You may not realize this, but Nashville’s stately Hermitage, one of the South’s greatest historical, architectural, and cultural possessions, only narrowly escaped nonexistence—narrowly, as in, by two inches or so!
There is hardly a better dueling story in the history of the South.
They both believed the divorce to her previous husband back in Tennessee was final. So Old Hickory—otherwise known as Andrew Jackson, future War-of-1812 hero and President of the United States—married in good conscience the Rachel he loved in a private ceremony on an estate in way-down-South Mississippi. Unfortunately—news got around slowly back then—the marriage actually proved later to have occurred prematurely. You can see what is coming. Years later Jackson’s darling was publicly disgraced by rival horse-breeder and plantation owner, Charles Dickinson, who loudly proclaimed her (gasp) “a bigamist.” True to the last to the code of his ancestors, Jackson responded in the only way any true Southern gentleman possibly could: he defended her honor with his life by challenging Dickinson to a duel.
Knowing his opponent was the better shot by far, before the match, Jackson craftily repositioned the top button of his coat a couple of inches skyward. As the duel unfolded, Jackson did not even raise his pistol, but allowed Dickinson “first shot”—risking all on the misplaced button, of course. The risk paid off. Jackson “took” the bullet, which lodged in his chest two inches above his heart after breaking a couple of Jacksonian ribs. Without a stagger or a stir Jackson then raised his own pistol and fired into the belly of the man who had slandered his bride. Dickinson died that evening, and Jackson lived—with lifelong troublesome chest wound—to be the famed military hero, the “people’s President,” and the man who built the Hermitage for his much-loved wife.
For the first fifteen years or so at Jackson’s “Rural Retreat” (the name “Hermitage” quickly replaced the less dignified term), the family lived in a two-story log home as the plantation grew prosperous. With over 1,000 acres—200 in cotton—complete with distillery, dairy, carriage house, and cotton gin, Jackson worked to build a happy home, a working farm, and a setting for his other love: racehorses.
Finally, in 1819, Jackson began construction of a typical Southern gentleman’s two-story, Federal-style brick mansion, accompanied by a formal English garden for Rachel. The beautiful home included a summer kitchen in the basement, nine fireplaces, two parlors, five bedrooms, and French-imported wallpaper—chosen by the mistress of the house—for the main hall. While the building mood continued, Jackson even had constructed a string of new brick cabins for his ever-increasing population of slaves (150 at his death in 1845). It was an impressive estate but only a hint of its future greatness.
Rachel enjoyed her new home for seven years, until her untimely death in 1828. A lonely if successful Jackson took office as the seventh President of the United States the following year. His son, Andrew Jackson, Jr., took over affairs at the Hermitage. Midway through his first term Jackson employed Nashville architects to augment the original construction of his mansion by adding one-story wings for a new library and dining area, a dramatic two-story portico with ten Doric columns in the front, and a smaller portico in the back, now giving the house a distinctly classical appearance. As capstone to the project, Jackson commissioned the construction of a tomb for his Rachel. Made from Tennessee limestone and crowned with a copper roof, the “temple and monument” would provide his life’s companion and partner a proper resting place until the day he would lie down once again by her side.
Two short years after construction was completed at the new-and-improved Hermitage, disaster struck again in the form of an out-of-control chimney fire. Now in his second term, the President immediately ordered the mansion’s restoration, and the result was the fully developed Greek-Revival masterpiece visitors from around the world tour today. Six behemoth two-story columns with Corinthian capitals were arranged across the front, while similar columns with Doric capitals were erected in the rear. A magnificent cantilevered and elliptical staircase was created to dominate the center of the house, and the same French wallpaper Rachel had chosen for earlier versions of the Hermitage was obtained for replacement. When his tour of duty as President was up, the weary war veteran and dueling man of honor was able to retire to one of the most fashionable houses in the state of Tennessee. He had in fact lived long enough to build and see his own memorial, as the Hermitage has assuredly come to be known.
A monument indeed. To a man who fought a hundred duels, winning each one of them, even the one he was sure to lose—had he not done a little bit of tailoring, adjusting a particular button by two inches or so.