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Charles Dickinson (1780 – May 30, 1806) was an American attorney, and a famous duelist. An expert marksman, Dickinson died from injuries sustained in a duel with Andrew Jackson, who later became President of the United States.
Dickinson was born at Wiltshire Manor in Caroline County, Maryland, the son of Elizabeth Walker and Henry Dickinson, the grandson of Sophia Richardson and Charles Dickinson (1695–1795), and the great-grandson of Rebecca Wynne (daughter of Dr. Thomas Wynne) and John Dickinson. He studied law under U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, who wrote formal letters of introduction and recommendation for his student. Dickinson owned a house in Maryland for 3 years before moving to Tennessee, where he became a successful horse breeder and plantation owner. Within two years of his arrival in Tennessee, he courted and married the daughter of Captain Joseph Erwin. Unfortunately for Dickinson, he also ran afoul of fellow plantation owner and horse breeder, Andrew Jackson.
"In 1805 a friend of Jackson's deprecated the manner in which Captain Joseph Erwin had handled a bet with Jackson over a horse race. Erwin's son-in-law, Charles Dickinson became enraged and started quarreling with Jackson's friend which lead to Jackson becoming involved. Dickinson wrote to Jackson calling him a 'coward and an equivocator.' The affair continued, with more insults and misunderstandings, until Dickinson published a statement in the Nashville Review in May 1806, calling Jackson a 'worthless scoundrel, ... a poltroon and a coward.'"
The political atmosphere in Nashville was heated by ambition. John Coffee, a friend of Jackson's, had fought a duel earlier in the year with one of Dickinson's associates, and there were larger political and sporting interests involved. The Jackson-Dickinson duel, like that between Aaron Burr - another friend of Jackson's - and Alexander Hamilton, had been developing over some time.
Although the actual issue that led to the duel was a horse race between Andrew Jackson and Dickinson’s father-in-law, Joseph Erwin, Jackson had confronted Dickinson over a report that he had insulted Rachel. Dickinson said if he had, he was drunk at the time and apologized. Jackson accepted his apology, but there were probably still hard feelings between the two. Jackson and Erwin had scheduled their horse race in 1805. The stakes specified a winning pot of $2,000 paid by the loser, with an $800 forfeit if a horse couldn’t run. Erwin’s horse went lame, and after a minor disagreement about the type of forfeit payment, Erwin paid.:136–137
Later, one of Jackson’s friends, while sitting in a Nashville store, shared what was probably a more lurid story about Erwin’s disputed payment. When Dickinson heard the story, he sent a friend, Thomas Swann, to act as a go-between to inquire about what Jackson said about his father-in-law. Whether the friend misinterpreted or even misrepresented what was said by the two men, this minor misunderstanding flamed into full controversy.
In a confrontation at Winn’s Tavern, Jackson struck Swann with his cane and called him a stupid meddler. Dickinson sent Jackson a letter calling him a coward about the same time that Swann wrote a column in a local newspaper calling Jackson a coward. Jackson responded in the same newspaper saying Swann was a “lying valet for a worthless, drunken, blackguard” meaning Dickinson.:138–139
That did it for Dickinson who, after he returned from New Orleans in May 1806, published an attack on Jackson in the local newspaper calling Jackson “a poltroon and a coward.” After reading the article, Jackson sent Dickinson a letter requesting “satisfaction due me for the insults offered.”
Because dueling was outlawed in Tennessee, the two men met in the Adairville, Kentucky area, which sits right on the border, on May 30, 1806. Dickinson left Nashville the day before the duel with his second and a group of friends, confident, even demonstrating his shooting skills at various stops along the way. Since Dickinson was considered an expert shot, Jackson and his friend, Thomas Overton, determined it would be best to let Dickinson fire first, hoping that his aim might be spoiled in his quickness. Jackson would wait and, if he was still standing, take careful aim at Dickinson. The obvious weakness of this strategy was, of course, that Jackson might not be alive to take aim.:140–141
Dickinson did fire first, hitting Jackson in the chest. Under the rules of dueling, Dickinson had to remain still as Jackson took his one shot. Jackson’s pistol stopped at half cock, so he drew back the hammer and aimed again, this time hitting Dickinson in the chest. Dickinson bled to death.:142
Doctors determined that the bullet in Jackson was too close to his heart to operate, so Jackson carried it for the rest of his life, and suffered much pain from the wound. Locals were outraged that Dickinson had to stand defenseless while Jackson re-cocked and shot him, even though it was acceptable behavior in a duel. Jackson could have shot in the air or shot only to injure Dickinson; this would have been considered sufficient satisfaction under dueling rules. Jackson replied that Dickinson had meant to “kill the genl,” so Jackson had also shot to kill. Jackson’s reputation suffered greatly from the duel.:136–143
The expert Dickinson had aimed at Jackson's heart though the bullet had been slightly deflected by Jackson's choice of loose clothing on his lean frame, and careful sideways stance. The bullet broke some of Jackson's ribs, and had lodged inches from his heart. While Jackson could easily have fallen from such a wound, he said later, "I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain."
The bullet could not be removed under the then-current state of medical technology. Jackson would carry it inside his torso for the remainder of his life, and he chronically suffered many related ailments.
Charles Dickinson was originally buried on a family plantation (now on the outskirts of Nashville), but reinterred in the Old City Cemetery in Nashville after his grave was rediscovered in 2010. By that time, the original gravesite had been become unmarked and claims had been made that his remains were buried elsewhere.