The Vance-Carson Duel Part 1

An etching of a duel circa 1857

The most famous duel ever fought in Western North Carolina was the Vance–Carson Duel. The duel was fought between Fairview’s former congressman, Robert Brank Vance, and the man who defeated him, Samuel Price Carson. It was held a few feet across the South Carolina line because North Carolina had outlawed duels in 1802. It was illegal to fight, aid or abet a duel within the boundary of North Carolina. However it was legal for a state resident to fight a duel in another state. Although you could not send a letter challenging a fellow North Carolina resident to a duel from inside the state, it was legal for the challenger to go across the state line and send a challenge from that state. In reality it was legal to have a duel, you just had to go through a lot of government red tape to do it.
Robert Brank Vance was born in Reems Creek in Buncombe County in 1794. He was the son of David Vance 1750–1811 and Priscilla Brank 1756–1836.
David Vance was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. He fought at the battles of Ramseur’s Mill, Cowpens, and King’s Mountain. David Vance was the grand- father of Governor and Senator Zebulon Baird Vance; Robert B. Vance would have been Zeb Vance’s uncle. Robert Vance suffered a serious illness as a child. It caused his left leg to be 6 inches shorter than his right leg. It is not known for sure what the illness was but some believe it was polio.
Vance attended Newton Academylocated on what is now Biltmore Avenue across the street from Mission Hospital. He went on to medical school and became a doctor. Robert Vance only practiced medicine for 3 years. Vance’s father left him a large portion of his estate when he died in 1811. Around 1821, Robert Vance won $5000 in a lottery. This was a fortune in the early 1820s and Vance bought a large library and retired.
Felix Walker was the Congressman from this district in the early 1820s. His popularity was in a decline. Many people encouraged Robert Vance to run against Walker. One of those encouraging Vance to run was his close friend and member of the State Legislature from Burke (now McDowell) County, Samuel P. Carson. Robert B. Vance ran for Congress against Felix Walker in 1823. He defeated the incumbent Congressman by ONE vote. That was one time when the old saying “every vote counts” really was true.
Robert B. Vance was only 5 foot, 5 inches tall. With his left leg 6 inches shorter than his right leg, he walked with a terrible limp. Congressman John Randolph from Roanoke, VA, noticed Vance’s small size and deformity the first time he saw him in congress. Randolph said, “Surely that little man has come to apply for a pension.” By the end of his first term in Congress Vance had won the respect of most of the members of the house. During Vance’s term the house voted an appropriation of $250,000 and many townships of land for General Lafayette of France who aided America in the Revolutionary War.
Samuel Price Carson was born January 22, 1798 at Pleasant Gardens, between Old Fort and Marion, in Burke (now McDowell) County, North Carolina. He was the son of Col. John Hazzard Carson and his second wife Mary Moffitt. She was the widow of General Joseph McDowell, 1758–1795. Samuel Carson was described as being handsome, magnetic and eloquent. He attended the “Old Field” schools around Pleasant Gardens. When Carson was 19, he was sent to live with his half-brother Joseph M. Carson in Rutherford County. Joseph Carson taught his half-brother grammar and reading “with an eye to political advancement.” Samuel P. Carson was elected to the State Senate in 1822 from Burke County. He supported his good friend Robert Vance for Congress in 1823. Carson was again elected to the NC State Senate from Burke County in 1824.

Marker commemorating the duel

­Samuel P. Carson decided to run for Congress in 1825 against his friend Robert B. Vance. The friends became enemies. Samuel Carson defeated Vance in the election. In 1827, Robert B. Vance invited some of his friends to meet in Asheville. Vance told them that he was going to run against Samuel Carson in the 1827 election for congress. He said he would insist on Carson’s defeat because he had supported a $25,000 appropriation for the citizens of Alexandria, VA, which had recently been destroyed by fire.
When Vance and Carson held their first campaign event together in Asheville, Carson spoke first. He reviewed his actions in congress during his first term in office. He did not mention voting for the $25,000 appropriation for the people of the city of Alexandria. When Robert Vance spoke he called attention to the fact that Carson had failed to mention the vote. Carson replied that the city had been destroyed by fire and that many of its citizens had been left destitute and homeless. He stated that he believed that had Vance had been in his place he would have voted to help the city because “I think he has a heart”. Vance asked if those who applauded Carson’s statement “could admire, as some seem to do, the heart promptings that send a man’s benevolent hand into some other man’s pocket than his own, all I have to say is I can’t.” Carson responded that “until Vance should withdraw the charge that he had put his hand into another’s pocket to save his own,” they could no longer be friends. He then pointed out that Vance had voted for a ten times larger appropriation of $250,000 when he was in congress for the General Marquis de Lafayette 1757–1834 of France. Vance called Carson a demagogue for mentioning his Lafayette vote.
<p>Samuel Carson told Vance that if it wasn’t for “diminutive size” he would make him pay for his “vile utterances”. Vance then told Carson; “You are a coward and fear to do it.” That remark closed the debate.
Robert Vance believed that because Carson had refused to challenge him after he had called him a coward, proved that he was coward and would refuse to fight. Vance then held a second meeting of his friends in Asheville. Vance and his friends decided that they would attack the character of Samuel Carson’s father Col. John H. Carson. They decided to float the story that after the defeat of the American Army at the Battle of Camden, that Col. Carson and many other patriot citizens of North Carolina had approached British General Cornwallis to protect their property. The next debate between Vance and Carson was held at Morganton. Robert Vance made this statement; “The Bible tells us that ‘because the fathers have eaten sour grapes, their son’s teeth have been set on edge’ — my father never ate sour grapes and my competitor’s father did. In the time of the Revolutionary War my father, Col. Vance, stood up to fight, while my competitors father, Col. Carson, skulked and took British protection.” All of the sons of Col. Carson were present at the debate when this charge was made. Members of the crowd were able to stop Carson’s sons from attacking Robert Vance.

Part two in next month’s Town Crier