But the Golden Age of the Code Duello in Georgia was the period extending from 1800 to 1830, when the public life of this State was dominated by two powerful personalities: Gen. John Clark and Hon. William H. Crawford. – Lucian Lamar Knight in volume two of Georgia's Landmarks, Memorials and Legends (pub. 1914).
The duel between William H. Crawford and Peter L. Van Allen requires a bit of backstory regarding politics in Georgia. (Go here for a short overview of dueling, with specifics to Georgia.)
John Clark, son of famed Revolutionary soldier Elijah Clark/e, was all about the common man. He was born in North Carolina, but was settled early on with his family in northeast Georgia. John Clark's rise in politics stemmed from his early and consistent rise in the military. By the age of sixteen, he was a captain in the Georgia militia and fought in many engagements alongside his father on the Georgia frontier.
Trained in the exercise of arms, it is not strange that he should have carried his characteristics as a fighter into the arena of politics; nor is it strange that the veterans who followed his distinguished father and who knew John Clark himself in the perilous days of battle should have remained his loyal supporters to the very last.
Though not an educated man, at least in the academic sense, he was a man of strong intellect, rugged in character, somewhat blunt of expression, full of bold initiative, and with a rare capacity for leadership.
Most of John Clark's followers were immigrants from North Carolina and settlers of frontier Georgia.
William Harris Crawford, on the other hand, led the more "aristocratic" faction. He was born 1772 in Virginia, was settled at Richmond (later Columbia) County, Georgia by age eleven, and was practicing law by age twenty-seven. David Tucker, in his article for the New Georgia Encyclopedia, says the following:
William Crawford aspired to live the life of a country gentleman, but he would not get the chance to do so until the end of his career. In the meantime he gradually added to his landholdings at Woodlawn [his estate] and became the overseer of a good-sized plantation. By 1834 he owned 1,300 acres and forty-five slaves.
Leading the plantation owners and residents of the more affluent, established Georgia, Crawford was against "gross land speculation" and the Yazoo Land Act. This was in direct opposition of John Clark.
The elimination of Crawford became naturally the first strategic move of the Clark faction; and to accomplish this end a duel offered the most convenient instrument and promised the most effective results.
Mr. Crawford, unlike Gen. Clark, possessed little knowledge of the use of arms…For this reason, his opponents argued that he would, in all likelihood, decline a challenge to the field of combat. In fact, such a refusal to fight was exactly what his enemies wanted, since they could then post him as a coward and easily accomplish his political undoing. [L. L. Knight]
Enter Peter Van Allen. Though a New Yorker by birth, Van Allen came to Georgia to practice law. He was a staunch "Clarkite" and supporter of the Yazoo Act. In the very early 1800s, Van Allen began "hostile tactics" to discredit Crawford. He did this by going after a long-time friend, law partner, and ally of Crawford, Judge Charles Tait. The short of the story is Van Allen baited Tait hard with criticism and "merciless satire" – needling him to the point to which Tait challenged Van Allen to a fight. Van Allen then attempted a shot in the dark to get to Crawford. He claimed Tait was not a gentleman, nor worthy of the Code of Honor by which all duels are "ruled," and refused to meet him. With this, Van Allen expected Crawford (who would surely have been Tait's "second" for the duel) to "carry on hostilities." Crawford did not take the bait, though he did receive some jeers from members of his own faction.
Some time later, Crawford and Van Allen happened upon each other "at the Willis Hotel, in Washington, Ga." Van Allen took the direct approach and publicly berated Crawford in the lobby and challenged him to a fight.
According to the imperious standard of the times, there was no alternative for Mr. Crawford; and, rather than jeopardize his political fortunes by exposing himself to the charge of cowardice, he agreed to meet his antagonist. [L. L. Knight]
Crawford and Van Allen were to meet at "Fort Charlotte, the famous old duelling [sic] ground, twelve miles below Petersburg, on the Carolina side." (Now under the waters of Clarks Hill Lake.) It has been said that Crawford was ill prepared, and had to borrow an old set of pistols for the fight. The rest is told in a Spooner's Vermont Journal article dated 5 October 1802 (viewed online at GenealogyBank):
On Saturday the 31ft July, about 11-o'clock, a duel was fought on the eaft bank of Savannah river, between Peter L. Van Allen, Efq. Solicitor general, and W. H. Crawford, Attorney at law. – They exchanged two fires; the firft was without effect, but the fecond was fatal to the Solicitor. He received a ball about two inches above his right hip, it paffed thro' the Abdomen and lodged againft his left hip bone, from whence it was extracted on the ground. He lived about 38 hours.
Crawford was thrust into the limelight and rose even higher in the political ranks, probably much to the disappointment of John Clark. The two were to be bitter rivals for more than two decades.