The Hamilton-Burr Duel
(From HAMILTON’S CHOICE by Jack Casey © 2020, All Rights Reserved)
As Van Ness starts back down the path from the ledge, he sees Hamilton and Pendleton climbing up. He turns and dashes back to Burr. “They’re here!”
“Good.” Burr bends three times at the knees and extends his arms out and in, out and in, to limber up.
A moment later, Pendleton emerges from the brush, carrying the pistol case.
“Good morning, Judge,” Burr greets him with a slight bow.
“Mr. Vice President,” Pendleton says.
Hamilton is behind him. “Colonel,” he nods to Burr.
“General,” Burr says.
Both men are dressed in black silk coats, silk being thought to repel pistol balls. Burr wears a top hat, Hamilton a tricorn.
Van Ness and Pendleton measure out ten paces. As they confer, Hamilton looks up to where the foliage parts to show the sky. Sunshine is bursting in the leaves above, and birds are twittering. It occurs to Hamilton that, in person, Burr has always been charming and affable, never disagreeable.
Burr watches him for a twitch or a tremble, but Hamilton is completely at ease. Their eyes meet. Burr tries to read his expression, asking himself, is he actually going through with this? But Hamilton is completely impassive, holding his moral high ground with a steady eye until Burr flinches and looks away.
Twice Van Ness tosses a coin, once for position, and again for which second will call the shots. Pendleton says “Heads,” and then “Heads” again, and wins both times. An omen. Since Hamilton’s won both tosses, he will dictate the terms. Hamilton bows. Burr bows in return. Hamilton might actually go through with this! Surprising, but so be it.
Pendleton places the pistol case on the ground in the middle of the clearing, opens it, and hands one of the guns to Van Ness. Billy examines it, a work of art with long walnut handles and gold mountings on tooled brass barrels. Pendleton gives him a charge of powder, chamois for wadding, and a ball. The seconds load the pistols in unison, sliding the ramrods down, and then hand the loaded pistols to their principals.
Burr takes the pistol in his right hand. The grip fits comfortably and the balance is pleasing. His bowels grumble and his head clears. It was ever thus riding into battle, the jangling nerves, the shaking limbs, then, the great lucidity as the warrior passion rises. Now it’s coming in a rush, that delicious energy, flooding his chest and limbs, and he feels alive and powerful and happy to be once more at the precipice.
Hamilton is composed. He removes his hat and places it on the ground. He hefts his pistol and wonders again if this was the one that Philip held, or is it the one that killed him? He hardly hears Pendleton talking.
Since he won the toss, Hamilton opts for the western position, the higher ground. Pendleton scowls. “Are you sure, General? With the sun’s glare upon the river?” Hamilton nods. It’s an odd choice. The sun, glancing off the river, will be in his eyes. Burr will be backlit, and Hamilton, standing against the rising sun, will be illuminated as if in the lime lights of a stage.
Pendleton speaks: “Gentlemen, I will ask whether you are ready, and when you answer in the affirmative, I will say ‘Present,’ and you will present. After that, fire when you please. If one fires before the other, the opposite second shall say, ‘One, two, three, fire!’ and you shall fire then, or lose your shot. Is that clear?” Burr and Hamilton nod. Both men turn sideways to reduce the size of the target. Hamilton squints. Burr is indistinct in the glare. Hamilton holds the heavy pistol in his right hand and points it at the ground.
“Ready?” Pendleton asks.
“Ready,” both answer.
“Present,” Pendleton says.
Their eyes lock. Both men hold their pistols down their right legs.
Slowly, Burr raises his pistol. Slowly Hamilton raises his. Burr points his gun at Hamilton. Hamilton raises his higher, past his chest, then up over his shoulder. The arrogance of the gesture infuriates Burr. How can he be so cocky? He’s as smug and ridiculous as singing on a tabletop, waving a sword, his gun now aimed above Burr’s head, taunting him with an easy shot. Burr squeezes his trigger and is startled by the loud report.
There’s a cloud of smoke and Hamilton is hit. His right forefinger jerks closed and he discharges his gun as he rises on his toes. Searing pain roars through him like fire. He spins halfway around, his right arm at an odd angle, then he drops the pistol and crumples to the ground.
Burr cries out and starts toward Hamilton but Van Ness restrains him.
“No, sir, no! We must leave!” Van Ness grabs the pistol from Burr and throws it in the vicinity of the pistol case.
Burr shoves Van Ness aside: “I must speak with him! It was never my intent . . .”
“No!” Van Ness insists. He grapples with Burr, drags him away.
Pendleton’s on his knees beside Hamilton. “Doctor!” he screams, “Doctor!!!”
At the verge of the trees with Van Ness hauling him away, Burr jerks free to look back. Van Ness opens the black umbrella to hide Burr’s face from Hosack, who’s now barreling up the pathway. They pass him in the brush of the narrow path and hurry to their barge. Van Ness positions the open umbrella so that Hamilton’s bargemen cannot see Burr. Burr’s oarsmen shove off, and soon, they’re out on the river.
“You hurt him,” Van Ness said.
“He wouldn’t back down! Damn the man! He taunted me! He invited it!” Burr says with disgust. “Of all the stupid stunts!” He points his finger in the air. “Delope! How insulting!” Despite his anger, Burr keeps turning back, squinting to see through the foliage of the ledge below the great rusted crag of the Palisades.
As they row into the current, the plashing oars and waves gently lapping the boat calm Burr. He breathes slowly, deeply, and closes his eyes. His dull headache still throbs, but it’s clearing. His ears still ring with the gunfire, and he still smells the smoking powder. He tries to forget how pitiful Hamilton looked crumpled on the ground, like a pathetic little doll. It truly is a splendid morning. A big breakfast will be just the thing to buck him up.
Pendleton is kneeling at Hamilton’s side.
“Do you know me, General?”
Hamilton’s eyes open slowly. He nods, reaches for Pendleton’s hand. “Nate,” he whispers. “My good friend Nate.” His grip is weak. He’s slipping away. The pain in his side burns worse than anything he’s ever felt. He can barely speak and he can’t move his legs. Hosack bursts through the underbrush, dashes over, kneels, and rubs the back of Hamilton’s hand.
“Can you feel pain?”
Hamilton nods and looks up. His eyes are startlingly blue in his deathly pale face. “This is a mortal wound, Doctor.”