April 2008 - Hal Roth

Where is Charles Dickinson

Part I


Hal Roth

    The first newspaper report of a duel between Charles Dickinson and Andrew Jackson was brief:
    “NASHVILLE, (Tenn.) May 31. [1806]
    “A Duel took place yesterday, near the southern boundary of Kentucky, between Gen. Andrew Jackson, and Mr. Charles Dickinson, both citizens of Davidson county of this state, in which the latter received a ball in his arm, which passed through and entered his body. When the messenger, who brought the intelligence, left him, there were little hopes of his surviving the wound.”
     Many reporters during the past two hundred years have spelled the name “Dickenson,” replacing the second “i” with an “e.” I have used the correct spelling throughout this narrative for consistency.
     Dickinson’s death notice, widely circulated in the journals of our then thirty-year-old nation, contained even fewer details. Following are the two most frequently published accounts.
    “A Duel was fought on the 30th ult. In Logan County, Kentucky, between Gen. Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson, Esq. The latter received a wound the first fire, of which he died in a few hours.”
    “DIED––In Tennessee, Mr. Charles Dickinson, of Maryland, killed in a duel by Gen. Jackson.”
     The following announcement, outlining formalities of the affaire d’honneur, was published shortly afterwards.
    “A few days since we stated the unhappy issue of a duel between General Jackson, and C. Dickinson, Esq. at Nashville (Tennessee)––The following are preliminaries entered into between the two seconds:
    “On Friday, the 30th inst. we agree to meet at Harrison’s Mills, on Red River, in Logan County, State of Kentucky, for the purpose of settling an affair of honor between General Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson, Esq. It is understood the meeting will be at the hour of 7 in the morning.
    “It is agreed, that the distance shall be 24 feet; the parties to stand facing each other with their pistols drawn perpendicular––when they are ready, the single word fire to be given, at which they are to fire as soon as they please.
    “Should either fire before to word given, we pledge ourselves to shoot him down instantly.
    “The person to give the word to be determined by lot, as also the choice of position. We mutually agree that the above regulations shall be observed in the affair of honor depending between Gen. Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson, Esq.
    “Nashville, May 24, 1806.”
     One newspaper’s publication of the report was followed by the remark: “N. B. [sic] Dickinson paid the debt of nature at the first shot.”
     The next clipping provides additional information on events leading to the duel. Bear with the antiquated punctuation.
    “NASHVILLE, (Ten.) June 7.
    “On Friday, the 23d ultimo, General Andrew Jackson came into this office and told the editor he had received information, that Charles Dickinson was about to have a piece published, which respected himself, and demanded a sight of it, his request was complied with; a few hours after which, we are informed, the General challenged Mr. Dickinson, which was accepted, and a meeting agreed upon in the state of Kentucky, on the Friday following, at 7 o’clock, A. M. They accordingly met with their friends, General Thomas Overton and Doctor Hanson Catlett, near Colonel Harrison’s, on Red River, at the hour appointed; where, upon an exchange of fire, Mr. Dickinson received a mortal wound, of which he died in a few hours; General Jackson was slightly wounded by the ball passing through his left breast.
    “In the prime of life and blessed in domestic circumstances with almost every valuable enjoyment, he fell a victim to the barbarous and pernicious practice of dueling.”
     Many stories of the duel have been published in the ensuing two centuries, often containing inaccurate or contradictory variations of detail. The following is extracted from a short Andrew Jackson biography published in Iowa’s Daily Chief in 1905.
    “At a horse race, Jackson beat a young man named Swann with a club. This difficulty led to the duel with Charles Dickinson, an able and prominent lawyer of Nashville who had espoused the cause of young Swann and denounced Jackson for his actions.
    “The two men, with their seconds, met the next day in a grove not far from Nashville. The parties were to stand facing each other, 24 feet apart, with pistols down. At the word ‘fire,’ they were to discharge their pistols as soon as they pleased. Dickinson got the first fire and sent a ball crashing through Jackson’s side, breaking a rib and leaving a bad and painful wound. Jackson had not yet [taken] his shot. Apparently unmindful of his injuries, he raised his pistol and took deliberate aim. Staring death in the face, Dickinson recoiled a step or two.
    “‘Back to the mark, sir!’ shouted Jackson’s second, and again Dickinson took his marked-out place.
    “Jackson, taking renewed air, pulled the trigger, but the pistol did not go off. He examined it, and found that it had stopped at half cock. Readjusting it, he again took deliberate aim and fired. Dickinson reeled and fell, the ball having passed through his body just above the hip, from the effects of which he died a few hours afterward. The affair greatly injured Jackson’s popularity for a time, for Dickinson was a favorite throughout Tennessee.”
     An unverified sidelight to the story of the duel, widely circulated from time to time, claims: “Andy killed Dickinson by trickery: he moved a button on his coat so Dickinson would aim at the button and miss Jackson’s heart.”
     That the duel resulted from Jackson beating a young man named Swann with a club at a horse race is far from accurate. The animosity between Dickinson and Jackson had gone on for some time and was much more complicated.
     A posting on the website of Kentucky’s Secretary of State, Trey Grayson, relates details of the feud.
    “During his career as an attorney, and as a politician, he [Jackson] had made a number of dedicated enemies. They would be pleased indeed, if someone removed Jackson from their state, alive or dead. Since Dickinson was such a crack shot, he would do nicely to rid Tennessee of the unpredictable Jackson.
    “Dickinson’s reputation of drinking too much, and being loose-tongued, made him an ideal candidate to eventually challenge Jackson to a duel. Since both Dickinson and Jackson admired fine racehorses, and both men loved to attend the races, it was inevitable that the two would one day be brought together in a less than friendly manner. In the fall of 1805, the two men did have a confrontation.
    “A race between Jackson’s horse Truxton, and Captain Joseph Erwin’s excellent horse, Ploughboy, did not occur as scheduled. Ploughboy went lame, and Captain Erwin withdrew his horse and paid the forfeit with notes. This satisfied all concerned, but one. Dickinson was Erwin’s son-in-law. Feeling pressure from Jackson’s enemies, Dickinson became convinced that Jackson, and those who associated with him had to be less than the best people in the community.
    “Dickinson, according to local gossip, had made some unkind remarks regarding Rachel, Jackson’s wife. Since their marriage, gossip had tainted Rachel as an adulteress. Their reasoning for this slander came from an unfortunate misunderstanding between Rachel and her first husband, Lewis Robards of Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Robards and Rachel had met Jackson in 1790 at the home of her mother, Mrs. John Donelson. As a widow, Mrs. Donelson had opened her home to boarders to help maintain her household. Jackson boarded there after his arrival in Tennessee. Rachel and Jackson became attracted to one another, and Robards, known as a very jealous man, left the Donelson household for Kentucky.
    “In a fit of pique, Robards requested that the Virginia legislature (Kentucky was still part of Virginia) grant him permission to divorce his wife. He received the right to proceed with the divorce but did not act upon it for another two years. During this time, Jackson and Rachel, presuming the divorce had taken place, married in the summer of 1791.
    “When word arrived that Robards had not finalized the divorce proceedings, Jackson and Rachel found themselves living in a social quandary. In 1793, Robards finally gained a divorce from Rachel in the Mercer County Court. The Jacksons then remarried in January 1794, but the damage to their reputations had already been done. For the remainder of their married life, Jackson and Rachel had to suffer from malicious gossip regarding their early relationship.
    “Jackson took any remarks that might sully his wife’s good name as a personal affront. When he heard that Dickinson had spoken badly about Rachel, he called on Dickinson to account for his words. Taken aback by the confrontation, Dickinson apologized, telling Jackson that he did not recall any remarks, but was drunk, and did not mean to give offense. Jackson accepted Dickinson’s explanation and let the matter drop.
    “Within a brief time, Dickinson again, while inebriated, made an uncharitable statement on the character of Rachel Jackson. This time Jackson went to Captain Erwin and asked him to restrain his son-in-law from slandering Rachel. The matter might have ended there, if Thomas Swann, a friend of Dickinson, had not circulated a story that Jackson had questioned the validity of the notes given by Captain Erwin to Jackson for the forfeit of the horse race.
    “Jackson became furious when he heard this gossip. He threatened to cane Swann for his calumny. When the two did meet at Winn’s Tavern, Jackson made good his promise to punish Swann. After enduring Jackson’s wrath, Swann wrote a column in the Nashville newspaper, the Impartial Review and Cumberland Repository, giving his view of Jackson’s actions. Jackson replied in a two-column attack on Swann. He called Swann a ‘puppet and lying valet for a worthless, drunken, blackguard scoundrel…Charles Dickinson.’
    “Dickinson labeled Jackson ‘an equivocator and a coward.’ He then dared Jackson to challenge him. Nothing came of this exchange due to Dickinson leaving Nashville on a trip to New Orleans.
    “The tensions between the two men became worse when a rematch between Truxton and Ploughboy took place on April 3, 1806. Truxton won the race and netted some $10,000 for Jackson and his supporters. This had been more than a horse race; it had now become an affair of honor.
    “Dickinson returned to Nashville on May 20 and felt prepared to end his difficulties with Jackson once and for all. He had practiced his already excellent marksmanship and could now finish off Jackson with relative ease. The residents of Nashville knew that it would only be a matter of time before the two men would face each other on the field of honor.
    “On May 21, Dickinson prepared to publish his opinion of Jackson in the newspaper. He called Jackson ‘a worthless scoundrel, a poltroon and a coward.’ General Thomas Overton warned Jackson that these remarks would appear in the paper on May 24. Jackson went to the editor of the paper and read the inflammatory statement for himself. He then proceeded to send a challenge to Dickinson and demand satisfaction.”
     But why, in a column titled “Old News from Delmarva,” am I spending so much time on events in far-off Kentucky and Tennessee? Remember the death notice that began our story: “DIED––In Tennessee, Mr. Charles Dickinson, of Maryland, killed in a duel by Gen. Jackson?”
     Charles Dickinson was a native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Born at Wiltshire Manor, he grew up in the Grove community of Caroline County, and it was here, most historical pundits claim, that he first met Andrew Jackson.
     In an article in the Denton Journal, dated June 23, 1917, there is a photograph of the “Thawley House” on Tuckahoe River in Caroline County. The caption includes this statement: “The house was built by Thomas Daffin in 1783. The Daffin family were among the early residents of Caroline. Mr. Charles Daffin was for years a justice of the County Court and held other representative positions. General Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee, attending the sessions at Philadelphia of the Fourth Congress as a representative of the State as a Senator, is said to have been a guest at the Daffin home, as well as others in this section of the Eastern Shore. Here, tradition has it, he met young Charles Dickinson, of Caroline, whom he successfully urged to move to Tennessee.”
     In 1949 the Daffin House was featured in a garden tour of Maryland, and a Denton Journal article mentions that Jackson visited there when he was a member of Congress. The report also includes the statement: “Charles Dickinson, rich young brother of Mrs. Daffin, married the daughter of Joseph Edwin [sic], a Tennessee planter who bought land in Caroline County, Md.”
     Then in a popular, undated article, Joe Valliant confuses us with this statement: “In 1806, Andrew Jackson, frontier soldier, lawyer and judge, had retired from public life to farm his plantation and take up his chief hobby, horse-breeding. At that time some of the finest horses in this country were bred and reared by the landowners of the Eastern Shore, and Jackson found his way here on several occasions in search of stock to improve his herd. It is said that he was a guest at Daffin House, near Hillsboro, and he met Charles Dickinson on one of these trips….
     Next, I discovered an account in the History of Caroline County from Its Beginning, published in 1920, which contains this version:
    “Thus in 1803 we find Charles Dickinson, who had married Jane Erwin of Tennessee, conveying the remainder of his real estate in Caroline County to his father-in-law for the sum of about $12,000. Shortly after this he relinquished his citizenship in Maryland and moved to the vicinity of Nashville.
    “In this connection may it be said that Andrew Jackson, then a rising young man of Tennessee and slightly older than Charles Dickinson, had been elected to Congress then held in Philadelphia (about 1796-1797). Going to Philadelphia as he did on horseback over the well-established trail via Baltimore, it seems likely that Jackson met in the latter city prominent men of this state and section. Col. William Richardson, a relative of Charles Dickinson, was one of these. Naturally enough, he was, on one of these trips invited by Col. Richardson, the owner of a fast sailing sloop, to visit the Eastern Shore and accepted, staying while here at the Richardson, Dickinson, Daffin and Potter homes in this county. Charles Dickinson, with whom he was apparently much associated while on these visits, was a very good sport and proved a very interesting man to Jackson with the result that Jackson invited him to his home and associations in Tennessee, an offer which Dickinson clearly accepted.”
     Perhaps the greatest challenge among conflicting contentions about the life and death of Charles Dickinson has continued to make news in the twenty-first century: Where is his final resting place? A disagreement between citizens of Tennessee and Maryland has recently come to a head after smoldering for two centuries.
     Next month we shall conduct a search for Dickinson’s grave.

You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com