- 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
Only when they were out of sight of the others did the surgeon notice that Jackson’s shoe was dripping blood. “I believe he has pinked me a little,” Jackson admitted. “Let’s look at it, but say nothing about it.” The voluminous coat and Jackson’s maneuver within it had saved his life. Had his heart been where it should have been—from Dickinson’s angle—the bullet would have pierced it. As it was, the breast-bone was damaged and several ribs fractured. After Jackson had been patched up, he sent a bottle of wine to his dying antagonist but refused Dickinson the satisfaction of letting him know that he had hit Jackson.
Dickinson’s wife had not been forewarned of the duel. She was sent for, but too late: she met a wagon carrying her husband’s body bumping along the road. Jackson’s wound never healed properly and bothered him for the rest of his long life. But he sustained more than physical damage. The public was shocked by his coldblooded execution of Dickinson, particularly after what could well have been counted as a misfire (why Dickinson and his second didn’t protest in time is a mystery; perhaps there was a common paralysis of thought at that terrible moment), and the trick with the cavernous coat was also considered less than sporting. It took the Battle of New Orleans, nearly a decade later, to restore Old Hickory to popularity.
Duels didn’t always end up as duels; sometimes they became free-for-alls. One of the wildest melees in American history took place on a Mississippi River sandbar across from Natchez in 1827. The quarrel itself is not worth explaining, because there were many interlocking quarrels involved, most of them stemming from the spate of land speculation that the coming of the steamboat had brought to the Natchez area.
Colonel James Bowie, reputed originator of the knife that bears his name, was then working his way up in the world. He was powerfully built, relatively quiet, relatively moderate in his drinking, and was said to avoid loose women, but no prudent man aroused his wrath. He had become friends with the wealthy Wells family, which almost ruled the roost in Natchez. He had also made an enemy in a certain Colonel Grain, with whom he had had a fistfight, and this, according to Jim’s brother Rezin, led him to develop his knife and carry it at all times.
Rivalling the Wells faction in land speculation and other matters was a loosely knit clique headed by Sheriff Norris Wright, and Colonel Grain was a member. Grain had previously fought a duel with a General Cuney, a Wells man, who had wounded him in the arm, so there was plenty of powder ready to explode. The fuse was lit by a challenge between Dr. Maddox, a Wright adherent, and Sam Wells, brother of General Monfort Wells, head of the family. But efforts were made to quench it. Jim Bowie and Colonel Grain were forbidden to attend the meeting on the sandbar, and the duel was conducted with propriety. Dr. Maddox and Sam Wells exchanged two shots apiece without damage. Then both groups joined together for a festive picnic with plenty of champagne and brandy. At this point Colonel Grain arrived to join the fun, perhaps honestly feeling that he wasn’t breaking the rule, since the duel was over. But apparently Jim Bowie heard of his presence and promptly rowed over himself.
There is no real proof that Bowie meant trouble. But General Cuney seemed to take his appearance as a signal to settle his own old feud with Colonel Grain. He drew a pistol but was restrained before he could fire it.
Grain then turned on Jim Bowie. The two men fired almost simultaneously. Jim missed and was struck in the side, falling to the ground. Cuney then broke free of the restraining hands, but Grain was fortunate in having two pistols. He killed Cuney and received only a grazed arm in return.
Jim Bowie now drew his razor-sharp knife and managed to wriggle along the ground toward Grain, who was no mean fighting man himself. He threw his empty pistol at Jim, striking him on the side of the head and ripping a great gash in his scalp. Despite the blood flooding his eyes Jim now saw Sheriff Wright and an ally, Alfred Blanchard, coming his way with pistols ready. He is said to have pleaded with them not to shoot, but Wright did, giving Bowie his third wound. Now somehow Jim laid hand on a loaded pistol (there were a lot of “innocent” bystanders on the sandbar) and wounded Wright, who reportedly complained, “The damned rascal’s killed me!” But this didn’t keep him from snatching a sword cane from some friend and lunging at the half-dead Bowie.
Bullets were now whizzing everywhere. Two more men were wounded, and bystanders were ducking into the water for safety. Unmindful of the turmoil, Wright and Bowie continued their one-sided battle, with the prostrate Bowie trying to evade the sword cane or parry it with his knife. But the slender blade plunged into Jim’s chest, hit bone, and broke. Whereupon Bowie grabbed Wright’s cravat, yanked him down, and drove the knife into his heart. That last desperate stroke, or lack of ammunition, ended the melee. Jim Bowie had received four dangerous wounds, and only an extraordinary constitution allowed him to fulfill his destiny of dying in an even fiercer conflict at the Alamo.