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Top 5 American Duels

“Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.” – Aaron Burr

The fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr shocked the nation. But it was the identity of the man killed, not the duel itself, that produced such trepidation. By 1804, dueling had become an American fixture. Dueling started in the Middle Ages. An early version of dueling was known as “judicial combat,” so called because God allegedly judged the man in the right and let him win. In an age known for its bloody encounters, judicial combats may have prevented men from killing in the heat of passion. Authorities tried many time to outlaw dueling but to no avail.

In a normal duel, each party acted through a second. The seconds’ main duty was to try to reconcile the parties without prior to the duel. An offended party sent a challenge through his second. If the recipient apologized, the matter usually ended. If he elected to fight, the recipient chose the weapons and the time and place of the encounter. 

Most duelists chose guns as their weapons. The large caliber, flintlock pistols Hamilton and Burr used in their duel were the typical American dueling weapons. The odds of dying in a pistol duel were relatively slim. Flintlocks often misfired. And even in the hands of an experienced shooter, accuracy could be difficult. Pistols were required to be discharged within three seconds; to take aim for a longer time period was considered dishonorable.

5. Thomas Hart Benton – Charles Lucas Duel

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Benton was a powerful Missouri senator and one of the most renowned duelists of his time. As a young man he was engaged in a frontier battle with Andrew Jackson so severe that it left a lasting impression on Jackson. Jackson was known as Old Hickory, while Benson was known as Old Bullion. Benson favored dueling as a way to resolve differences between two men on equal terms on a field of honor. This was an alternative to murder and vengeance on the frontier where there was no law and where there was, the law could do little to affect the dispositions of men who believed their honor was violated.

Though Benton was an experienced duelist, his opponent Charles Lucas was nothing of the kind. A prominent Missouri lawyer, Lucas was accused by Benton of slandering him in court in 1816. At a polling place on Aug. 4, 1817, Lucas challenged Benton’s right to vote. Said Benton, “I do not propose to answer charges made by any puppy who may happen to run across my path.” Lucas, furious, challenged Benton to a duel.

The location is known as Bloody Island, and for good reason. The match was to be held on August 12, 1817. The two round duel gave the location its name.  In the first match, with pistols at 30 paces they wounded each other, Lucas hurt more seriously. Benton hit Lucas in the neck, stopping the match. Benton was then asked if he had received satisfaction, to which the Senator replied with a simple, “no.”

The match was postponed to allow Lucas to recover from his wound and prepare for the second round. During this period of a month, several efforts were made to reconcile the differences and prevent the second round from taking place. However, rumors were spread that Benton was afraid to duel Lucas at close distances. Lucas suggested a rematch at 10 paces.

A friend of Lucas was given the task of shouting “fire” but botched the command. Benton lowered his pistol and fired, with ball passing through Lucas’ arm and into his chest. “Colonel, you have murdered me, and I never can forgive you,” said Lucas, 24. He was rowed his body back across the Mississippi river. The Missouri Gazette reported, “The infernal practice of dueling has taken off, this morning, one of the first characters in our country, CHARLES LUCAS Esquire.”

Benton was upset, but went on to have a long and successful career in the Senate. He served in the U.S. Senate for 30 years, becoming a close ally of President Andrew Jackson, his other shooting victim. On his deathbed in 1858, Benton deeply regretted having killed Lucas.

4.  Stephen Decatur-James Barron Duel

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One of America’s historically prominent naval generals, Stephen Decatur carries with him a historic legacy, his adventures during the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 being legendary. Among his advocates was Lord Horatio Nelson, proclaiming his recapture of the USS Philadelphia from Tripoli pirates “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Decatur was a courageous, yet quick tempered man. His propensity to fight came as he would not tolerate any personal insult, nor any insult of the United States.

His opponent, fellow Naval Commodore James Barron, challenged Decatur to a duel because Decatur had called him a coward, refusing to fight in the War of 1812. Decatur was in error, but the gauntlet had already been thrown down.

The dueling ground was Bladensburg, Maryland. The date was March 22, 1820. Instead of the usual ten paces, the duelers were placed eight paces away from each other to make it easier for the near-sighted Barron. Instead of having their pistol by their sides or in the air, the duelers were instructed to aim before the count at each other, increasing the already-high odds of bloodshed. Additionally, right before the duel there was an exchange of words between Barron and Decatur that might have led to reconciliation but the seconds did little to encourage the resolution. As could be expected, both men hit their target. Both were seriously injured.

The two men reconciled their differences as they lie severely wounded next to each other at the dueling site. Barron managed to survive his wound and lived to be 83. Decatur died the next day after after ten hours of agony. The death of Decatur was a blow to the nation. Decatur’s funeral procession was the longest in the history of the United States up until that time. His ghost supposedly still haunts Decatur House today. People also claim to hear the weeping of his wife, who spent the rest of her days in anguish over his death.

3. Henry Clay-John Randolph Duel

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John Randolph was a man of quirky character, having been involved in his first duel at age 18. The course of the matter was that another student had mispronounced a word. He was elected to Congress where he had called Daniel Webster “a vile slanderer” and President John Adams “a traitor.” He remarked about Edward Livingston that he was “the most contemptible and degraded of beings, who no man should touch, except with a pair of tongs.” There were times when instead of character assassination he would challenge his opponents to a duel.

During a Senate speech he publicly called Secretary of State Henry Clay a person who was “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards.” After the speech, Clay formally challenged Randolph to a duel. Randolph, unlike other duelers, had no intention of killing the Secretary of State, in part because it would deprive his wife of a husband and the family of their patriarch and, in part, because he did not want to have to deal with the political fallout from killing a sitting Secretary of State. Though a skilled marksman, Randolph told Senator Thomas Hart Benton he would intentionally aim high so as to preserve his personal honor by accepting the challenge.

April 8, 1826 was the day of the battle. During the preparation for the battle, Randolph’s gun prematurely went off and struck the ground. Explaining that it was an accident, Clay agreed that the duel continue as planned. Each man took a prescribed number of steps in opposite direction, then turned and fired. But instead of aiming high as he had told Senator Benton, he shot directly at Clay, missing his body. but hitting him in the coat. Clay’s shot missed, but hit Randolph’s coat. Clay then demanded another set of rounds be fired. Randolph agreed. Randolph chose to keep his word to Benton that he would miss high, which he did. Clay then decided to call off the duel. Afterwards, the two men met at midfield and exchanged handshakes, with Randolph telling Clay that he owed him a new coat. Clay responded, “I am glad the debt is not greater.”

2. Andrew Jackson-Charles Dickinson Duel

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Before ascending to the presidency, Andrew Jackson had a good deal of experience with duels, being involved with a total of 13 in all. He had gained the reputation of defending his honor through dueling, so he was no stranger to it before meeting Dickinson. Yet Jackson did not emerge unscathed from his many duels. It was said that his body rattled like a bag of marbles because of the many times he had been shot and wounded.

As for Dickinson, he was said to be the best shot in the country, making this duel the most prominent of all Jackson’s duels. The rumor was that Dickinson had accused Jackson of cheating in a bet between Dickinson’s father in-law and Jackson himself. What followed was an exchange of insults that ended up with Dickinson insulting Jackson’s wife, which led to the challenge. At the time it was said of Dickinson’s insult that it was like “sinning against the Holy Ghost: unpardonable.”

James Parton, a biographer of Jackson, made the claim that he had a set of pistols “kept for thirty-seven years “ for such an occasion. Jackson was said to keep his wife’s honor by saving these pistols, kept in perfect condition, in the event anyone “dared breathe her name except in honor.” Dickinson’s insult forced Jackson’s hand into the duel.

Harrison’s Mill on the Red River in Kentucky is where the duel was to take place. The date was May 30, 1806. The rules: stated the two men were to stand 8 paces apart, turn, and fire. Jackson believed his only chance was to take careful aim and fire, as Dickinson had earned the reputation of being an expert marksman with a pistol. Dickinson did get the first shot off, striking Jackson in the ribs where the bullet lodged. Yet the hit barely moved Jackson, who took careful aim and pulled the trigger. The hammer had stuck in the half cocked position, and according to the rules of dueling etiquette the match was over. Yet Jackson re-cocked his pistol, aimed once again at Dickson, pulled the trigger which this time dropped the hammer and fired the shot, killing Dickinson.

Records show that only after felling Dickinson did Jackson realize he had been hit, as blood was dripping into his boot. Dickinson’s shot stuck in Jackson’s ribs, but it was too close to his heart to risk removing the musket ball. The bullet remained in Jackson’s body for the rest of his life. It has been contributed to Jackson’s health problems of persistent cough and pain that would also be with him for the rest of his life. Despite all this, Jackson never regretted being shot or being involved with the duel. He was quoted as saying, “If he had shot me through the brain sir, I should still have killed him.”

1. Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton Duel

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Of all the duels fought, there is none more famous than that between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. At the time of the duel, Burr was Vice President and Hamilton significantly influenced the economy of America, looking to run one day for the Presidency. Burr and Hamilton had been political enemies for some time prior to the duel. One reason was that Hamilton had been an obstacle in Burr becoming President, when Burr tied Thomas Jefferson’s voting tally. Burr was appointed to the vice-presidency. The duel came about when rumors persisted that Hamilton had been saying “despicable” things about Burr, leading to the formal challenge of a duel by Burr.

Weehawken, New Jersey was to be the field of battle. On the morning of July 11, 1804, the two men met at the place where two years earlier Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel. One note of interest is that the guns that were used in that duel were also used in this one between Hamilton and Burr.

There is no single account that accurately describes the duel but there are a number of conflicting accounts. It has been generally accepted that Hamilton shot first, missing Burr’s head high. Burr aimed at Hamilton’s chest and landed a direct hit. Though the shot did not kill him immediately, the bullet went through to Hamilton’s spine and stuck there. The next morning, Hamilton died.

There is some debate as to whether Hamilton missed intentionally. In a letter written by Hamilton the day before the duel but discovered later, Hamilton expressed his intentions to miss Burr and end the feud without any bloodshed. However, other accounts say the miss was intentional to forever smear Burr’s reputation as a murderer of innocent blood, despising Burr so much he was willing to go to his grave as an act of revenge, making the letter a tool for this purpose.

Regardless of the intentions of Hamilton, Burr was brought up on charges for murder which effectively ended his political career. Though he never stood trial for the allegations, the political repercussions were significant enough to drain all of Burr’s political influence.

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Rick Mac
Student and author of History. The study of History is the beginning of wisdom.

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