29. Letter by William P. Van Ness
In consequence of my absence from the city, your letter was not received until this morning. I shall answer without hesitation, the inquiries it contains as I conceive it my duty to communicate with freedom the circumstances that attended the interview between Col. Burr and General Hamilton, with my reasons for the opinion I expressed immediately subsequent that Genl. Hamilton fired first, and at Col. Burr.
After the necessary preparations had been made, which you will find detailed in the printed statements, the parties took their stations, and having received their pistols cocked, Mr. Pendleton whose duty it was to give the word, proceeded to explain the following rules which were to govern them in firing:
“The parties being placed at their stations, the second who gives the word shall ask them whether they are ready; being answered in the affirmative, he shall say present, after which the parties shall present, and fire when they please. If one party fires before the other, the opposite second shall say, one, two, three, fire, and he shall fire or lose his fire.”
While his second was explaining these rules, Genl. Hamilton raised an levelled his pistol, as if to try his position, and lowering it said, “I beg pardon for delaying you, but the direction of the light sometimes renders glasses necessary.” He then drew from his pocket a pair of spectacles and having put them on, observed that he was ready to proceed.
Mr. Pendleton then concluded his directions, and asked the parties whether they were prepared. They answered in the affirmative and the word “present” was given, on which both parties presented, and the pistol of each appeared to me to be levelled at the person of his antagonist. That of General Hamilton was first discharged; after the interval of a few seconds, Col. Burr fired, and Genl. Hamilton instantly fell. Col. Burr immediately advanced with a countenance and gesture expressive of much regret; but as I heard Mr. Pendleton calling out for Dr. Hosack, and heard the Doctor with some of the bargemen approaching through the bushes, I stopped Col. Burr and insisted on his repairing immediately to the boat. He accordingly retired, and I shortly afterward followed him. When I arrived at the barge, Col. Burr was in the act of stepping from it and said, in an accent of great concern, “I must go and speak to him.” I observed that it would be obviously imprudent as Genl. H. was then surrounded by the surgeon and bargemen, by whom he (Mr. B.), ought not to be seen; that Genl. H. was also in a state of insensibility; but if Col. B. would remain, I would go and see him again. This I did, and, finding him still in the situation I had described, returned and ordered the bargemen to proceed instantly to the city.
On the point of firing first, although in my opinion of no consequence, I have the misfortune to differ from the friend of Genl. Hamilton; and without doubting the sincerity of his opinion, I can safely declare that I was never more confident of any matter subject to the examination of my senses. If any doubt had ever existed, it would have been removed by the following circumstances:
- When Genl. Hamilton fired, I observed a slight motion in Mr. Burr’s person, from which I supposed that he was struck; but seeing him continue firm on his station, I concluded that the injury could not be serious. Under this idea, so soon as any opportunity presented, I enquired if he were not wounded, explaining the reason of my impression. Col. Burr replied in the negative and ascribed the circumstance to a stone under one of his feet, his ankle being week and painful from a previous sprain.
- It is asserted by those who were within hearing and particularly attested by Dr. Hosack, that several seconds intervened between the two discharges; and it is also agreed that Genl. Hamilton fell instantly on Col. Burr firing, which contradicts the idea that Col. Burr fired first.
- While we were in the barge, I noticed to Col. Burr the delay of his fire, and remarked that Mr. Pendleton had omitted to count. Mr. Burr observed in reply, that the smoke of Genl. Hamilton’s pistol had for a moment obscured his sight, previous to his own firing.
Thus, Sir, have I detailed with minuteness some circumstances relative to the late unfortunate interview between the Vice President and Genl. Hamilton., which have not hitherto been published.
I believe you will agree that the facts now stated justified my conclusion that Genl. Hamilton fired at his antagonist. If his intention were otherwise, it was most scrupulously and I think correctly withheld from me by his second. It was a circumstance of which I had not the least expectation; and, from the whole conduct of Col. Burr in our repeated interviews, as well as the final arrangements made by him respecting his pecuniary affairs and business generally, I am convinced he did not in any degree anticipate it.
It is but justice to add that the Vice President, so far from manifesting any degree of levity on the occasion, which is the subject of this letter, or from expressing any satisfaction at the result, evinced by his whole conversation and conduct sincere regret and concern.
I am, Dr., Sir, very respectfully,
Your obt. & hum. Sert.,
W.P. Van Ness