Man Andrew Jackson killed in duel to be reburied

Published 8:40 pm Thursday, June 24, 2010

More than 200 years after he fell in a duel with a future president, and almost a century after his grave was lost and forgotten beneath someone’s front lawn, Charles Dickinson will be laid to rest again.

President Andrew Jackson took part in more than a dozen duels over the course of his life. But Nashville attorney Charles Dickinson was the only man he killed.

Dickinson’s lost tomb had been an enduring mystery to Nashville historians. He was laid to rest on his father-in-law’s estate, but when the old plantation was subdivided and developed in the 1920s, his elaborate box tomb vanished, and the exact location of the gravesite was forgotten.

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Since 2004, archaeologists have returned repeatedly to dig up the front yard at 216 Carden Ave., where they believed his grave must be. Last summer, they found him, or what was left of him — the hexagonal outline of an old coffin, a collection of corroded nails and a single human finger bone.

“I am confident that the mystery is solved from the historical and archaeological evidence we have collected,” archaeologist Dan Allen wrote after his discovery. “I found no evidence that anyone had disturbed the grave prior to us recovering the location and excavating the burial deposit.”

Dickinson’s remains will be reinterred at the historic city cemetery at 10:30 a.m. Friday. He will be laid to rest in a family plot belonging to his brother-in-law, surrounded by some of the earliest residents of the city.

Dickinson died before Nashville had a city cemetery. The city itself was barely three decades old, and Andrew Jackson was just a local plantation owner and attorney, like Dickinson himself.

“We think of Jackson as the future president, but that’s not who he was at the time,” said Nashville preservationist Fletch Coke, who spearheaded the search for Dickinson’s grave and helped arrange for his reburial.

“He was just a farmer at that point. He hadn’t fought the Battle of New Orleans. He wasn’t a well-known person at all.”

Dickinson, on the other hand, was well known as a duelist. Just 26 when he died, he had already participated in more than two dozen duels. He had moved to Nashville from Maryland, married the daughter of the wealthy Erwin family, and had a young son and a prosperous plantation on the west side of town in spring 1806.

Why Dickinson and Jackson quarreled is not known. Some say it was a dispute over a horse wager. Others say Dickinson insulted Jackson’s beloved wife, Rachel. That wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Most of the 13 duels Jackson participated in over the years started because someone pointed out that Rachel Jackson was not, technically, divorced from her first husband at the time she remarried.

Regardless of the cause, the challenge was issued.

“Gen. Andrew Jackson,” Dickinson wrote in a note to his neighbor on May 23. “Sir, Your note of this morning is received, and your request shall be gratified. My friend who hands you this will make the necessary arrangements. I am, Charles Dickinson.”

Dueling was illegal in Tennessee at the time, so the two men and their seconds met just over the Kentucky border at Harrison’s Mills on the Red River.

“It’s hard for us to have a mindset” like the men of that era, who believed disputes could be settled honorably only with pistols, Coke said. “It’s so foreign from our thinking today.”

Dickinson left behind his widow, Jane, and young son, Henry. He was buried on the Erwin family plantation under a splendid box tomb. Over the years, Jane remarried, and his son moved to Louisiana. No other Erwins were buried in the family plot once the city cemetery opened, leaving Dickinson’s grave to stand alone as Nashville slowly sprawled across the old plantation fields.

The Metropolitan Historical Commission is inviting the public to attend the reinterment ceremony. Among those invited will be descendants of both the Dickinson and Jackson families.

Nashville City Cemetery is at 1001 Fourth Ave. S., at the corner of Fourth Avenue South and Oak.