlord as he rode away,
“If General Jackson comes along this road, show him that!”
It is also said, that he laid a wager of five hundred dollars that he would hit his antagonist within half an inch of a certain button on his coat. I neither believe nor deny one of these stories; but so many of the same kind are still told in the neighborhood, that it is safe to conclude that, on this
fatal ride, Dickinson did affect much of that recklessness of manner which was once supposed to be an evidence of high courage. The party went frisking and galloping along the lonely forest roads, making short cuts that cautious travelers never attempted, dashing across creeks and rivers, and making the woods ring and echo with their shouts and laughter. Very different was the demeanor of General Jackson and the party that accompanied him. General Thomas Overton, an old revolutionary soldier, versed in the science, and familiar with the practice of dueling, had reflected deeply upon the conditions of the coming combat, with the view to conclude upon the tactics most likely to save his friend from Dickinson’s unerring bullet. For this duel was not to be the amusing mockery that some modern duels have been. This duel was to be real. It was to be an affair in which each man was to strive with his utmost skill to effect the purpose of the occasion—disable his antagonist and save his own life. As the principal and the second rode apart from the rest, they discussed all the chances and probabilities with the single aim to decide upon a course which should result in the disabling of Dickinson and the saving of Jackson. The mode of fighting which had been agreed upon was somewhat peculiar. The pistols were to be held downward until the word was given to fire; then each man was to fire as soon as he pleased. With such an arrangement, it was scarcely possible that both the pistols should be discharged at the same moment. There was a chance, even, that by extreme quickness of movement, one man could bring down his antagonist without himself receiving a shot. The question anxiously discussed between Jackson and Overton was this: Shall we try to get the first shot, or shall we permit Dickinson to have it? They agreed, at length, that it would be decidedly better to let Dickinson fire first. In the first place, Dickinson, like all miraculous shots, required no time to take aim, and would have a far better chance than Jackson in a quick shot, even if both fired at once. And in spite of anything Jackson could do, Dickinson would be almost sure to get the first fire. Moreover, Jackson was certain he would be hit; and he was unwilling to subject his own aim to the chance of its being totally destroyed by the shock of the blow. For Jackson was resolved on hitting Dickinson. His feelings toward his adversary were embittered by what he had heard of his public practicings and boastful wagers. “I should have hit him, if he had shot me through the brain,” said Jackson once. In pleasant discourse of this kind, the two men wiled away the hours of the long journey.
A tavern kept by one David Miller, somewhat noted in the neighborhood, stood on the banks of the Red river, near the ground appointed for the duel. Late in the afternoon of Thursday, the 29th of May, the inmates of this tavern were surprised by the arrival of a party of seven or eight horsemen. Jacob Smith, then employed by Miller as an overseer, but now himself a planter in the vicinity, was standing before the house when this unexpected company rode up. One of these horsemen asked him if they could be accommodated with lodgings for the night. They could. The party dismounted, gave their horses to the attendant negroes, and entered the tavern. No sooner had they done so, than honest Jacob was perplexed by the arrival of a second cavalcade—Dickinson and his friends, who also asked for lodgings. The manager told them the house was full; but that he never turned travelers away, and if they chose to remain, he would do the best he could for them. Dickinson then asked where was the next house of entertainment. He was directed to a house two miles lower down the river, kept by William Harrison. The house is still standing. The room in which Dickinson slept that night, and slept the night following, is the one now used by the occupants as a dining-room.
Jackson ate heartily at supper that night, conversing in a lively, pleasant manner, and smoked his evening pipe as usual. Jacob Smith remembers being exceedingly pleased with his guest, and, on learning the cause of his visit, heartily wishing him a safe deliverance.
Before breakfast on the next morning the whole party mounted and rode down the road that wound close along the picturesque banks of the stream.
About the same hour, the overseer and his gang of negroes went to the fields to begin their daily toil; he, longing to venture within sight of what he knew was about to take place.
The horsemen rode about a mile along the river; then turned down toward the river to a point on the bank where they had expected to find a ferryman. No ferryman appearing, Jackson spurred his horse into the stream and dashed across, followed by all his party. They rode into the poplar forest, two hundred yards or less, to a spot near the center of a level platform or river bottom, then covered with forest, now smiling with cultivated fields. The horsemen halted and dismounted just before reaching the appointed place. Jackson, Overton, and a surgeon who had come with them from home, walked on together, and the rest led their horses a short distance in an opposite direction.
“How do you feel about it now, General?” asked one of the party, as Jackson turned to go.
“Oh, all right,” replied Jackson, gayly; “I shall wing him, never fear.”
Dickinson’s second won the choice of position, and Jackson’s the office of giving the word. The astute Overton considered this giving of the word a matter of great importance, and he had already determined how he would give it, if the lot fell to him. The eight paces were measured off, and the men placed. Both were perfectly collected. All the politenesses of such occasions were very strictly and elegantly performed. Jackson was dressed in a loose frock-coat, buttoned carelessly over his chest, and concealing in some degree the extreme slenderness of his figure. Dickinson was the younger and handsomer man of the two. But Jackson’s tall, erect figure, and the still intensity of his demeanor, it is said, gave him a most superior and commanding air, as he stood under the tall poplars on this bright May morning, silently awaiting the moment of doom.
“Are you ready?” said Overton.
“I am ready,” replied Dickinson.
“I am ready,” said Jackson.
The words were no sooner pronounced than Overton, with a sudden shout, cried, using his old-country pronunciation,
Dickinson raised his pistol quickly and fired. Overton, who was looking with anxiety and dread at Jackson, saw a puff of dust fly from the breast of his coat, and saw him raise his left arm and place it tightly across his chest. He is surely hit, thought Overton, and in a bad place, too; but no; he does not fall. Erect and grim as Fate he stood, his teeth clenched, raising his pistol. Overton glanced at Dickinson. Amazed at the unwonted failure of his aim, and apparently appalled at the awful figure and face before him, Dickinson had unconsciously recoiled a pace or two.
“Great God!” he faltered, “have I missed him?”
“Back to the Mark, sir!” shrieked Overton, with his hand upon his pistol.
Dickinson recovered his composure, stepped forward to the peg, and stood with his eyes averted from his antagonist. All this was the work of a moment, though it requires many words to tell it.
General Jackson took deliberate aim, and pulled the trigger. The pistol neither snapped nor went off. He looked at the trigger, and discovered that it had stopped at half cock. He drew it back to its place, and took aim a second time. He fired. Dickinson’s face blanched; he reeled; his friends rushed toward him, caught him in their arms, and gently seated him on the ground, leaning against a bush. His trowsers reddened. They stripped off his clothes. The blood was gushing from his side in a torrent. And, alas! here is the ball, not near the wound, but above the opposite, hip, just under the skin. The ball had passed through the body, below the ribs. Such a wound could not but be fatal.
Overton went forward and learned the condition of the wounded man. Rejoining his principal, he said, “He won’t want anything more of you, General,” and conducted him from the ground. They had gone a hundred yards, Overton walking on one side of Jackson, the surgeon on the other, and neither speaking a word, when the surgeon observed that one of Jackson’s shoes was full of blood.</span>
“My God! General Jackson, are you hit ?” he exclaimed, pointing to the blood.
“Oh! I believe," replied Jackson, “that he has pinked me a little. Let’s look at it. But say nothing about it there,” pointing to the house.
He opened his coat. Dickinson’s aim had been perfect. He had sent the ball precisely where he supposed Jackson’s heart was beating. But the thinness of his body and the looseness of his coat combining to deceive Dickinson, the ball had only broken a rib or two, and raked the breast-bone. It was a somewhat painful, bad-looking wound, but neither severe nor dangerous, and he was able to ride to the tavern without much inconvenience. Upon approaching the house, he went up to one of the negro women who was churning, and asked her if the butter had come. She said it was just coming. He asked for some buttermilk. While she was getting it for him, she observed him furtively open his coat and look within it. She saw that his shirt was soaked with blood, and she stood gazing in blank horror at the sight, dipper in hand. He caught her eye, and hastily buttoned his coat again. She dipped out a quart measure full of buttermilk, and gave it to him. He drank it off at a draught; then went in, took off his coat, and had his wound carefully examined and dressed. That done, he dispatched one of his retinue to Dr. Catlett, to inquire respecting the condition of Dickinson, and to say that the surgeon attending himself would be glad to contribute his aid toward Mr. Dickinson’s relief. Polite reply was returned that Mr. Dickinson’s case was past surgery. In the course of the day, General Jackson sent a bottle of wine to Dr. Catlett for the use of his patient.
But there was one gratification which Jackson could not, even in such circumstances, grant him. A very old friend of General Jackson writes to me thus: “Although the General had been wounded, he did not desire it should be known until he had left the neighborhood, and had therefore concealed it at first from his own friends. His reason for this, as he once stated to me, was, that as Dickinson considered himself the best shot in the world, and was certain of killing him at the first fire, he did not want him to have the gratification even of knowing that he had touched him.”
Poor Dickinson bled to death. The flowing of blood was stanched, but could not be stopped. He was conveyed to the house in which he had passed the night, and placed upon a mattrass, which was soon drenched with blood. He suffered extreme agony, and uttered horrible cries all that long day. At nine o’clock in the evening he suddenly asked why they had put out the lights. The doctor knew then that the end was at hand; that the wife, who had been sent for in the morning, would not arrive in time to close her husband’s eyes. He died five minutes after, cursing, it is said, with his last breath, the ball that had entered his body. The poor wife hurried away on hearing that her husband was “dangerously wounded,” and met, as she rode toward the scene of the duel, a procession of silent horsemen escorting a rough emigrant wagon that contained her husband’s remains.*[
This account of the duel was compiled from many sources, verbal and printed; but most of the incidents which occurred on the field I received from an old friend of General Jackson, who heard them related, and saw them acted, by General Overton. In narrating some of the minor events, I have had to choose between conflicting statements; yet I feel confident that this account contains no error of importance; no error affecting the moral quality of the principal acta.]
The news created in Nashville the most profound sensation. "On Tuesday evening (afternoon) last,” said the Impartial Review of the following week, “the remains of Mr. Charles Dickinson were committed to the grave, at the residence of Mr. Joseph Ervin, attended by a large number of citizens of Nashville and its neighborhood. There have been few occasions on which stronger impressions of sorrow or testimonies of greater respect were evinced than on the one we have the unwelcome task to record. In the prime of life, and blessed in domestic circumstances with almost every valuable enjoyment, he fell a victim to the barbarous and pernicious practice of dueling. By his untimely fate the community is deprived of an amiable man and a virtuous citizen. His friends will long lament with particular sensibility the deplorable event. Mr. Dickinson was a native of Maryland, where he was highly valued by the discriminating and good; and those who knew him best respected him most. With a consort that has to bear with this, the severest of afflictions, and an infant child, his friends and acquaintances will cordially sympathize. Their loss is above calculation. May Heaven assuage their anguish by administering such consolations as are beyond the power of human accident or change.”
But the matter did not rest here. Charles Dickinson had many friends in Nashville, and Andrew Jackson many enemies. The events preceding, and the circumstances attending the duel were such as to excite horror and disgust in many minds. An informal meeting of citizens was held, who could hit upon no better way of expressing their feelings than sending the following memorial to the proprietors of the Impartial Review:—” The subscribers, citizens of Nashville and its vicinity, respectfully request Mr. Bradford and Mr. Eastin to put the next number of their paper in mourning as a tribute of respect for the memory, and regret for the untimely death of Mr. Charles Dickinson.”
Seventy-three names, many of which were of the highest respectability, were appended to this document. Mr. Eastin had no hesitation in promising to comply with the request.
Upon his couch at the Hermitage General Jackson heard of this movement. With his usual promptitude, he dispatched to the editor the following letter :—” Mr. Eastin :—I am informed that at the request of sundry citizens of Nashville and vicinity, you are about to dress your paper in mourning ‘as a tribute of respect for the memory and regret for the untimely death of Charles Dickinson.’ Your paper is the public vehicle, and is always taken as the public will, unless the contrary appears. Presuming thai the public is not in mourning for this event, in justice to that public, it is only fair and right to set forth the names of those citizens who have made the request. The thing is so novel that names ought to appear that the public might judge whether the true motives of the signers were ‘a tribute of respect for the deceased,’ or something else that at first sight does not appear.”</span>
The editor, with equal complaisance and ingenuity, contrived to oblige all parties. He placed his paper in mourning, he published the memorial, he published General Jackson’s letter, and he added to the whole the following remarks :— “In answer to the request of General Jackson I can only observe that, previously, the request of some of the citizens of Nashville and its vicinity had been put to type, and as soon as it had transpired that the above request had been made, a number of the subscribers, to the amount of twentysix,* called and erased their names. Always willing to support, by my acts, the title of my paper—always willing to attend to the request of any portion of our citizens when they will take the responsibility on themselves, induced me to comply with the petition of those requesting citizens, and place my paper in mourning. Impartiality induces me also to attend to the request of General Jackson.”
• The following were the names actually published: Hanson Catlett, Thomas E. WagamaD, Thomas G. Watkins, Boyd McNairy, John McNairy, William Tait, Duncan Robertson, John H. Smith, Thomas Williamson, William T. Lewis, John Nichols, Thomas C. Clark, Daney McCraw, John Maclin, Jeremiah Scales, Timothy Demonbrum, Klisha Johnston, James P. Downes, William B. Robertson, William Lytle, D. Moor, Robert Stoteart, J. Gordan, J. B. Craighead, P. Boum, Alexander Craighead, John Read, Robert P. Currin, Roger B. Sappington, Roger B. Currey, Thomas Swann, Krnst Benior, William Y. Probert, C. Wheston, J. Baird. Hervey Lane. Samuel Finney, William Black, R. Hewett, Thomas Ramsey, Nathaniel McCairys, Thomas Napier, Robert Hughes, James King, Robert Bell, Felix Robertson.
A week or two later, Captain Ervin, the father-in-law of the unfortunate Dickinson, published a brief recapitulation of the quarrel from the beginning, incorporating with his article a final statement by Mr. Thomas Swann. Swann exculpated Dickinson wholly. “I do avow,” said he, “that neither Mr. Dickinson nor any other person urged me forward to quarrel with Jackson.” He asserted in the most solemn manner that every thing had occurred just as in the published correspondence and affidavits it had appeared to occur. He admitted, however, that there was enmity between Jackson and Dickinson before his own quarrel with Jackson began.
Captain Ervin objected to Jackson’s conduct in the field. “It may not,” said he, “be improper to inquire whether General Jackson had a right, according to the laws of dueling, to recock his pistol after having snapped it? It is said it was agreed that a snap should not be considered a fire. Granted; but was it not also agreed that nothing which was not committed to writing should be considered as binding or having effect? A snap not to be considered as a fire was not committed to writing. Consequently, it was not one of the stipulations in the agreement; neither was it warranted by the usual practice; yet such was the cruel fate of the unfortunate Dickinson. He gallantly maintained his ground, and fell a victim to this unguarded, illiberal and unjust advantage. Peace be to his manes! respect to his memory, which will be ever dear to his friend, Joseph Ervin.”
To this the seconds replied in a joint card, certifying that the duel was conducted fairly, according to the conditions agreed upon beforehand.
General Jackson’s wound proved to be more severe and troublesome than was at first anticipated. It was nearly a month before he could move about without inconvenience, and when the wound healed, it healed falsely; that is, some of the viscera were slightly displaced, and so remained. Twenty years after, this forgotten wound forced itself upon his remembrance, and kept itself there for many a year. It was Dickinson’s bullet that killed Andrew Jackson at last.
The reader is now in possession of all the attainable information which could assist him in forming a judgment of this sad, this deplorable, this shocking, this wicked affair. Unfortunately, the evidence which makes against Jackson is indubitable, while the extenuating circumstances rest upon tradition only. It is evident that he was deeply embittered against Dickinson before the affair with Swann began. No man is competent to pronounce decisively upon Jackson’s conduct in this business, who does not know precisely and completely the cause of that original enmity. A very slight observation of life is sufficient to show that the party most injured is the one that often appears to be most in the wrong. A chronic grinding Wrong extorts, at length, the wrathful word or the avenging blow. The by-stander hears the imprecation, sees the stroke, and knowing nothing that has gone before, condemns the victim and pities the guilty. That Jackson was singularly morbid upon the subject of his peculiar marriage, we shall often observe.
It is not true, as has been alleged, that this duel did not affect General Jackson’s popularity in Tennessee. It followed quick upon his feud with Governor Sevier; and both quarrels told against him in many quarters of the State. And though there were large numbers whom the nerve and courMge which he had displayed in the duel blinded to all considerations of civilization and morality, yet it is certain that at no time between the years 1806 and 1812, could General Jackson have been elected to any office in Tennessee that required a majority of the voters of the whole State. Almost any well-informed Tennesseean, old enough to remember those years, will support me in this assertion. Beyond the circle of his own friends, which was large, there existed a very general impression that he was a violent, arbitrary, overbearing, passionate man; but that it was safest not to mention the circumstance. Of his own circle, however, he was as much the idol then as he was when he was his country’s idol.»
* The following, cut from a leading Democratic organ in 1859, is a good example of the way in which a popular hero’s most doubtful actions are made to minister to his popularity:—
JACKSON AND DICKINSON.
“Jackson settled at Nashville between the years 1790 and 1800, and began the practice of the law. Dickinson was already there, following the same profession. He was a great duelist, having killed several in duels, and almost certain to kill the first fire. His mode of firing was very uncommon. Instead of raising his pistol from his side to fire at the word, ho would bring it down from above until he got it to tho proper level, and then fire. All of the merchants in Nashville had Dickinson retained in their behalf, and he being the only lawyer there until General Jackson came, no redress could be obtained by the opposite side. General Jackson refused to be retained by these merchants to the exclusion of all other parties. The consequence was, that he issued fifty writs at the first term of the court at Nashville.
“Ho issued writs against the merchants, who until then had gone scott free. This irritated them, and they (being desirous of getting General Jackson out of tho way) incited Dickinson to provoke a duel. He began by acting on trials offensively to the General.
“He remonstrated with Dickinson, and plainly informed him that he would not submit to such disrespectful treatment.
“Dickinson persisted, and General Jackson challenged him. The time and place for the combat were fixed upon, and tho news spread for miles around. There were at least two hundred people on the ground, and bets were made as if it were a horso race.
“Dickinson himself bet that he would kill Jackson on the first fire. Dickinson fired first, and his ball hit General Jackson on the right pap, and peeled his breast He had a callous lump there until the day of his death. As soon as the smoke of Dickinson’s pistol blew away, and he saw General Jackson still standing, he exclaimed: ‘Haven’t I killed the damned rascal?’ General Jackson told General Eaton that until then he meant to give him his life; but on hearing these words, he raised his pistol, fired and killed Dickinson instantly.” Google Books