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Pistols For Two … Coffee For One
“It is astonishing that the murderous practice of duelling should continue so long in vogue,” said Benjamin Franklin. Yet continue it did, often with peculiarly American variations
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Unless you were a Stephen Decatur, who seemed to fear nothing on this earth, the emotional strain must have been close to unbearable. Guy de Maupassant, himself a duellist, wrote a story called “A Coward,” in which his protagonist blew his brains out with the very pistol he was supposed to use the following dawn. My great-great-grandfather, a small-town doctor in North Carolina, was most reluctantly persuaded to officiate at a duel but was relieved of the painful duty when one of the belligerents died of a heart attack just an hour or two before the scheduled meeting. There must have been many similar instances, but near-duels weren’t recorded unless, as in Lincoln’s case, the participants at least showed up for the appointment.
In general, duels tended to be an occupational hazard of the military, lawyers, politicians, gay young blades of the southern landowning class, and newspaper editors. Of the armed services the Navy seems to have been touchier and more combative than the Army, possibly because of the frictions created by the close quarters of shipboard life. Many so-called armyduels were actually between militia officers who doubled as politicians.
One man who fitted into most of these categories was Gen. Sam Houston. In 1826, as a congressman from the Nashville district of Tennessee, he hit upon the notion of mailing to his constituents agricultural information reinforced with a packet of the appropriate vegetable seeds. Somehow or other no one received the seeds. Never slow to anger, Houston zeroed in on Postmaster Curry of Nashville, using the word “scoundrel.” Curry promptly sent Houston a challenge via a certain General White. Houston refused to accept the challenge “from such a contemptible source.”
General White knew the rules. It was now up to him, and he seems to have been eager for the fray. He even intimated that Houston was afraid to fight, to which Houston replied “Try me.”
The distance agreed upon was almost as murderous as that of the Bainbridge-Cochran duel—fifteen feet—and the site was the H. J. Duncan farm, close to the state line. Sam Houston was staying at the nearby farm of Sanford Duncan, who owned several dogs. Two of the youngest and feistiest were named Andrew Jackson and Thomas Benton. As an Old Hickory partisan Houston took great pleasure in watching the canine Jackson lambaste Benton in their frequent fights, and it would seem that he considered it a good omen. Well before dawn on the designated morning, having been aroused by Andy Jackson’s barking, he melted some lead and started molding bullets for his pair of pistols. Then, according to the story, as the first ball was shaken from the mold a gamecock that Houston also admired crowed a clarion note. These two cordial greetings cheered him to the point where he decided to mark that bullet on one side for the dog and the other for the rooster and to use it for the first shot. Sam Houston was a practical man, but a little superstition was certainly permissible under the circumstances.
The marked bullet did its work. General White was shot through the groin, and Sam Houston survived unscathed even at that deadly distance of fifteen feet. White’s wound was almost surely mortal; the bullet hole was big enough for the surgeon to pull his silk handkerchief clear through it in an effort to “cleanse” it. But despite this highly septic treatment White was spared having to die for a few packets of seeds that were none of his concern, and Sam Houston is reported to have chosen a dog and a rooster as his coat of arms.
Andrew Jackson was certainly the most combative of all the soldierpoliticians. Aside from formal duels he had innumerable fights and “altercations,” and in his youth and later he was typical of the hard-riding, hard-drinking, hard-gambling class of southern landowners who made a cult of recklessness. This cavalier spirit prevailed among the landed gentry of England and in many other parts of Europe and probably was the inspiration for it in this country, though the Puritan ethic was still too strong in our northern states for it to gain much of a foothold there. Jackson’s Presidency has made him a symbol of democracy, but he was no democrat in his personal attitudes and took his role of gentleman so seriously as to make constant friction inevitable.
One reason for Jackson’s touchiness was his marriage to Rachel Robards, presumably a divorcée. But there was question about the legality of the divorce, so Jackson was always liable to the slur of living with another man’s wife. There is no question of his intense love for Rachel or that the couple had been married in the honest belief that she was a free woman, so one can sympathize with the streak of bitterness that seems to underlie so many of his actions.