Running through Harrison Mills, Kentucky, the Red River flowed just as tranquilly as it had for hundreds of years–Friday, May 30, 1806 was no different. While the water ran, however, two men gathered along one of its banks just as the sun rose into the morning sky. One man arrived to dispatch a political opponent and the other to defend the honor of his wife. On the morning of Friday, May 30, 1806, the Red River was to play witness to the duel between Charles Dickinson and Andrew Jackson.
Dickinson (only 26 years of age), who viewed the 39-year-old Jackson to be a political thorn, was encouraged to insult Jackson’s wife Rachel to his face, effectively ensuring that Jackson would challenge Dickinson to a duel. Through much of their marriage, Andrew and Rachel Jackson faced constant criticism and ill-mannered effrontery as they were married before the divorce between Rachel and her first husband became official.
Jackson knew that his wife’s past would become somewhat of a liability in his public and political career and, as a result, was always prepared to defend her and her honor. Before ever becoming president, Jackson fought 103 duelsmostly defending the integrity of his wife. As a result, Jackson is said to have kept 37 pistols ready to be used in a duel at all times.
Such was the occasion on the bank of the Red River in May of 1806. Paces apart, Jackson and Dickinson stood opposed to one another. At a mere 24 feet from one another, many thought that Dickinson would easily shoot and kill Jackson. To make this assumption, however, would prove to be a serious misunderstanding of Jackson and his abilities. The two Tennessee men traveled to the neighboring Kentucky, as dueling was illegal in Tennessee, to settle their score. Each man held a .70 caliber pistola matching set-and made ready for confrontation.
John Overton, a general in the military present at the duel, announced the duel should begin. Squaring himself, Dickinson aimed and fired at Jackson’s heart. Despite smoke and dust billowing from Jackson’s coat and his hand touching his chest, Jackson remained standing, puzzling the accomplished Dickinson. Reportedly, Dickinson asked, “My God! Have I missed him?”
Nevertheless, the decorum of dueling stated that Dickinson was required to remain in place while Jackson aimed to take his shot. Jackson fired, but the flint hammer stopped half-cocked, not counting as a legitimate shot. Jackson aimed again–ever so carefully–and fired a second time. This time, the shot was good and the bullet hit Dickinson in the chest and he dropped to the ground.
Jackson was a notoriously terrible marksman and he knew if he was to be successful in this duel, he would need to remain calm and possibly take a bullet. He calculated that if he could be the one to take the second shot, he could better steady his nerves and take careful aim–he could take a better shot than Dickinson had done in haste.
Dickinson would succumb to his wounds, dying later that night. Conversely, Jackson would survive, though with two broken ribs and a bullet inches from his heart that was never removed. Reflecting on the duel, the doctor remarked to Jackson, “I don’t see how you stayed on your feet after that wound.” To which Jackson responded, “I would have stood up long enough to kill him if he had put a bullet in my brain.” In the end, Dickinson was the only man Jackson would ever kill in a duel, despite the 100 and more in which he participated, compared to the 26 men killed by Dickinson.
–Dantan Wernecke is a recent graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar Program having majored in History and Political Science.