I have wanted to do a post about legendary duels for quite some time and while listening to my current audiobook, Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, I learned an interesting little fact about Lincoln – that he was very nearly involved in a duel. Below I am featuring several legendary duels.
Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr (1804)
The duel that American’s are typically most familiar with is that between Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. These two men were frequently on opposite sides of the political fence – Burr being a Democrat and Hamilton a Federalist. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel after he felt his reputation had been tarnished in his failed bid for the governorship of New York. Hamilton was known to be an anti-dualist after his son died in a duel defending his father’s honor. The duel was set for Weehawken, New Jersey and the two met on July 11th. Hamilton, intending not to wound Burr – as this was the accepted practice, fired wide – while Burr shot Hamilton in the stomach. Hamilton died of his wounds the next day and instead of earning back his honor he was disgraced and fled the country for a period of time.
Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs. Elphinstone (1792) “The Petticoat Duel”
Did you know that there were women who dueled too? I didn’t – there weren’t too many, but it certainly happened. The best know is that between Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs. Elphinstone. As the story goes, Mrs. Elphinstone paid a call of Lady Almeria. Per the usual, a damaging word was said by Mrs. Elphinstone against Lady Almeria Braddock’s age and a challenge was placed. First, they dueled by pistols – and Lady Braddock lost her hat. If that wasn’t enough, they then took up swords and Lady Braddock struck Mrs. Elphinstone in the arm. Apparently that did the trick and they left off their duel there.
My question is – how did either of them know how to shoot a gun or wield a sword?
Édouard Manet and Edmond Duranty (1870)
Edouard Manet, known for such Impressionistic paintings such as The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, is also known for challenging a friend turned critic, Edmond Duranty, to a duel. Duranty made a critical statement about his works and in return Manet slapped him in the face and challenged him to a sword duel. The duel was short-lived – Manet struck once and Duranty suffered a small wound – however that seemed to appease Manet. The two became close friends again thereafter.
I don’t know about you – but I think if I had been challenged by my best friend to a duel and then subsequently injured – we wouldn’t be best friends anymore!
Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson (1806)
The first of our two American presidential duels, and the second high profile political duel, took place between Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson (before Jackson became president). Jackson was a frequent duelist and had been shot many times. This duel came to be because of an extremely sensitive detail of Jackson’s life. When Jackson married his wife, Rachel, she was technically still married to her previous husband. Despite her belief that they were divorced, her prior husband had never filed the paperwork. While this was eventually rectified, this embarrassing error haunted Jackson for some time. Dickinson was vocal in his claims of bigamy against Jackson – and Jackson challenged him to a dual to restore his wife’s honor. Jackson was struck in the breastbone and suffered some cracked ribs, however Jackson followed that up with a fatal pistol wound to Dickinson.
Although, Rachel’s honor wasn’t restored, as many others would make the claim of bigamy, for the moment in served its purpose.
Abraham Lincoln and James Shields (1842) “The Duel that Almost Was”
While it isn’t difficult to imagine Andrew Jackson fighting a duel, it isn’t something you expect from Abraham Lincoln! While the duel never actually happened, it came quite close to happening.
The dueling parties were on different sides of the political divide regarding the state bank. At one point Lincoln wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper deriding Shields of his actions against the bank and his wooing of the ladies including the following quote:
“Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you all. Too well I know how much you suffer; but do, do remember, it is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting”. Lincoln signed the letter, Rebecca. James Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel – and as the challenged party, Lincoln had the choice of weapon and circumstances – he chose broadsword. With a broadsword he stood the chance to not dying and with the length of the sword and his arms, Lincoln had the upper hand. As dueling was illegal in Illinois there was a plan to meet on the Missouri side of the line. Through the intervention of friends the duel was called off but only just.
How different would things have been if Lincoln had been killed in this duel?
When I think about duels I think of with dueling pistols, not broadswords!!
There are many other famous duels – do you know about others? If you want to know more about some of these other duels, you can check out the History at 40 Paces article at History.com and for more about the Lincoln duel check out Abraham Lincoln Prepares to Fight a Saber Duel at History.net.
Copyright © 2012 by The Maiden’s Court