Vance ~ Carson Duel


The Vance ~ Carson Duel

The following study of the duel between Dr. Robert Brank Vance and Samuel P. Carson is taken from “Western North Carolina A History 1730-1913” by John Preston Arthur.

Robert Brank Vance was born in Burke County, about 1730, and was the son of David Vance, who, after serving as an ensign under Washington, married the daughter of Peter Brank, who lived about a mile from Morgantown, and foughtas captain of a company in McDowell’s regiment at Ramseur’s Mill, Cowpens and Kings Mountain, while his uncle, Robert Brank, for whom Dr. Vance was named, had the reputation of being one of the most daring soldiers in his company. Young Vance was a fine scholar as a school boy; but, owing to an affliction which had settled in his left leg, that member had been shortened about six inches and so retarded his physical development that when fully grown he was only five feet and five inches in height. His face, however, was handsome, and his “mind was of no common order.” His family were Presbyterians and he attended the Newton academy near Asheville, afterwards graduating from an unnamed medical school and commencing the practice of medicine in Asheville in 1818, But, having drawn a five thousand dollar prize in a lottery, and his father having willed him a large portion of his estate, Dr. Vance purchased a fine library and retired from practice three years after opening his office. He was encouraged by his friends, and especially by young Samuel P. Carson, then in the legislature from Burke, to oppose Felix Walker, whose popularity then “was in the descending mode,” for Congress, but declined to do so till 1823, when he ran for Congress and was elected by a majority of one vote. It was said that when he appeared in Congress John Randolph of Roanoke, struck by his diminutive size and physical deformity, remarked, “Surely that little man has come to apply for a pension.” But Vance soon convinced the strong men of the house “that Aesop’s mind could be hid, but not long, under an Aesop’s form, and at the close of the term he had the respect of every distinguished man in the house.” The most important measure before the session was an appropriation of $250,000 –“and many townships of land” for Gen. Lafayette; and for this measure Vance voted.



In 1825 Samuel P. Chase and Dr. Vance were opposing candidates for Congress, and Carson was elected; but in 1827 Dr. Vance invited some of his friends to meet at Asheville, and announced that he would oppose Carson’s re-election, and would insist on his defeat because he had voted for an appropriation of $25,000 to the citizens of Alexandria, Virginia, which had been recently destroyed by fire. To this meeting Silas McDowell was invited, but his opposition to Vance’s idea that Carson could be defeated because of his vote displeased all of Vance’s friends, but not Vance himself. Vance and Carson accordingly were opposing candidates in 1827, and at the first meeting at Asheville Carson spoke first; but, in reviewing his course in Congress, he omitted to refer to his vote for the appropriation for the citizens of Alexandria. When Dr. Vance spoke he called attention to the fact that Carson had not referred to that vote, whereupon Carson answered that the city had been destroyed by fire and its citizens left homeless and destitute; and that Vance himself, if he had been in Carson’s place, would have voted likewise, because “I think he has a heart.” Vance retorted that if those who had applauded Carson’s statement “could admire, as some seem to do, the heart promptings that send a man’s benevolent hand into some other man’s pocket than his own, all I have to say about it is — I can’t.” Upon this Carson answered that “until Vance should withdraw the charge that he had put his hand into another’s pocket to save his own,” they could be friends no longer; and proceeded to charge Vance with inconsistency as he himself had voted when in Congress for the larger donation to Lafayette. Thereupon Vance charged Carson with being a demagogue, and when Carson replied that but for Vance’s diminutive size he would hold him to account for his “vile utterances.” Vance retorted: “You are a coward and fear to do it.” This closed the debate.



According to Mr. McDowell, Carson’s failure to challenge Vance, after having been publicly called a coward, confirmed Vance in his belief that he would not fight; this idea of Carson’s cowardice .having been suggested in the first instance by Carson’s refusal to accept a challenge from Hugh M. Stokes, a lawyer, and a son of Gen. Mumford Stokes of Wilkes, on the alleged found that young Stokes had forfeited his right to recognition as a gentleman because of his intemperate indulgence in strong drink. A second meeting of Vance’s friends was soon held at Asheville, but from it Silas McDowell was excluded. There it was determined that Vance should attack the character of Carson’s father “on a floating tradition that, after the defeat of our army at Camden, Carson, with many other hitherto patriotic citizens of North Carolina, had applied to Cornwallis, while near Charlotte, to protect their property. The tradition went so far as to include may of the patriotic men of Mecklenburg County. Up to this day that tradition is an historic doubt. “But Judge Avery points out that Col. John Carson had ben elected by the people of Burke to attend the convention held at Fayetteville for the Constitution of 1787 of the United States, as a sufficient refutation of the charge as applied to him. But at the next joint debate, which was at Morgantown, Vance used these words: “The Bible tells us that ‘because the fathers have eaten sour grapes, their sons’ teeth have been set on edge. …My father never ate sour grapes and my competitor’s father did … In the time of the Revolutionary War, my father, Colonel Vance, stood up to the fight, while my competitor’s father, Colonel Carson, skulked, and took British protection.”



All of Samuel P, Carson’s brothers were present when this statement was made “and made a move as though they would attack Vance, when prominent citizens interfered and the excitement calmed down.” The election resulted in Vance’s defeat, three to one, Vance getting only 2,419 votes. Afterwards, “Col. Carson wrote Vance an ill-natured and abusive letter, to which Vance set the brief reply ,”I can have no altercation with a man of your age; and, if I have aggrieved you, you certainly have some of your chivalrous sons that will protect you from insult.” .A few days thereafter Gen. Alney Burgin came to Asheville … to enquire which one of Colonels Carson’s sons Vance alluded to in his lines to his father”, and Vance replied, ,’Sam knows well enough I meant him.” Then the challenge was delivered and accepted.


It was agreed that three weeks should elapse before the duel, which was to be fought at Saluda Gap, on the line between North and South Carolina, on the Greenville turnpike. Gen. Franklin Patton was Vance’s second and Dr. George Phillips his surgeon, while Dr. Shufiin was Carson’s surgeon. “A few special friends attended as spectators, and, though invited by both gentlemen,” Mr. McDowell did not go. Davy Crockett, who, according to Dr. Sondly, in “Asheville’s Centenary,” had married a Miss Patton, of Swannanoa, is said to have been present as a friend of Carson’s. The distance was ten paces and the firing was to be done between the word “Fire, One, Two, Three,” with rising or falling pistols. Vance chose the rising and Carson the falling mode; and at the word “Fire,” Carson sent a ball entirely ‘~through Vance’s body, entering one and a half inches above the point of the hip and lodging in the skin on the opposite side. It does not appear that Vance fired at all. Vance died the next day, thirty-two hours aider having received his wound, at a hotel on the road, probably Davis’s.



When he saw that Vance had been wounded Carson expressed a wish to speak to him, but was led away; and before his death Vance expressed regret that Carson had not been permitted to speak with him, and stated that he had “not the first unkind feeling for him.” Vance also told Gen. Burgin that he had fallen where he had always wished to die – “on the field of honor.” He was buried at the family graveyard on Reem’s Creek.



Mr. Carson went on to Congress after the duel, was elected a delegate to the State convention of 1835, moved to Texas and became Secretary of State in David G. Burnett’s’s cabinet, never returning to North Carolina. The result of this duel is said to have embittered his life. Mr. McDowell hints at an attachment for Miss Donaldson, the pretty niece of Andrew Jackson; but Carson died unmarried.



It is quite evident that Vance expected to be killed; for he made his will (dated November 3, 1827) in which be referred to the approaching duel, and after his death it was admitted to probate, though, when the court house was destroyed in the spring of 1865, the record book containing it was destroyed. Fortunately, however, a certified copy had been obtained prior to the fire, which copy is still in existence. Judge Avery also slates that Dr. Vance stopped at his father’s house on his way to the dueling ground “and though almost everyone knew what was about to occur, no allusion was made to it by the family in conversation with their guest. The impression was made on some of the family that Vance seemed sad. Though recklessly fearless, it was natural that he should seem depressed in view of the prospect that he or Carson, or both, would probably be killed.”


Although Mr. McDowell had been “excluded” from the second conference between Vance and his friends at Asheville, he and Dr. Vance lodged at the same house at Morganton, and he said: “When Vance returned to our room.

… I remarked to him, ‘Doctor, you have this day sounded the death knell over yours or Carson’s grave – perhaps both! To this Vance answered: ‘There is no fight in Carson. I wish he would fight and kill me. Do you wish to know why? 1 will tell you: My life has no more future prospect. All before me is deep, dark gloom, my way to Congress being closed forever, and to fall back upon my profession or former resources of enjoyment makes me shudder to think of. Understand me, McDowell, I have no wish to kill or injure Carson; but ! do wish for him to kill me, as, perhaps, it would save me from self-slaughter.'” Would such a statement have been made except to a trusted friend and under the sacred seal of friendship?



Judge Avery tells us that, after the Morganton insult, Col. Carson agreed to forego his privilege of challenging Vance only upon the promise of his six sons that if “Samuel Carson should first challenge Vance, and, if he should fall, then the oldest son, Joseph McDowell Carson, should challenge him, and if everyone of the six should fall in separate encounters with Vance, then the old Colonel should be at liberty to wipe out the insult to the family by meeting Vance on the field of honor.” He adds: “Vance was not only mistaken in expecting a back down, but in fact he was provoking a difficulty with six cool and courageous men, everyone of whom was a crack marksman.” But that was not all. Judge Avery further states that Warren Davis, Carson’s second, refused to act as his second unless he would promise to do his best or use his utmost skill to hit Vance.” Dr. Vance must have known who Davis was and why he had been brought from South Carolina, as well as of the marksmanship of the six Carsons; and that he had deliberately offered a deadly insult to the venerable head of an old and distinguished family because he believed that Samuel P. Carson would not fight is almost incredible. That Dr. Vance should wish to be killed by his boyhood’s friend is more unbelievable. But, whatever his motive, criticism of his conduct was silenced above his open grave; for he went to his death with a courage that was sublime; and for more than three quarters of a century censure has remained dumb, “with a finger on her lips and a meaning in her eyes.”


This is the final installment of the Vance-Carson duel in 1827. It is stated that Carson went to Tennessee to send the challenge.


Judge Avery, in his “Historic Homes of North Carolina” (in the NC Booklet, Vol. IV, No. 3) let’s us know of what happened afterwards, in order not to violate the law of this state (NC); and that David Crockett was one of Carson’s friends at the duel. Just before taking his position on the field Carson told Warren Davis that he (Carson) could hit Vance wherever he chose, but preferred no to inflict a mortal wound. Thereupon, Davis said: “Vance will try to kill you, and if he receives only a flesh wound, he will demand another shot, which will mean another chance to kill you. I will not act for you unless you promise to do your best to kill him.” Carson promised, and Vance fell mortally wounded, Carson lamenting that the demands of an imperious custom had forced him to wreck his own peace of mind in order to save the honor of his family. In 1835 Carson was elected to the Constitutional Convention of that year. He emigrated to Texas in 1836, was a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1836 in that State, and Sam Houston made him secretary of State. Carson was active in securing the annexation of Texas. The Biographical Congressional Directory, 1911, says that Carson “after his retirement from Congress moved to Arkansas; died in Hot Springs, AK, in November 1840” (p. 532) The same work (p 1076) says that Vance “moved to Nashville, Nash county, where he held several local positions.” All of which is wrong. It does not give the date of his birth or of his death.


[To read more about Duels, see “The History of Western North Carolina” Duels from which this series has been excerpted.]


–from History of Western North Carolina

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