- Historic Sites
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
Of all Jackson’s fights the most famous is the one with Charles Dickinson. There is no absolute proof, but there is reason to believe that Dickinson had made slighting references to Rachel Jackson. Indeed any man at odds with Jackson was almost sure not to let such an opportunity slip. But Rachel was not the ostensible reason for the quarrel. Dickinson had the same fondness for horse racing and betting as Jackson and had paid a forfeit to him for a race that failed to take place. The forfeit was in the form of promissory notes. Apparently this settlement was satisfactory until a third party named Thomas Swann got involved. Swann’s motives are murky; he was a newcomer to Tennessee and perhaps hoped to attract attention to himself. At this time, 1806, Jackson was already a very prominent man, having been both a judge of the state supreme court and a member of Congress. To become involved with him, either pro or con, was a sure way to make one’s name known.
Swann began by publicly announcing that Dickinson’s forfeiture notes were unsatisfactory to Jackson and that he had Jackson’s word for it. Stung by this affront to his honor, Dickinson went to Jackson, who denied having said any such thing and tailed Swann “a damned liar.” So now Swann wrote Jackson a note protesting this insult and naming Dickinson as his source of information. He added that if the information was correct, he would be forced to take the proper measures. Despite this provocation Jackson refused Swann’s challenge and gave him a caning instead.
The quarrel was now aired in the Nashville newspaper, with Swann accusing Jackson of assault and Jackson replying with affidavits from friends, justifying the caning on the grounds that Swann was not a gentleman and didn’t deserve anything better. If Swann had wanted to attract attention, he had certainly succeeded; but the chief interest in this printed exchange lies in the fact that Jackson, whenever possible, took a dig at Dickinson, indicating that Swann was merely Dickinson’s instrument. As Jackson had no obvious motive for this, it is a major reason for the belief that Rachel Jackson’s good name was somehow involved. Dickinson now entered the newspaper fray with a letter to the editor so strongly worded that Jackson, tipped off by his friend General Thomas Overton, rode to the newspaper office, read the letter, and challenged Dickinson before it was even published.
General Overton became Jackson’s second, and Dr. Hanson Catlett represented Dickinson. They 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, Tire,’ to be given; at which they are to fire as soon as they please.” General Overton must have been a persuasive man; though Jackson was the challenger, the terms were distinctly in his favor. Dickinson was known to be an excellent snap shooter, faster than Jackson, so the lack of a time limit gave Jackson the opportunity of firing deliberately providing he was willing to risk being hit first. The provision that the two face each other, rather than standing sideways, was also advantageous, as Dickinson was much broader than Jackson.
The affair was to take place at Harrison’s Mills on the Red River in Kentucky; and though efforts were made to keep it secret, there was plenty of betting, with Dickinson the favorite. On the long way to the site, the day before, Dickinson amused his entourage with fancy shots, once cutting a string at over sixty feet with the request “If General Jackson comes along this road, show him that.” Jackson himself displayed less bravado but seemed confident and cheerful; he had also done some wily planning—as became apparent the following morning. It was the thirtieth of May and not cold, but Jackson showed up in a long, bulky overcoat that he kept on as he took his place. Though he faced his adversary as required, he twisted his lean body within the coat until it was almost sideways, presenting a string-bean target, which is possibly why we can remember him as the seventh President of the United States of America.
General Overton had won the toss and gave the word “Fire!” It was answered by only one shot. While wisps of smoke still curled from Dickinson’s pistol Jackson clasped his left arm tightly across his chest and raised his own weapon. Involuntarily Dickinson stepped back a pace or two, crying “Great God! Have I missed him?”
Sternly Overton ordered him back to the mark. Like a walking dead man Dickinson obeyed. He managed to stand straight but kept his head turned away from what was coming. Jackson took steady aim and squeezed the trigger; there was only a click. The hammer had stopped at half cock. Most men would then have dropped the gun, thanking their stars they didn’t have to kill a defenseless man. Not Jackson. While poor Dickinson stood there he carefully examined the pistol, recocked it, and again took deliberate aim. There was no malfunction this time. Dickinson’s friends caught him as he fell, shot through the body below the ribs. Jackson had tried to inflict a mortal wound, and he had done it. Then he, Overton, and their surgeon walked away from the place.