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Admirers and detractors of the most polarizing figure in Nashville history — Andrew Jackson — will probably never stop arguing over how and why he killed a promising young Nashville attorney in a duel 201 years ago. But a parallel dispute over where the loser of the duel is buried may soon be resolved once and for all.
On May 30, 1806, future war hero and U.S. President Jackson — who had already been a congressman, senator and state Supreme Court justice — shot and fatally wounded Charles Henry Dickinson. Dickinson had married Nashville socialite Jane Erwin in 1803 at her family's home, known as Peach Blossom and located in what is now the Whitland Ave. area off West End. It is known that Dickinson's body was interred in a grave near the mansion, but since 1965, whether the body is still there has been in question.
History buffs in Caroline County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, opened a grave in 1965 on land once owned by Dickinson's family and announced that they had found his remains. To bolster their claim, they cited a family story passed down among descendants of a Dickinson slave who talked of having removed the body, placed it in a lead coffin and carried it back to Maryland some years after its burial in Tennessee. Few in Nashville have ever accepted this tale as fact.
Last week, the current owners of a home at 216 Carden Ave., together with a great-great-great grandson of Charles Henry Dickinson, filed suit seeking permission to open the gravesite thought to be in the front yard of that property. Attorney Jim Bowen, of the Bowen Riley firm in Nashville, and his wife Laura agreed to seek a solution to the mystery of Dickinson's burial place soon after they bought 216 Carden in March of this year. Jim Bowen filed the legal action in Davidson County Chancery Court on behalf of his wife and himself as well as the descendant, Charles Henry Miller Sr. of Hempstead, Texas.
The complaint, a copy of which is available at this link, asks the court to allow an archaeological dig at the site on the basis of Miller's consent, unless any other Dickinson heir comes forward to oppose the exhumation. It proposes to run legal notices locally for four weeks in an effort to reach any other interested parties. A search on the genealogical web service Ancestry.com suggests there are dozens of people across the country who claim descent from Dickinson, but the filing claims that Miller is the "closest known next-of-kin."
If a body is found and identified as Dickinson's, it will be moved to the Nashville City Cemetery. The Metro Historical Commission has approved its re-interment in the family plot of Col. Andrew Hynes, a brother-in-law of Dickinson.
Exhumations of bodies after more than a century of entombment can result in positive identification. After the corpse of President Zachary Taylor was examined in 1991 to test a theory that he had been poisoned, researchers were able to discern trace amounts of arsenic in his hairs (though not to agree on whether they were evidence of poisoning). And when forensic experts in 1995 opened what was marked as the grave of outlaw Jesse James, they were able to determine that the body was in fact James, disproving a theory that his apparent shooting by a fellow gang member in 1882 had been a ruse to enable the escape of James.
Science has already played a role in trying to solve the mystery of where Dickinson is buried. In 2006, Tennessee state archaeologist Nick Fielder and colleagues conducted ground-penetrating radar tests at the Carden property, finding an area of "disturbed ground" consistent with a gravesite.
A crack shot, a "base poltroon," or both?
Exactly what landed Dickinson in an early grave, wherever it is, has been a matter of dispute for two centuries. Arguments over what led to the duel and how it transpired were filtered through generations of partisan rhetoric among supporters and opponents of Jackson, during and after his lifetime. And a paucity of reliable source material has opened the way for a fair amount of apparent mythologizing about the event.
Although it is known that shock and disappointment in Jackson were the prevailing feelings in Nashville after the duel, the matter seems to have gone largely unmentioned as Jackson went on nine years later to victory over the British at New Orleans and national adulation. Several early biographers of the General omitted any mention of the duel.
Dickinson had reportedly arrived in Nashville in 1801 bearing letters of introduction from his law tutor — John Marshall, chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. He seems to have made an impression as an up-and-comer in Nashville society, and he was a well-known lawyer by the time he tangled with Jackson in 1806, at the age of 26.
We know Dickinson was politically aligned with Jackson's bitter enemy, Tennessee Governor John Sevier. Various accounts indicate that he was among many of Jackson's adversaries heard to make disparaging comments about Rachel Jackson, centering on the allegedly improper nature of the Jackson marriage. (Rachel's divorce was not quite as final as it needed to be before she married Andrew.) Some biographers cite those insults as the real reason for the gunfight, but there was also disagreement over how Dickinson's father-in-law, Captain Joseph Erwin, had handled his payment of a horse gambling debt to Jackson.
For whatever cause, Jackson sent a letter to a third party aligned with Dickinson that read in part as follows: "The base poltroon and cowardly talebearer will always act in the background. You can apply the latter to Mr. Dickinson." Dickinson responded by denouncing Jackson in similar terms in the newspaper, and the duel was soon set.
General William G. Harding, owner of the Belle Meade plantation, reported in a letter published by the Nashville Daily American on February 13, 1877, that Jackson, as an old man, had recounted his version of the Dickinson affray:
At the time Gen. Jackson retired from the Presidential Chair, and for several years thereafter, I lived in McSpadden's Bend, on the Cumberland River, three or four miles distant from the Hermitage, and it was my pleasure to visit the old hero frequently.
On the occasion referred to, I found Gen. Jackson alone, which was not often the case... [In the course of a discussion about personal courage, Jackson said there was one time in his life when he was terribly frightened:]
"It was, Sir, when I fought the duel with Mr. Dickinson. In the first place, Sir, I had no unkind feeling against Mr. Dickinson, and no disposition to injure a hair of his head. I had gone as far as an honorable man could go to avoid the difficulty with Dickinson; he had not injured me, and therefore I had no ground of complaint against him: my quarrel had been with his father-in-law, Col. Erwin.
"I knew Dickinson to be a brave, honorable gentleman, and the best shot with the pistol I ever saw — far better than myself, for I was never an expert with that weapon. I knew that he could shoot truer and quicker than I could. I therefore went upon the ground expecting to be killed, and I owe the preservation of my life to the fashions of the day, for I wore a coat with rolling collar and very full-breasted; but, fortunately for me, Sir, I was organized with a very narrow chest.
"Dickinson's ball struck very near the centre of my coat, and, while it scraped the breast bone, it did not enter the cavity of the chest. In an instant, under the impression that I was, perhaps, mortally wounded, and upon the impulse of the moment, I fired, and my antagonist fell — and no event of my life, Sir, have I regretted so much. My determination before and after taking position was to discharge my pistol into the air, but because I felt the effect of his shot I fired at him.
"Just here, Sir, let me add that the world has done me a great injustice, for I am charged with having brought on the difficulty, and with having fixed the terms so as to reserve my fire and advance; and it charges me with having advanced upon Dickinson, and shot him when I was within a few feet of him — all of which is false, Sir. I fired instantly after receiving his shot, and from my position; and Dickinson stood in his position and received my fire like a brave man as he was."
The above is the conversation nearly verbatim as it occurred between Gen. Jackson and myself in reference to that duel.
Other accounts of the duel portray a far more cold-blooded Jackson. It is said that after he was wounded, he took steady aim at Dickinson and pulled the trigger. The hammer of his pistol is said to have stopped at half-cock with a click. With Dickinson standing defenseless before him, as the code of honor required, Jackson then supposedly re-cocked the pistol, aimed low, and fired his .70-caliber bullet through Dickinson's abdomen.
All accounts agree that over the next several hours, Jackson's young adversary slowly bled to death.
Birthdays of note this week:
- MGLaw attorney Bob Mendes, Friends of Warner Parks Chair Eleanor Willis (also known to a generation of Nashvillians as Miss Eleanor from "Romper Room") — September 15
- Country star Trisha Yearwood — September 19
- Imprisoned former state legislator Roscoe Dixon — September 20
"Nashville now and then" is a week-by-week look back at Nashville's economic, political and social history. Your thoughts, suggestions and questions are always welcome — leave them in the comments section below, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.