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“Now Defend Yourself, You Damned Rascal!”
Andrew Jackson challenged Thomas Hart Benton in a bloody frontier brawl, but they later formed a political team which left its mark on America.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
Thomas Hart Benton returned to Tennessee, learned of all of this, and concluded that Jackson had not acted as an old friend should. He said as much, Jackson heard about it, and presently Jackson sent Benton an ominously calm note asking about it: Had Benton been complaining, and, specifically, was there any truth in the rumor that he had threatened to send Jackson a challenge?
Benton sent an outspoken reply. He did not think much of Jackson’s actions in connection with the various quarrels, he thought the duel had been conducted in a “savage, unequal, unfair, and base manner,” and all in all he did not like any of it. He would not challenge, but the threat of the General’s pistols would not seal his lips. He would continue to speak the truth, neither seeking nor declining a duel.
No man could write to Old Hickory that way without getting a vigorous reply. Jackson wrote angrily: “It is the character of the man of honor, and particularly of the soldier, not to quarrel and brawl like fish women.” He defended everything he had done and announced flatly that Benton should either admit error or demand satisfaction.
Inevitably, for neither Jackson nor Benton ever reacted in a halfway manner, this led to a duel. Yet the duel that at last was fought bore no resemblance to the formal, courtly affairs specified in the romantic code. Rather, it looked more like an outright frontier brawl, utterly without formalities: a savage collision between two angry men each determined to do the other all the bodily harm possible.
After the exchange of letters between Jackson and Benton, talebearers continued their work until Jackson announced that he would horsewhip Tom Benton on sight. His opportunity finally came on September 4, 1813, when the Benton brothers arrived in Nashville on business. They stayed at a hotel not frequented by Jackson in order, in Benton’s words, to avoid “a possibility of unpleasantness.” Word of their presence spread quickly, and soon Jackson, Colonel John Coffee, and Stockley Hays arrived at the Nashville Inn. Both Coffee and Hays were gigantic men, a fit palace guard for their smaller but more aggressive leader. Each of the Bentons carried two pistols. The Jackson war party was equally well armed, and in addition Jackson, meaning to fulfill his pledge, carried a riding whip.
Jackson and Coffee first strolled to the post office, passing near Talbot’s tavern, where the Bentons were standing on the walk. Returning the same way, they saw Jesse Benton step from the pavement into the hotel. Jackson unhesitatingly assumed the role of aggressor by following Jesse into the hotel. Jesse had disappeared, but Thomas was standing in the doorway of the hall leading to the rear porch. Brandishing the whip, Jackson advanced upon Thomas Benton: “Now defend yourself, you damned rascal!” Benton reached for his pistol, but Jackson’s draw was quicker. Looking into the muzzle of Jackson’s pistol, Thomas Benton slowly retreated, with Jackson following step by step. Jesse Benton, meanwhile, slipped through a doorway behind Jackson, raised his gun, and fired. At the same moment, Jackson fired twice at Thomas Benton, who fired back twice in return. Jackson fell with his left shoulder shattered and a ball imbedded in his arm. The blast from Jackson’s gun had burned a hole in Thomas Benton’s sleeve. At this moment tall John Coffee came charging through the smoke, fired at Thomas Benton, missed, and attacked with the butt of his pistol. Fortunately the carnage was limited by the act that the Colt six-shooter had not yet been invented; the fire-belching smoothbore pistols the antagonists used were not particularly accurate and, once fired, were useless. Jackson’s friends, however, by now reinforced, almost finished their leader’s mission. Wielding daggers, Coffee and Alexander Donelson managed to wound Thomas Benton in five places. Stockley Hays stabbed away at Jesse with a sword cane, and only a large and strong button which broke Hays’ blade saved Jesse from being perforated. Jesse placed the muzzle of his remaining pistol against Hays’ chest and pulled the trigger, but in a fair exchange of mishaps the charge failed to explode. Thomas Benton, meanwhile, in his efforts to parry the dagger thrusts of Coffee and Donelson, fell backward down a flight of stairs. The obviously serious plight of the bleeding Jackson brought the melee to an end. Friends carried the General back to his hotel, where he soaked two mattresses with blood. An ordinary man would have died, but iron-willed Andrew Jackson had not yet decided to expire. He had been defeated, however, and battered Thomas Benton sealed the victory by breaking Jackson’s sword across his knee in the public square.