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The Fateful Encounter
IN THE MOST FAMOUS DUEL IN AMERICAN HISTORY AARON BURR IS USUALLY SEEN AS THE VILLAIN, ALEXANDER HAMILTON AS THE NOBLE VICTIM, BUT WAS IT REALLY THAT SIMPLE?
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
The most important rule was unusual: “The Second who gives the word shall ask them whether they are ready—being answered in the affirmative, he shall say ‘ present ’ after which the parties shall present & fire when they please.” The normal signal was “Fire!” or some combination containing that word, and many writers have carelessly assumed that this was the case—in direct contradiction to the joint press statement made by the two seconds immediately after the event: “[Pendleton] gave the word present as had been agreed on, and both of the parties took aim & fired in succession.”
It must be remembered that there were only three surviving participants—Burr, Van Ness, and Pendleton, as Dr. Hosack was still down at the riverbank—and all three wrote accounts of what happened. Pendleton and Van Ness made their joint statement, and later each wrote individual supplements. Both Burr and Van Ness said that Hamilton, as he took his station, elevated his pistol as if to try the light and then, apologizing for the delay, put on his spectacles. This, of course, would indicate that he intended to shoot for keeps. Pendleton had opportunity to rebut this but did not; he simply failed to mention it. Hamilton must have been wearing his glasses as he fell and when Dr. Hosack reached him, or this would have been a manifest lie. Pendleton contented himself with saying that when he handed the pistol to his friend, he asked him if he wanted the hair trigger set, and Hamilton replied “ Not this time .”
The most publicized point of disagreement was as to which man fired first. Burr and Van Ness maintained till the end of their days that it was Hamilton, while Pendleton was equally convinced that his friend fired only by reflex action after he was struck. To prove his point he took a companion with him the day after Hamilton’s death to revisit the site. They found that Hamilton’s bullet had passed through the limb of a cedar tree, about twelve and a half feet above the ground, some thirteen or fourteen feet from where Hamilton had stood. They cut off the limb and gave it to John Church. So regardless of when the shot was fired, it was fired high, but not straight up.
Hamilton’s best chance to make his opponent pause and reflect was to risk all in an effort to get off the first shot, aimed straight up—the unmistakable signal of peaceable intent. But somehow this brilliant man seems to have been at cross-purposes with himself from beginning to end of the entire affair. He must have hated Burr on this day, if on no other, and conceivably in that final moment he was torn between his avowed purpose and the urge to make a fight of it. If so it was costly indecision.
Burr aimed for Hamilton’s midriff. For a man hoping to beat his opponent by a split second this was wise because, like a solar-plexus punch, it ensured that there would be no accurate return shot. But both Burr and his second stated that Hamilton had already fired; Burr even said that he waited an instant until the smoke cleared away from his target. One wonders at their public insistence upon this point; it convicts Burr of deliberately inflicting a mortal wound when his opponent could no longer shoot back. A disabling shot would have been sufficient to prevent a second exchange, at the same time satisfying Burr’s “honor.” If it happened as he said, this was the worst mistake in judgment that Burr ever made. If Pendleton’s version is correct, then Burr was amply justified.
Probably no one really knew what happened. After Pendleton’s fatal shout of “Present!” it was all too fast. In the excitement, preconceived notions took over. Burr and Van Ness expected Hamilton to fire and thought he had; Pendleton, expecting his man not to fire, thought he hadn’t. The only certainty was that Hamilton was lying there, and when Dr. Hosack was called and ran to him, he gasped, “This is a mortal wound, Doctor.” He then became unconscious, and Hosack thought he was dead. There is dispute as to whether Burr made an effort to show sympathy but agreement that Van Ness made a futile and ludicrous effort to hide the Vice President’s face with an umbrella so that Hosack couldn’t swear he had seen him there. Then they hastened away.
No stretcher had been brought. Pendleton and the doctor carried the apparently lifeless body as best they could down to the bargemen. While crossing the river Hamilton recovered consciousness; his first words, according to Dr. Hosack, were “My vision is indistinct.” A little later his sight improved, but he had no feeling in his legs (the bullet had lodged in his spine). His glance fell on the case of pistols, with the one he had held lying on the outside, and he said: “Take care of that pistol; it is undischarged and still cocked; it may go off and do harm;—Pendleton knows (attempting to turn his head towards him) that I did not intend to fire at him.” The two men took this amnesia as final proof that he had fired after being struck, but we know now that such a severe shock can blank out memory of events immediately preceding it. So the verdict must remain “Not proven.” As they approached the shore he spoke again: “Let Mrs. Hamilton be immediately sent for—let the event be gradually broken to her; but give her hopes.”