The Carson vs. Vance duel is representative of most Southern duels in both its impetus and the means in which it was conducted. Samuel P. Carson and Robert Brank Vance would seem, at first blush, to be men who had much in common. Both were known for their intelligence, their political skill and their charisma. In fact, the pair of them were friends before a political debate and a series of bitter slurs against Carson and his family on the part of Vance would tear the two apart and lead to their meeting on “the field of honor”.
Vance and Carson both came from families with prestigious backgrounds, Carson’s noted for his father’s service under Washington. Vance was a physician who, upon winning a lottery, retired early and entered politics. Both served as members of Congress where their skill came to be well-respected among their peers. Carson, for his part, was popular not only among people of his own class but even among the slaves at his father’s plantation. Vance was noticeably short, having a left leg six inches shorter than his right but his remarkable intelligence came to overshadow his physical form to most who made his acquaintance.
Though the two were friends, during the course of a political debate in 1827, Vance would set into motion a series of events that would lead to their eventual duel. During the debate, after both men insinuated that the other wasn’t so honest or trustworthy as they represented, Vance called Carson, in so many words, a coward. Vance did not believe that Carson would ever resort to a duel as Carson had refused to enter one years before. Things got even worse when Vance began attacking Carson’s father’s military record. Implying that Col.
Carson had sought the protection of the British, Vance essentially accused the Colonel, and, thereby his family, of being cowards and unworthy of their social status. Vance, despite his rather vicious efforts to disparage his opponent, lost the election. Colonel Carson wrote Vance an angry letter in regards to the accusations. Vance replied that he could not have an altercation with so aged a man as Colonel Carson and said that one of the Colonel’s son’s should step up to defend the old man’s honor. Colonel Carson sent a proxy to inquire as to which son Vance meant and Vance replied that Sam knew that Vance was speaking of him.
Sam accepted the challenge. The duel took place on Saluda Gap on the North/South Carolina line. The weapons were pistols at ten yards. Vance missed his mark but Carson did not, sending a ball through Vance’s hip where it lodged. Vance died of his wound about 30 hours later at a hotel. Carson had expressed a desire to speak with Vance following the duel and Vance said that he held no ill-will toward Carson. The two never did speak, however, and the incident is said to have had negative repercussions on Carson for the rest of his life (Arthur, 1914).