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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Shootout in Weehawken

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were rowed across the Hudson River so that they could shoot at each other. This, in 1804, seemed like a fine way to settle one's differences.

In our new book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers (Lyons Press), one chapter concerns the duel:
According to the Code Duello, gentlemen only needed to meet on the field of honor and delope, or discharge their weapons. They could shoot into the ground and the debt would be satisfied. 
Hamilton had resolved before the duel that he would not shoot Burr. In a letter discovered with his will after his death, Hamilton had written: “if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, [I will] reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.” 
The two men arrived in Weehawken about half an hour apart. Burr and his party, including his second William P. Van Ness, got there first and began clearing the dueling grounds. Hamilton, Nathaniel Pendleton, and David Hosack, a physician, arrived around seven in the morning. By prearrangement, the seconds were to keep their backs turned away from Hamilton and Burr. Since dueling was illegal, this would give them the chance, if questioned, to say they hadn’t seen anything. 
Hamilton, as the challenged, had brought the pistols, and he was given the choice of his weapon. Hamilton took his time getting into position. He cleaned his glasses. He repeatedly tested his aim. Was this a show of nerves—or was he trying to provoke Burr? The pistols belonged to Hamilton’s brother-in-law, and he may have had the opportunity to practice with them. Did that give him an unfair advantage? Even if it did, it turned out not to matter. 
Hamilton fired first. His bullet flew above Burr’s head, lodging in a cedar tree. 
Then Burr fired. His aim was true, and his shot lodged in Hamilton’s spine, having first lacerated his liver. Doctor Hosack, waiting nearby, recalled later: "I found him half sitting on the ground, supported in the arms of Mr. Pendleton. His countenance of death I shall never forget. He had at that instant just strength to say, 'This is a mortal wound, doctor,' when he sunk away, and became to all appearance lifeless…."

Hamilton wasn’t dead—not yet. He was ferried across the river to the home of his friend William Bayard on Jane Street. Bayard was from one of the oldest and richest families in the city—he was the great-great-great nephew of Judith Bayard, wife of Peter Stuyvesant—and owned vast property in what is now Greenwich Village. Hamilton was carried to a second-floor bedroom where Dr. Hosack attended to him. A rider was dispatched to the Grange to fetch Eliza—but only to tell her that Hamilton was suffering from “spasms.” He had hidden the duel from her in advance, but he could hide it no longer.
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Read more about the American Revolution and Alexander Hamilton in

If you haven't had a chance to pick up a copy of Footprints yet,
you can order it from your favorite online retailers (AmazonBarnes & Nobleetc.) or
from independent bookstores across the country.

And, of course, Inside the Apple is available at fine bookstores everywhere.

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