In today’s fractious political landscape, the cable news networks are all too happy to provide our nation’s movers and shakers with a platform from which to fire away at their rivals.
Even if you do not have the stomach for that sort of thing, it is still pretty tame stuff from a historical viewpoint. At least today’s power brokers are not making their arguments at 12 paces with pistols.
That is what it came down to for two of Georgia’s most prominent figures of the Revolutionary War era. For Lachlan McIntosh and Button Gwinnett, only a deadly duel could settle their differences. Both men took a bullet in the showdown, which ultimately proved fatal for one.
The dying man’s political allies were outraged, but the survivor returned to the Continental Army and resumed the fight against the British. That was just the way they did things back then. No currency, it seems, held a higher premium than one’s reputation.
Land holdings, personal wealth, social status, public standing — none of it was valued above honor. Even still, the events leading up to that deadly standoff are petty in the balance of it. It is a wonder cooler heads did not prevail to remind them the British were the real enemy.
Both McIntosh and Gwinnett took similar paths to that fateful day on May 16, 1777. Lachlan McIntosh was born in Scotland in 1725, the son of John Mohr McIntosh. The elder McIntosh brought his family to the newly established Georgia Colony in 1736 as the leader of a hardy bunch of Scotts settlers. They established the settlement that would become Darien in the area that today carries the family name, McIntosh County.
Gwinnett was born around 1735 in Gloucestershire, England, the son of a Welsh clergyman. He would become a merchant in England, eventually journeying to the Americas as a young man in his late 20s. He struggled with business enterprises from Newfoundland to Jamaica before settling in Savannah in 1765, where he opened a shop.
He later bought St. Catherine’s Island, but had no more success as a planter. Despite his lackluster business endeavors, Gwinnett made a name for himself in local politics. By 1769, he was elected to Georgia’s Provincial Assembly. Like his rival McIntosh, Gwinnett sided with the patriot cause when war with the British loomed.
A Georgia delegate to the Continental Congress in the summer of 1776, Gwinnett’s signature sits first on the left of signers to this nation’s Declaration of Independence. By 1777, the man for whom the county in metropolitan Atlanta is named was serving in Georgia’s state legislature. He succeeded Archibald Bulloch as president of Georgia’s general assembly after Bulloch’s death.
For all this, Gwinnett took it personal when he was overlooked for a high-ranking appointment in Georgia’s battalion of the Continental Army. Guess who attained that lofty position?
McIntosh came of age in the harsh environment of a frontier settlement that also was the front lines of the ongoing War of Jenkins Ear with Spain. His father, John Mohr McIntosh, was held prisoner for two years after being captured during the failed siege of St. Augustine in Spanish Florida in 1740.
But McIntosh’s older brother, William, was among the fierce Scottish Highlanders who proved themselves invaluable two years later during the decisive British victories at Gully Hole Creek and Bloody Marsh on July 7, 1742, on St. Simons Island.
After his father’s capture, young Lachlan spent time at a Savannah orphanage, but found himself a young military cadet at Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island a few short years later. He went into business with mentor Henry Laurens in Charlestown, S.C., as a young man. He returned home in the 1750s, where he acquired land on the Altamaha delta and thrived as a rice planter. In 1767, Lachlan conducted the surveying that mapped the town of Darien.
He had sided with the cause for independence as early as 1770. With war well under way, McIntosh received a colonel’s commission in the Georgia militia in early 1776. (McIntosh distinguished himself in the Battle of Rice Boats on the Savannah River in March of 1776, helping turn back a British assault.) Later that year, he was appointed brigadier general to Georgia’s contingent of the Continental Army. Guess who else was in the running for that high post?
However, as president of Georgia’s General Assembly Gwinnett’s role as commander-in-chief outranked McIntosh. At Gwinnett’s bidding, Lachlan’s brother George McIntosh was arrested and charged with treason. He then ordered Lachlan on an ill-fated campaign to attack British-held Florida in April of 1777.
Afterward, McIntosh did not mince words in placing blame for the debacle squarely on his rival. In a public address to the Georgia Assembly on May 1, he labeled Gwinnett “a scoundrel and a lying rascal.”
Furious, Gwinnett demanded McIntosh apologize, or else. Of course, McIntosh would not budge. Gwinnett then insisted that only a duel could salvage his reputation. McIntosh eagerly obliged. About the only thing these two could agree upon was to meet two weeks later on land east of Savannah owned by one James Wright. This stuff was not for the timid.
Standing 12 paces apart, the two leveled their pistols, each at the other. No quick-draw stuff. Each staring down a barrel, the two men fired simultaneously. Gwinnett took a bullet to the thigh; McIntosh also was shot in the leg. McIntosh’s wound eventually mended; Gwinnett lived but three more days.
Gwinnett’s Whig party allies brought murder charges against McIntosh. He was acquitted.
Fearing further reprisals against the young Continental officer, Gen. George Washington himself reassigned McIntosh to the main army. There he endured the bitter winter of ’77-78 at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, supervising North Carolina troops.
McIntosh later served on Pennsylvania’s western frontier before returning South, where he was captured in 1780 when the British took Charleston. He was freed in a prisoner exchange near war’s end in early 1782. McIntosh died in 1806.
Dueling to the death has a long since gone out of favor as a means of settling heated political disputes. As for the more common contemporary method of exchanging political fire, thank God for the television remote control’s mute button.