We’ll never know for certain, but it’s unlikely that Vice President Aaron Burr, Jr., right, intended to kill Gen. Alexander Hamilton in their fateful duel on July 11, 1804. Burr had only fought one other duel, with Hamilton’s brother-in-law John Barker Church, and that had ended with honor satisfied and no blood shed. Hamilton had been involved in ten “affairs of honor”, but none of those disputes had escalated to the fatal final step, either.
But when the two pistols were fired and the gunsmoke cleared that morning in Weehawken, NJ, Hamilton crumpled to the ground while Burr remained standing, unharmed. Burr’s first inclination was to go to Hamilton, but his second and good friend, William Van Ness, held him back. The duel’s attending physician, Dr. David Hosack, left, rushed to assist Hamilton, now cradled in the arms of his second, Nathaniel Pendleton. Van Ness hurriedly ushered Burr away to the boat that carried them back across the Hudson River to Manhattan. Burr then retreated to wait at Richmond Hill, his home a short ways north of the city.
Thanks to the notoriety that would soon forever cloud Burr’s name, the descriptions of his actions at Richmond Hill have ranged from chilly dispassion as he dined with a cousin, to reveling in his rival’s suffering, to considering his own suicide. As news of the duel raced through New York that day, the first reports said only that Hamilton had been wounded, and that he was even expected to recover. (See this letter from Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church to her brother.) Hamilton had been brought across the river to the home of his friend William Bayard. Dr. Hosack had soon realized the wound would be fatal, and tried to ease Hamilton’s suffering as best he could while family and friends gathered in shock and sorrow.
Burr didn’t dare leave Richmond Hill, sending word to Van Ness to bring any news he could gather. In these days before phones and the internet, Burr must have spent a long, bleak night reflecting on what he had done and what might happen next. The following day, he wrote the letter, above, to Dr. Hosack, inquiring after Hamilton’s condition.
Hosack not only served as physician to both Burr and the Hamilton family, but was considered a good friend by both men. Yet Burr’s letter is uncharacteristically formal, referring to himself in the third person. His handwriting lacks its customary polish, he omits words, and he writes the wrong day, crossing over to correct it. Here’s the transcription:
Mr. Burr’s respectful compliments – He requests Dr. Hosack to inform him of the pre-sent state of Genl H. and of the hopes which are entertained of his recovery-
Mr. Burr begs to know at what hour of the [day] the Dr. may most probably be found at home that he may repeat his inquiries – Hewould take it very kind if the Dr. would take the trouble of calling on him as he returns
from Mr. Bayards’
Whatever opinion history holds of Aaron Burr, two things stand out from this letter: he was anxious about what had happened, and he was scared. He’d every reason to be both. By early afternoon, Hamilton would be dead, and New York would plunge into mourning and outrage. Burr would flee, eventually joining his daughter Theodosia in South Carolina. He would be charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, and Richmond Hill and its contents would be seized by his creditors. Hamilton might have died, but Burr’s life as he’d known it had been changed forever.
This letter is from the exhibition Hamilton and Burr: Who Wrote Their Stories? , on display at Winterthur Museum now through January 5, 2020. Look for other objects from this exhibition to be featured here on the blog over the next weeks.
Above and Lower Right: Letter from Aaron Burr to Dr. David Hosack, 1804, Courtesy Winterthur Museum, Library, and Gardens. Gift of John Hampton Barnes, Jr.
Upper Right: Portrait of Aaron Burr, by John Vanderlyn, c1803, Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Oliver Burr Jennings .
Left: Dr. David Hosack, by Thomas Sully, 1815, Courtesy Winterthur Museum, Library, and Gardens, Gift of Mr. J. Hampton Barnes, Jr.
My next historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, will be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.