History: Duel to the death at Fort Mitchell, 1828

History: Duel to the death at Fort Mitchell, 1828

By Mark Clark

Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County. 

In 1827, George Crawford was named the Attorney General for the State of Georgia by Governor John Forsyth to replace Thomas Wells. George Crawford was the son of Peter Crawford, a Revolutionary War veteran who settled in Georgia and became a 10-term representative in the state’s legislature.

Not long after his appointment, Crawford read an anonymous letter to the editor that appeared in The Augusta Chronicle which sharply criticized the political views of his father, who was in poor health. Crawford became incensed and demanded the name of the anonymous writer of the letter from the editor of the newspaper. The editor in an effort to protect the source of the letter – Thomas Burnside – told Crawford the writer was a woman and for that reason he declined to give the name.

Inexplicably, Burnside contacted Crawford and informed him that he was the author of the letter to the newspaper. Crawford immediately challenged Burnside to a duel which Burnside accepted, although with reluctance. Duels were waning in fashion, but they were still held as a measure by which an honorable man was obliged to endure. Burnside was beginning his own political career which showed promise of being a successful one. Burnside felt he would be shamed with dishonor if he refused, and in his era, without honor there would be no career in politics.

Dueling had already been outlawed in Georgia so the two politicians, with their seconds, traveled together by train to Fort Mitchell where the practice was still legal – to finish what by then had become a “well-publicized fight.” Burnside seemed to have sensed the duel would not end in his favor, and he dispatched a letter to his wife on the eve of the fateful encounter:

Fort Mitchell, Jan. 24, 1828

Dear Wife and Mother:

    Tomorrow I fight. I do it on principle. Whatever may be my fate, I believe I am right. On this ground I have acted and will act. I believe I shall succeed, but if I do not I am prepared for consequences. Kiss the children and tell them that if I fall my last thought was of them. 

Yours most affectionally,

Thomas Burnside

 Crawford shot Burnside dead in the duel, prompting the state to pass new legislation which forbade persons involved in duels from holding office. The restriction only applied to duels fought after the law was enacted and did not affect Crawford’s career. He continued to serve as attorney general until 1831. Burnside was interred in the private burial ground of Colonel John Crowell, renowned for his participation in the War of 1812. The Colonel lived near the site where the duel had taken place and personally ensured every protocol of respect was accorded at Burnside’s burial.

It took two weeks before Mrs. Burnside received word of her husband’s death. It was said that she nearly died herself, distraught upon receiving the news. Mrs. Burnside moved with her children to Dahlonega, Georgia, residing there until her death.

Crawford carried regret for his role in what was called “a deplorable and unfortunate affair.” He was known to have made anonymous financial contributions to Burnside’s widow and children, though he was remembered as saying it made no amends – and for having expressed lament shortly before his own death in 1872.

Before his death, Crawford served as a Representative in the Georgia legislature and as a United States Representative. He was elected governor in 1843. Later, Crawford was named Secretary of War by President Zachary Taylor. And, in 1861, Crawford wrote the Articles of Secession for Georgia.