by Kathy B. Lauder.
Charles Henry Dickinson was born around 1780, the year Andrew Jackson, a scrappy 13-year-old, ran off to fight in the American Revolution. The two youngsters could hardly have been more different. Dickinson was born into wealth and privilege on a Maryland plantation; Jackson’s parents were immigrant Irish pioneers. When young Dickinson arrived in Nashville in 1801, he carried a letter of introduction from Chief Justice John Marshall. By late spring 1806 he owned a thriving law practice; had married Jane Erwin, the daughter of a prosperous Nashville family; and was the proud father of a two-month-old son. Jackson, 39, a self-taught lawyer married to the former Rachel Donelson (who had come to Nashville in 1780 with the town’s founding families), had already become a key figure in regional politics: he had been a judge and district attorney in the Mero District; had taken part in the state constitutional convention; had served in the U.S. House and Senate; was Major General of the State Militia; and had spent six years on the Tennessee Supreme Court. He also raised cotton on his plantation, The Hermitage, and bred racehorses. It was apparently a conflict over a horse race that led to Jackson’s fatal duel with Dickinson on May 30, 1806.
The details of the argument vary with the storyteller, but it seems that Jackson took offense at an insult (directed at his wife, his horse, or his integrity) uttered by Joseph Erwin, the father of Dickinson’s wife. Dickinson, who some think may have tipped the balance with a cruel comment aimed at Rachel, took up the challenge in Erwin’s stead. Jackson himself later told a friend, “I had no unkind feeling against Mr. Dickinson . . . My quarrel had been with his father-in-law, Col. Erwin.” Since dueling was illegal in Tennessee, the two men and their companions set out on horseback to Logan County, Kentucky, near the Red River. Afterward Jackson admitted to being “badly frightened” – “I knew Dickinson to be the best shot with the pistol I ever saw. I therefore went upon the ground expecting to be killed.”
Dickinson would shoot first. To alter his profile, Jackson, who was six feet tall but weighed only 145 pounds, wore a large, bulky coat with a rolled collar, and apparently turned his thin frame sideways. Dickinson aimed and shot. When Jackson did not fall or cry out, Dickinson, startled, believed he had missed. Then, very steadily, Jackson took aim and fired. Later someone would claim that the gun had misfired and that Jackson broke the rules by re-cocking and firing again, but, in fact, the seconds reportedly accepted the second shot. Jackson himself was quoted as saying, “Under the impression that I was, perhaps, mortally wounded, and upon the impulse of the moment, I fired, and my antagonist fell.” The future president had indeed been shot as well. Surgeons were never able to remove the bullet, which was lodged near his heart. It would cause him intense discomfort for the rest of his life. (Several scholars have suggested that Jackson may finally have died, 39 years later, of lead poisoning from that bullet, so Dickinson’s shot may have been responsible for his death, after all!) Young Dickinson lingered for several hours in excruciating pain before his own eventual death. Jackson would always feel deep remorse over the outcome: in his last years he confessed to his old friend General William G. Harding that he regretted nothing in his life so much as this duel.
Dickinson’s companions carried his body back to Nashville, where he was buried on Joseph Erwin’s estate, six miles west of Nashville, on June 1, 1806. For many years the site was marked by a large box tomb, but around 1926, as the land was being developed for housing construction, the tomb’s marble slabs disappeared, as did, gradually, local memory of the exact site of the grave. Meanwhile, Maryland historians insisted that a faithful slave had carried Dickinson’s body back to Caroline County and buried it in a lead coffin there. Decades later, when a metal casket was discovered on family property, the remains were examined by experts at the Smithsonian, who declared they were likely those of a female.
Tennessee historians, meanwhile, were convinced that Dickinson was still in Nashville. On May 23, 2006, almost exactly 200 years after the duel, State Archaeologist Nick Fielder conducted a high-tech probe of a West End property and determined there was a “50-50 chance” that the grave was there, but no digging occurred at that time. The obliging new property owners, Mr. and Mrs. James Bowen, sought Chancery Court approval for the archaeological investigation and exhumation of any remains discovered on their land, asking permission, in so many words, for their front yard no longer to be a burial ground! On a cold December 15, 2007, neighbors and historians huddled in the sleet, watching as an archaeology team dug in several promising spots, but with no success. In a subsequent dig, in August 2009, archaeologist Dan Allen, guided by historical documents, located the angular outline of a coffin, a number of rusty coffin nails, a screw, and two small bone fragments, probably finger bones. Dickinson had been found!
Researchers knew that Dickinson’s in-laws, Colonel Andrew Hynes and his wife Ann, had been buried at City Cemetery. (Ann Erwin Hynes was Jane Dickinson’s sister.) On Friday, June 25, 2010, in the presence of more than 300 witnesses, Charles Henry Dickinson’s remains were laid to rest in the Hynes plot at the Nashville City Cemetery. The funeral eulogy was delivered by the Reverend Kenneth Locke, Downtown Presbyterian Church. And great-great-great grandsons of both duelists attended the dedication: Dickinson’s descendant Charles Henry Miller, along with Andrew Jackson VI and his daughter Rebekah. (2010)
The Jackson quotations are taken from “Gen. Jackson as a Duelist,” The Daily American (Nashville), February 18, 1877.
For another look at this story, you may enjoy Betsy Phillips’s delightful article from the August 1, 2022, edition of the Nashville Scene: “On the Hunt for the Jackson-Dickinson Dueling Site.”
My gratitude to Dr. Wayne Moore, Jim Hoobler, Fletch Coke, Mike Slate, Carol Kaplan, and James Castro for their input.
Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery Newsletter.