Did You Know About Button Gwinett?

Did you know that Button Gwinett, Signer of the Declaration of Independence was the second signer to die and the only one to die by duel? How it came about is an interesting story which involves him becoming governor, ordering a failed military expedition and having his honor slighted.

On March 4, 1777, Governor Bulloch dies and Gwinnett was commissioned President of Georgia. [1]  He was also the Commander-in-Chief of the Georgia Army. As Governor, he receives a letter from John Hancock, which told of George McIntosh’s treasonous behavior, which included supplying the British with rice.  George was the brother of General McIntosh and was also a member of the first Provincial Congress, and the Committee of Safety for Georgia.  President Gwinnett ordered General McIntosh to arrest his brother.  This only adds fuel to their feud.  Gwinnett also directs the Council of Safety to draft a militia and recruit volunteers for a campaign against the British.  He enlisted General McIntosh to lead the expedition, and the idea was to cut off British supplies to the garrison, at St. Augustine’s.  This expedition was bungled by Gwinnett and an inquiry was held which exonerated him.

Unfortunately, this incident cost him the election in May of 1777, and effectively ends his political career.  John A. Treuilen succeeds him as governor, under the new state constitution. That same month, on May 1, General McIntosh calls him, “a scoundrel and lying rascal”[2] in an address to the Georgia General Assembly.  Gwinnett challenges the general to a duel and they meet on May 16, 1777, with their seconds.  They stood about 12 feet apart and Lyman Hall later described the event saying

“they were placed at 10 or 12 foot Distance, Discharged their pistols nearly at the same Time – Each Wounded in the Thigh, Mr. Gwinnett’s thigh broke so that he fell – on which (tis said) the General Asked him if he Chose to Take another Shot – was Answered.  Yes, if they should help him up, – (or words nearly the same)- the Second Interposed – Mr. Gwinnett was bro’t in, the Weather, Extrem Hot – Mortification came on – he languished from that Morning (Friday) till Monday Morning following & Expired.”[3]

General McIntosh was also wounded, but he recovers from his wound and was brought to trial where he would be acquitted.  Upon his acquittal, General Washington orders General McIntosh to Valley Forge, for fear of Gwinnett’s allies taking revenge.

As a result of Gwinnett’s early demise, his autographs are and considered the most expensive of all the signers.

[1] This title is just another variation of for governor or chief executive.

[2] Barthelmas, Della Gray. The Signers of The Declaration of Independence: A Biographical and Genealogical Reference (Jefferson, N.C.; London: McFarland, 2003)

[3] Healey, George H. ALibrary Notes: The Noyes Manuscript of Button Gwinnett.@ Cornell Library Journal, issue 8, 1969, 61