Great American Duels #3

Challenger: Andrew Jackson-  Former US Senator, Representative, and Justice of the Peace from Tennessee. 

Challenged: Charles Dickinson- Lawyer, Horse Breeder, Plantation owner from Tennessee.

A young lawyer of promise

The Offense:  Dickinson’s father-in-law, Joseph Erwin, challenged fellow horse breeder Andrew Jackson, to a match race.  Erwin’s horse was injured before the race and could not compete; under terms set down prior, Erwin had to forfeit $800 to Jackson.  Erwin and Dickinson refused to allow the matter to rest, attacking Jackson and his honor to anyone willing to listen.  Dickinson even insulted Jackson’s wife during a drunken binge (calling her a bigamist.)  Jackson confronted Dickinson, who apologized, but the bad blood continued.  Dickinson continued haranguing Jackson publicly, sending intermediaries to listen for public responses.  Jackson struck one of the spies with cane prompting Dickinson to call him a coward in a letter to a newspaper .  Jackson responded with the challenge. 

Background:  Andrew Jackson was one of the first public men in Tennessee, representing the state in its first congressional delegation and was later chosen as Senator.  Through hard work and ambition Jackson had established himself as one of the most successful men in the state.  His marriage to Rachel Donelson was marred by clerical errors leading to charges of bigamy(her divorce was not finalized.)  Jackson’s pride was notorious, even for the Tennessee frontier- he fought four duels before meeting Dickinson(including one against Tennessee’s Governor.)  Charles Dickinson was a young lawyer of some promise who studied law under the venerable Supreme Court Justice, John Marshall.  He married the daughter of Captain Joseph Erwin and moved to Tennessee to help in their horse breeding business.  This turned out to be a fateful decision.  Though Jackson’s temper was infamous, Dickinson had the reputation as a deadly shot after killing a man in an earlier duel. 

“I aimed to kill him” Jackson stands tall

The Field of Honor:  Kentucky, May 30, 1806– Jackson and his Second, Thomas Overton, negotiated a deadly turn;  the two men would fire at just over eight paces.  Jackson planned to allow Dickinson to fire first, hoping the excitement would obscure his aim.  Dickinson obliged, hitting Jackson in the chest, breaking two of his ribs and the bullet lodged inches from his heart.  Jackson did not move and Dickinson only saw a puff of dust rise off his opponent’s coat.  “My God, I’ve missed him!” Dickinson screamed.  Rules of dueling held that Dickinson had to stand and absorb Jackson’s shot.  Though badly wounded, Jackson took steady aim and pulled the trigger….but the hammer stopped at half-cock.  Dueling rules considered this to be Jackson’s shot, but he recocked his pistol and fired.  The shot hit Dickinson in the chest, killing him several hours later.  Jackson survived Dickinson’s aim because of his carefully crafted stance and loose clothes on a thin frame.  But the damage was inflicted on Jackson’s reputation for violating the rules of dueling and killing the defenseless Dickinson.  Jackson would not redeem his public image until the War of 1812. 

 

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