5 Famous Duels From American History

Five famous duels from American history are Anthony Johnson vs. Jamesboswell, Paul Hartsuff vs. David Woolsey, John Bullock and Athanase De Meurcois (The first duel), Alexander Hamilton-John Laurens and Aaron Burr-Alexander Prentiss Duer

The “famous sword duels” are some of the most famous and well-known battles in American history. The five duels that are included in this list all have a different story behind them.

The United States is now experiencing a tumultuous political climate, with partisan name-calling on the one hand and considerable hand-wringing over the debate’s lack of class on the other. Those in the latter side seem to believe that politics has degraded from an undefined golden past when politicians drank tea and spoke solemnly about their subjects.

In reality, politics has always been a boisterous environment, and one will hardly find a bastion of civility in our foundation era.

Men in public life used terms like ‘liar,’ ‘poltroon,’ ‘coward,’ and ‘puppy,’ as well as ‘fornicator,”madman,’ and ‘bastard,’ accusing one another of incest, treachery, and consorting with the devil.’ —A History of Dueling: Gentlemen’s Blood

Political tensions were extremely high in the nineteenth century because it was difficult for men to distinguish between political disagreement and personal insults:

In our youth, a man’s political views were inextricably linked to his identity, personal character, and reputation, and were as important to his honor as a seventeenth-century Frenchman’s bravery. He referred to his beliefs as “principles,” and he was prepared to die or murder for them. ‘Dueling politcos were men of public duty and private ambition who associated so intimately with their public responsibilities that they frequently couldn’t discern between their identity as gentlemen and their standing as political leaders,’ says Joanne B. Freeman in Affairs of Honor. Long-time political foes virtually anticipated fights, since continual opposition to a man’s political career couldn’t but but alter his personal personality.’ — Blood of Gentlemen

A man’s political career would be virtually over if he refused a duel challenge. Dueling demonstrated to a man’s constituents that he had the dignity, bravery, and leadership qualities necessary to represent them in Washington.

As a result, you had governors and lawmakers, Congressmen and judges squaring off on the field of honor, rather than via bumper stickers and robocalls. Here are some of the most well-known single battles in American history.

Three Famous Battles That Actually Happened

Burr-Hamilton Rivalry

Vintage man shouting enemy in forest illustration.

The most famous duel in American history is without a doubt the one between Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, who had a significant impact on the country’s economy and was on the verge of becoming President himself. By the time they met on the field of honor, Burr and Hamilton had been political foes for a long time. When Burr matched Thomas Jefferson’s vote count, Hamilton was important in keeping Burr from obtaining the presidency, resulting in Burr’s subsequent nomination as Vice President. The two men continued to spar politically until reports surfaced that Hamilton had been saying “despicable” things about Burr, prompting the slandered vice president to submit a formal duel challenge.

On the morning of July 11, 1804, the two men met on the field of honor in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel at the very same location only two years previously. His father’s duel was likewise fought with the same weaponry he used in his.

 

The versions of what transpired differ, but it is widely assumed that Hamilton shot first, aiming high and entirely missing Burr. Burr then fired fire, aiming straight at Hamilton’s chest. Hamilton was shot in the back, and the bullet stuck in his spine, killing him the next morning.

It’s arguable if Hamilton’s miss was deliberate or not. In a letter sent the night before, Hamilton said that he meant to intentionally miss Burr in order to avoid a bloodbath. Others say Hamilton despised Burr so much that he expressed his feelings in order to portray him as the wicked shedder of innocent blood, eternally tarnishing his reputation.

If it was actually his request, it had been fulfilled. Despite the fact that Burr was charged with murder, he was never tried. Burr’s political influence was weakened as a result of the consequences, and his career was cut short.

The Battle of Jackson vs. Dickinson

Andrew Jackson portrait.

Andrew Jackson was noted for his proclivity for using violence to defend his honor before to becoming president; he was a veteran of at least 13 duels. People say he “rattled like a bag of marbles” after these battles because his body was so full of lead.

The most well-known of Jackson’s honor conflicts was with great duelist Charles Dickinson. Dickinson had offended the future President by suggesting that he cheated in a horse racing wager between Jackson and Dickinson’s father-in-law. Insults were exchanged, with Dickinson criticizing Jackson’s wife at the end. Slandering Jackson’s wife was “unforgivable” because it was “like sinning against the Holy Ghost.” Jackson “kept firearms in immaculate condition for thirty-seven years” to use anytime someone “dared mention her name but in honor,” according to biographer James Parton. Jackson had no option but to challenge Jackson to a duel.

On May 30, 1806, Jackson and Dickinson met at Harrison’s Mill on the Red River in Kentucky. The guys were to stand at a distance of eight paces before turning and firing. Dickinson was a renowned sniper, and Jackson believed that the only way to kill him was to give himself enough time to make a precise shot. As a result, he sat back and let Dickinson fire into his chest. The bullet had stuck in Jackson’s ribcage, but he hardly flinched as he calmly leveled his weapon at Dickinson. However, when he pressed the trigger, his gun’s hammer merely dropped to half-cocked position and did not discharge. This should have been the end of the duel, according to dueling etiquette. Dickinson, on the other hand, was not through with Jackson. He re-cocked his revolver, sighted, and shot, killing Dickinson instantly.

It was only then that Jackson became aware of the blood oozing from his boot. Dickinson’s musket ball was too near to his heart to be removed, and it stayed in Jackson’s chest for the rest of his life. The wound would give him a constant hacking cough, inflict him constant discomfort, and exacerbate the myriad health issues he would have throughout his life. Jackson, on the other hand, never looked back on his choice. “I should have murdered him even if he had shot me in the head, sir,” he added.

 

Clay-Randolph Rivalry

Henry Clay and John Randolph portraits.

John Randolph was a fascinating individual. At the age of 18, he fought his first duel, badly injuring a fellow student due to a mispronunciation of a word. He termed Daniel Webster a “vile slanderer,” President Adams a “traitor,” and Edward Livingston “the most despicable and degraded of people, whom no man ought to touch, save with a set of tongs” as a Congressman. He challenged his buddies to duels when he wasn’t screaming obscenities at them.

Senator John Randolph was issued a formal challenge to duel after a slanderous statement on the Senate floor in which he accused current Secretary of State Henry Clay of “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards.” While Randolph, an accomplished marksman, was comfortable attacking the man’s character, he had no intention of depriving Clay’s family of their father (and suffering the political fallout of slaying the Secretary of State). Randolph told Senator Thomas Hart Benton a few days before the duel that he didn’t want to kill Clay but didn’t want to forfeit his own dignity either, so when it came time to fire, he would purposely aim high.

On the day of the duel, April 8, 1826, both men met on the honorable field. Randolph unintentionally discharged his gun, which was pointing towards the ground, while preparations for the duel were still being completed. Clay acknowledged responsibility for the misfire and permitted the battle to continue. Both soldiers turned and shot after marching the agreed-upon number of steps in different directions. Randolph, evidently prompted by the humiliation of his misfire (and the wasted opportunity to come out as the gracious one), made no attempt to aim high, despite the fact that he only missed his intended target, Clay’s coat, with the bullet perforating it. Clay also missed, and after being unsatisfied, sought a second chance. Clay missed this time, and Randolph made good on his promise to Benton by shooting into the air. Randolph, moved by the emotion, met Clay at middle for a handshake and told him he owed him a new coat to conclude the match. “I’m delighted the debt isn’t much higher,” Clay simply said.

A Couple of Near Misses

Not every dueling challenge ended with gunshots. A few of notable near misses are listed below.

The Duel Between Lincoln and Shields

Lincoln and James shields portraits.

Future President Abraham Lincoln, as an elected politician in the Illinois State Legislature, was harshly critical of James Shields’ work as Illinois State Auditor. Lincoln even went under numerous aliases and published a number of humorous letters denouncing Shields (a common tactic at the time). Lincoln’s future wife Mary Todd and a friend also penned many letters, which was an unfortunate coincidence. However, the ladies went too far and changed the tone from sarcastic critique to abuse. Shields offered an urgent challenge after learning that Lincoln was behind the letters in some way. Lincoln consented, unable to bear the public humiliation of denying a duel and keen to impress his future wife Mary.

 

Lincoln, as the challenged side, defined the terms of the combat. It was to be fought in a deep hole separated by a barrier that no one could walk over with big cavalry broadswords. Lincoln’s goal in setting these limitations was to use his overwhelming reach advantage to disable his opponent and minimize bloodshed on both sides. Furthermore, Lincoln anticipated that the absurd circumstances would compel Shields to retire. However, they did not do so at first.

The two soldiers met on the field of honor on September 22, 1842. As the seconds attempted hard to influence Shields’ resolve, he glanced across and saw Lincoln cutting at the limbs of a neighboring tree that were well beyond his grasp. Shields accepted that he was outmatched and decided to try to reason with Lincoln. Lincoln’s second persuaded Shields that the letters were not written by him, and Lincoln apologized for the error, which Shields gratefully accepted. Abraham Lincoln went on to become, well, Abraham Lincoln, while Shields went on to become a renowned United States Senator.

The Mark Twain-Laird Rivalry

Mark Twain standing on deck.

Finally, we come to a finish with a duel that neither took place nor had any historical relevance. It is, nonetheless, extremely amusing.

Sharp-witted humorist Mark Twain was up to his regular pot stirring while residing in Virginia City, Nevada, authoring such outlandish articles for The Territorial Enterprise that residents called him “The Incorrigible.” When Twain erroneously accused a rival weekly, The Virginia City Union, of reneging on a pledged gift to charity, the publication’s proprietor, James Laird, raised such a fuss over it that Twain challenged him to a battle. Twain’s second, Steve Gillis, took Twain shooting to practice, only to discover that the man’s pen was indeed mightier than his gun; Twain couldn’t hit the side of a barn with his pistol. Twain fell to the ground, terrified. As Laird and his men approached, Gillis grabbed a bird, shot it in the head, and stood there savoring the body. “Who did that?” inquired Laird’s second. Twain had shot the bird’s head off from a long distance and was capable of doing so with every shot, according to Gillis. “You don’t want to fight that guy,” he said solemnly. It’s the same as committing suicide. You’d best get this sorted out right now.” The clever ruse succeeded, and the two guys were reunited. Tom Sawyer would be ecstatic.

Read part 1 of this series if you haven’t already: The Duel – An Honorable Affair

 

 

The “longest duel in history” is a famous duel that took place between John Paul Jones and Edward Preble. This was one of the first duels to take place on American soil. The fight lasted for three hours and forty minutes, but it ended when Jones had his arm broken by a cannonball.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the most famous duel in American history?

A: The most famous duel in American history is the one between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. Both of these men were very influential during their time, but only one could be elected president.

What famous people died in duels?

A: Among notable people that have died in duels are King Henry VIII, Alfred Nobel and Alexander Hamilton.

Which US president had a duel?

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