Born in England in 1735, Button Gwinnett immigrated to Georgia in 1762 just before the Stamp Act Crisis brought political upheaval to the colonies. Within a few years, he was well established and active in political affairs. Unfortunately, financial health did not follow and Gwinnett soon found himself with debts greater than the value of his holdings. He came out of bankruptcy in 1773 still owing a £1,000.
Perhaps jaded by his financial difficulties, Gwinnett organized a party of radical Whigs from rural Georgia whose primary political goal was to extend voting rights to people with less property and challenge the established planters. This “Popular Party” grew to prominence and carried the January election in 1776 when Archibald Bulloch was elected President and Commander in Chief of Georgia. Button Gwinnett was chosen as the commander for the Georgia battalion of Continentals.
Gwinnett’s appointment caused a great deal of unrest among the officers in the battalion and they started to resign in protest that Colonel Samuel Elbert had been passed over for the position in favor of a man without any military experience. The argument grew heated and a compromise developed whereby Lachlan McIntosh became commander of the battalion and Button Gwinnett would represent Georgia in the upcoming 2nd Continental Congress.
As one of the five Georgia delegates, Gwinnett turned his attention to Philadelphia and the business of Congress. He served on 2 or 3 committees and strongly favored independence for the colonies. In fact, his friend and fellow delegate, Dr. Lyman Hall considered Gwinnett a “Whig to excess.”
At the end of his term, Gwinnett returned to Georgia to a hero’s welcome. The recent victory at Charleston had reduced the number of Tories in Georgia as to be “hardly worth our notice unless it is with pity and contempt.” Gwinnett was elected Speaker of the Assembly and his influence at the state level seemed stronger than ever, but one item remained. The Continental battalion from Georgia was expanding to a full brigade and a general’s commission seemed within reach.
Unfortunately for Speaker Gwinnett, the decision on who to give the promotion to resided in the Continental Congress where Henry Laurens favored promoting McIntosh to the post. In October 1776, much to Gwinnett’s chagrin, he learned that McIntosh had been promoted to Brigadier General of the Continental Brigade from Georgia.
The McIntosh Brothers
At that point, Gwinnett turned vindictive. He began an investigation into the state of frontier defense by instituting proceedings against Brigadier General McIntosh’s brother, Lt. Colonel William McIntosh. Gwinnett charged negligence for failing to defend some plantations above the St. Johns during an aborted invasion of East Florida. William was exonerated but soon lost interest in continuing the fight. He “is quite worn out with yr. hardships & fatigue of the service” and obtained a leave of absence to regain his health.”
With William McIntosh out of the way, Gwinnett turned his attention to Lachlan’s other brother, George McIntosh. George remained one of the few powerful members of the government not in favor with Gwinnett or the inner circle of men who ran the Popular Party. While Gwinnett and his friends referred to themselves as ‘The Liberty Society’, the old conservatives of Savannah saw Gwinnett’s group as a ‘Nocturnal Junto’ whose “tyrannical proceedings” existed to “keep themselves a while in power to be a scourge and a curse to the honest part of the community.” Still holding a seat on the Executive Council of Safety of Georgia, George McIntosh was not only brother to Lachlan McIntosh but also represented an ongoing thorn in the side of Button Gwinnett.
On the 8th of March, Gwinnett brought out a very timely and fortuitous letter from John Hancock of the Continental Congress. The letter accused George McIntosh of being a Tory and of breaking the law prohibiting trade with East Florida. It contained “the most convincing proof of the treasonable conduct of Mr. George M’Intosh of your State. This Gentleman it seems, is a Member of the Congress in Georgia, and under that character is secretly supporting, by every act in his power, the designs of the British King and Parliament against us.” Along with that strong indictment, Hancock instructed that “the said George M’Intosh to be immediately apprehended” along with “every other step in this matter which shall appear to you to be necessary for the safety of the United States of America.”
According to the later account of George McIntosh to Congress, President Bulloch had actually received the letter from John Hancock before he died but had chosen to ignore it due to his personal knowledge of George’s integrity and zeal to the cause. In a later letter to Hancock, Gwinnett says he “reconsidered Your Letter” and then took action – quite possibly an admission that the letter actually had arrived previously but was not considered particularly important until after Gwinnett had a political clash with George on March 4th.
Regardless of whether the letter’s arrival was timely on the 8th or simply a prior letter now reactivated, President Gwinnett seized the moment to go after George McIntosh. Nervous that some of the Council members favored McIntosh and might refuse the order to arrest him, Gwinnett bypassed the council and “caused said George McIntosh to be taken Prisoner, & put in the common jail – & ordered him to have Iron handcufs on, for being a Traitor to the United States of America & this State in Particular – & directly sent one Colonel Sandiford, to Seize the Estate Real & Personal of said George McIntosh, the State Prisoner.”
With both William McIntosh and George McIntosh out of the way, Button Gwinnett focused his efforts directly on the removal of Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh.
The Expedition of April 1777
While busy removing George McIntosh, President Gwinnett also tried to organize an expedition against the British in East Florida. Because of his bad relationship, Gwinnett appealed to Southern District commander Major General Robert Howe for “the immediate removal of General M’Intosh out of this State.” Gwinnett explained Lachlan’s close relationship to the treasonous George M’Intosh and of “the danger that might accrue to this State from the warmth of private resentment.” General Howe barely “even noticed” the request. Instead, he explained his belief that the expedition required more manpower and should be made in the winter. Howe refused to participate and returned to South Carolina.
Gwinnett would not let his invasion fail so easily. When he failed to recruit any significant militia force, he resorted to an attempt to assume command of Lachlan’s Continental battalion. Gwinnett arrived in the evening of April 14th and called for a Council of War. Instead of attending, General McIntosh held his own officer’s meeting to discuss whether or not they considered it improper for the President to call a Council of War. The officers supported McIntosh in refusing Gwinnett’s interference “with the particular province of the Officers of the Military.”
The pointless standoff between Gwinnett and McIntosh repeated itself several times over the next few days with the stalemate over control of the Florida Expedition turning into a standoff between the Continental Army officers and the Council of Safety in Georgia. By the 19th, four council members had arrived and passed resolutions requesting McIntosh step aside and hand control of the Georgia battalions over to Colonel Elbert. The dispute then moved back to Savannah where General McIntosh repeatedly tried to arrange a formal hearing on the question of whether President Gwinnett was overstepping his authority. Unfortunately for McIntosh, he was on Gwinnett’s turf and the Council deferred any hearing until after the elections in May. In the meantime, the Assembly bypassed the general and sent instructions directly to Colonel Elbert to command the expedition to East Florida.
Instead of rejoining his expedition in the field, President Gwinnett remained in Savannah to participate in the upcoming elections. When the Assembly met on May 8th, he began campaigning for the office of Governor of Georgia under the new constitution adopted in January. Unfortunately for Gwinnett, the people were tired of his feud and elected an opponent from within his own party by a large majority.
With the election over, the Assembly finally convened McIntosh’s requested hearing into the conduct of President Gwinnett regarding relations with the military. The general tried to convince the Assembly that the expedition had been “formed to gratify the dangerous Ambition” of the President and predicted a bad end. He complained of Gwinnett’s failure to properly consult with him or the military in any planning of the expedition; also that any accusations of noncooperation were simply lies and falsehoods. In fact, Lachlan got so frustrated and angry at the meeting as to call President Gwinnett “a Scoundrell and lying Rascal”. Unimpressed with the general’s arguments and deeply concerned with civilian control over the military, the Assembly dismissed any notion of wrongdoing by Gwinnett and exonerated him.
Even though supported by the Assembly’s decision, Gwinnett remained stung by not winning the Governorship and embarrassed by M’Intosh’s public gloating over his defeat. George Wells gave us an excellent account of what happened next:
“That late on the Evening of Thursday, the 15th of May instant , a written challenge was brought to Genl. McIntosh signed Button Gwinnett, wherein the said Mr. Gwinnett charg’d the General with calling him a Scoundrel in public Conversation, and desir’d he would give satisfaction for it as a Gentleman before Sunrise next morning in Sir James Wright’s pasture, behind Colo. Martin’s house; to which the General humorously sent in answer to Mr. Gwinnett, that the hour was rather earlier than his usual, but would assuredly meet him at the place and time appointed with a pair of pistols only, as agreed upon with Mr. Gwinnett’s second, who brought the challenge.”
“Early the next morning Mr. Gwinnett and his second found the General and his Second waiting on the Ground and after politely saluting each other the General drew his pistols to show he was loaded only with single Balls, but avoided entering into any other conversation but the business on hand. It was then propos’d and agreed to, that they shou’d go a little lower down the hill, as a number of spectators appear’d and when the Ground was chose the seconds ask’d the distance. Mr. Gwinnett reply’d ‘whatever distance the General pleases.’ the General said he believ’d Eight or ten feet would be sufficient, and they were immediately measur’d to which the General’s second desir’d another step might be added. It was then proposed to turn back to back. The General answer’d ‘By no means let us see what we are about’ – & immediately each took his stand, and agreed to fire as they cou’d. Both pistols went off nearly at the same time, when Mr. Gwinnett fell being shot above the knee, and said his thigh was broke. The General, who was also shot thro’ the thick of the Thigh, stood still in his place & not thinking his antagonist was worse wounded than himself – as he immediately afterward declar’d – ask’d if he had enough or was for another shot, to which all objected, and the seconds declar’d they both behav’d like Gentlemen and men of honor, led the General up to Mr. Gwinnett and they both shook hands.”
Another very interesting account worthy of inclusion comes from Gwinnett’s close friend, Lyman Hall, who was himself also a signer of the Declaration of Independence:
“Here it was in Assembly that the General called him (as tis said) a Scoundrell & lying Rascal – I confess I did not hear the Words, not being so nigh the parties however it seems Agreed that it was so – a dual was the Consequence, in which they were placed at 10 or 12 foot Distance, Discharged their pistols nearly at the same Time – Each Wounded in the Thigh, Mr. Gwinnetts, thigh broked so that he fell – on which (tis said) the General Asked him if he Chose to Take another Shot – was Answered, Yes, if they would help him up, – (or words nearly the same) – the Seconds Interposed – Mr. Gwinnett was brought in, the Weather, Extrem Hot – a Mortification came on – he languished from that Morning (Friday) till Monday Morning following & Expired, – O Liberty! why do you suffer so many of your faithfull sons, your Warmest Votaries to fall at your Shrine! Alas my Friend! my Friend! . . .”
And with that, the new nation lost one of its original signers of the Declaration of Independence.[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Depiction of Button Gwinnett’s duel with Gen. Lachlan Mcintosh in 1777. Source: William Brotherhead, The Book of the Signers, 1861. Library of Congress.]
 D. J. Drewien, Button Gwinnett (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: RoseDog Books, 2007), general information taken from chapter one.  Drewien, Button Gwinnett, 27-43.  Drewien, Button Gwinnett, 46-50.  Remarks on a pamphlet, entitled, “Strictures on a pamphlet, entitled the Case of George M’Intosh, Esq. Published by order of the Liberty Society”, Published in 1777, 15.  Drewien, Button Gwinnett, part V.  McIntosh to Walton, 11 July 1776, in Lilla Hawes, The Papers of Lachlan McIntosh, (Athens, GA: Georgia Historical Society, 1979), 8.  Harvey H. Jackson, Lachlan McIntosh and the Politics of Revolutionary Georgia, (Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press, 1979), 52.  M’Intosh to Walton, 15 December 1776, in Hawes, The Papers of Lachlan McIntosh, 23.  M’Intosh to Elbert, 7 January 1777 and 8 January 1777, in Hawes, The Papers of Lachlan McIntosh, 34.  Remarks on a pamphlet, 4.  The accusation was that George McIntosh, along with some other local Tories, one of whom was his brother in law, had engaged in selling rice to East Florida.  Hancock to President and Council of the State of Georgia, 1 January 1777, in Charles Francis Jenkins, Button Gwinnett, (New York: Double Day, Page & Company, 1926), 131.  George M’Intosh, The Humble Memorial and Petition of George McIntosh Esquire of Georgia, 8 October 1777, Journals of the Continental Congress.  Gwinnett to Hancock, 28 March 1777, in Jenkins, Button Gwinnett, 215.  Ann Gwinnett to President & Other Members of the Grand Continental Congress, 1 August 1777, in Jenkins, Button Gwinnett, 237.  Gwinnett to Hancock, 28 March 1777, in Jenkins, Button Gwinnett, 215.  Ann Gwinnett to President & Other Members of the Grand Continental Congress, 1 August 1777, in Jenkins, Button Gwinnett, 237.  Papers respecting the Augustine Expedition in April 1777, in Hawes, The Papers of Lachlan McIntosh, 61.  Papers respecting the Augustine Expedition in April 1777, in Hawes, The Papers of Lachlan McIntosh, 61.  Papers respecting the Augustine Expedition in April 1777, in Hawes, The Papers of Lachlan McIntosh, 62.  Lyman Hall to Roger Sherman, 1 June 1777, in Jenkins, Button Gwinnett, 229.  Allen D. Candler, The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia V1, (Atlanta: The Franklin-Turner Company, 1908), 306.  Papers respecting the Augustine Expedition in April 1777, in Hawes, The Papers of Lachlan McIntosh, 62.  Lyman Hall to Roger Sherman, 1 June 1777, in Jenkins, Button Gwinnett, 229.  George Wells Affidavit, June 1777, Edward G. Williams, An Orderly Book of McIntosh’s Expedition of 1778, (Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, March 1960), 3-4.  Lyman Hall to Roger Sherman, 1 June 1777, in Jenkins, Button Gwinnett, 229.