Aaron Burr, Arrested in South Alabama for Treason

The third vice president of the United States met his match in Alabama near the Tombigbee River.

An artist’s rendition of Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton in their duel.

The destiny of Aaron Burr seemed bleak. He and his traveling companion Robert Ashley steered their horses through the dense backwoods of the Tombigbee territory on the frigid night of February 18, 1807. Since his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton in 1804, Burr’s fortunes in American politics fell. Born of political and personal vitriol, Burr and Hamilton’s years-long feud was laid to rest, and with it, Hamilton himself. Hamilton’s death caused severe damage to Burr’s reputation. At that time, Burr was vice president of the United States and a former senator from the state of New York; his political career spiraled downwards after his term as vice president ended in 1805. 

In hopes of restoring his power and fortune, Burr planned a conspiracy. He plotted to raise an army with several other men for an invasion of the Spanish territories lying west of the Mississippi River, along with the land in Spanish Florida. If successful, all or part of that territory could become a new republic that would rival — and compete with — the emerging United States. Such action would, of course, threaten the security of the new nation and be considered treason. Warned of the rumors of Burr’s plan, President Thomas Jefferson issued a warrant and orders for his apprehension. Consequently, Burr’s coconspirators turned against him, leaving him alone, a betrayed traitor.

Thus, on this night, Aaron Burr was not only wanted for the murder of Hamilton in his home state of New York but was now facing charges of conspiracy of treason against the United States. With few friends left in Washington, abandoned by his former comrades and haunted by mounting debts, he was a homeless fugitive. Realizing the hopelessness of his situation, Burr and his companion tried to make their way to the home of a friend, Colonel John Hinson, situated near the Spanish-American border just north of Mobile in the territory that would soon become Alabama.

Lost and Found Identity

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Around 10 p.m. on February 18, Nicholas Perkins and Thomas Malone were absorbed in a game of backgammon in a small cabin in the community of Wakefield, near the present-day town of McIntosh. The sound of horses out on the forest road soon interrupted them. To Perkins, a federal land agent, it seemed odd for travelers to be moving about at this hour. Malone, a country lawyer, was unconcerned, but Perkins went to the cabin door, watching the strangers as they drew nearer. In the moonlight, Perkins studied the first rider. He was well-dressed in an exquisite set of boots and wearing a white floppy hat. He stopped but never uttered a word. But the second man, Ashley, spoke up and asked Perkins for directions to Colonel Hinson’s home.

Perkins explained that Hinson’s place was another seven or eight miles onwards, the road was bad and a bridge was out. He suggested the travelers stay the night in the nearby tavern, but Ashley declined, insisting they must proceed. Perkins began scrutinizing the features of the first rider. His eyes were perfectly round and dark in color, a nose like a blade, but a bit off-kilter, bending slightly to the right. From under his hat, his hair ran long and thick. “I became confident,” Perkins said to Malone, “that this was Aaron Burr. I have read a description of him. I cannot be mistaken.” Aware that Burr was a wanted man and thought to be hiding out somewhere in the Tombigbee territory, Perkins thought they should wake Sheriff Theodore Brightwell. He could join them in following the two men to the Hinson farm and make an arrest. Malone, however, was reluctant to get involved. Perkins proceeded alone to wake Brightwell who was sleeping in a nearby cabin. Roused from his slumber and hearing the concerns of Perkins, the sheriff agreed to accompany Perkins, and the two rode away in the dark.

A portrait of Aaron Burr, circa 1803. Around this time, Burr’s political influence was fading. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

When the strangers arrived at the Hinson home, they were told by his wife that Colonel Hinson was not there. Though she was suspicious of late-night guests, she still welcomed the travelers. As they warmed themselves by the fire, Mrs. Hinson prepared food. Sometime later, Perkins and the sheriff arrived, stopping their mounts in the woods beyond the house. Although the night was bitterly cold, Perkins thought it best to remain hidden outside. The travelers had already seen him and might become suspicious. Sheriff Brightwell was a relative of Hinson but unknown to the strangers. He would enter alone and determine if one of the travelers was indeed Burr. The sheriff could then summon Perkins, and the arrest would be made. Anyhow, that was the plan. However, after entering the house, Sheriff Brightwell never came out. Perkins, still in the woods, anxious and shivering cold, became impatient. Worried over Brightwell and satisfied the stranger was Burr, Perkins mounted his horse and rode towards Fort Stoddard to seek help from the military.

The Confrontation

At this point, the story turns mysterious. We are not completely sure what transpired inside the Hinson home and why Brightwell didn’t reemerge and summon Perkins. James Albert Pickett, Alabama’s first historian, interviewed several of the people involved, including Hinson’s wife. He surmised that Brightwell, after identifying Burr, had become fascinated with him. He agreed to escort Burr to Pensacola, where he could take a ship for Europe. Given later events, and the fact that Aaron Burr was a very charismatic character known to beguile and cajole men to his side, Pickett was probably correct.

Meanwhile, during the early-morning hours of February 19, Perkins arrived at Fort Stoddard and immediately informed Captain Edward P. Gaines about his suspicions concerning Burr. Gaines, only 29 years old at the time, was the military commander at Fort Stoddard, which marked the dividing line between the Tombigbee region and Spanish West Florida. Gaines realized that, if Burr was indeed within his jurisdiction, capturing him would mean great credit to his military career. Near sunrise, Captain Gaines and Perkins, accompanied by a column of mounted soldiers, rode out from the fort. They intercepted the two strangers, who were traveling with Brightwell on the road to Pensacola. It was about 9 a.m. and only two miles from the Hinson residence.

Portrait of Brevet Major General Edmund P. Gaines, circa 1835. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“I presume, sir, I have the honor of addressing Colonel Burr,” said Gaines, peering at the well-dressed stranger. Burr, understanding he had been identified, questioned the captain’s authority. “By what authority do you arrest a traveler upon a highway, on his own private business?” Burr asked. Gaines was adamant, determined to arrest him. “I am an officer of the army,” he replied. “I hold in my hands the proclamations of the president and governor, directing your arrest.” Burr, hoping to intimidate the young officer, made one last attempt to avoid arrest. “You are a young man and may not be aware of the responsibilities which result from arresting travelers.” But Gaines was not to be dissuaded. “My mind is made up. You must accompany me to Fort Stoddard, where you shall be treated with all the respect due to the ex-vice president of the United States, so long as you make no attempt to escape from me.”

Gaines had his man but was faced with what to do with him. After arriving at Fort Stoddard and placing Burr under guard, Gaines awaited instruction from President Jefferson concerning where he should take his prisoner. As the former vice president, Burr was accorded respect and comfortable accommodations. In turn, he was polite and friendly with the guards. He even played chess with Captain Gaines’ wife. Gaines, however, grew concerned that some of Burr’s allies and sympathetic friends, who were numerous in the Tombigbee region, might attempt to rescue him. Troubled by this, and still awaiting word from his superiors, Gaines decided, on his own, to send Burr on to Washington. He appointed Nicholas Perkins, the federal agent who had instigated the arrest, to lead a party of eight men as Burr’s escort on the long trip to the capital. Each man was armed with a pistol and admonished to refrain from any unnecessary conversation with Burr, who possessed the silk tongue of a politician and could use it to lure them into aiding in his escape.

A Journey and an End

The journey on horseback was perilous. The party passed through woods and swamps teeming with Indians and crossed over narrow, rutted roads, mired by chilling rain that seemed to constantly fall. The pace was grueling, covering 40 miles a day. But the dogged Burr never complained. Only once, in South Carolina, did he attempt to escape. He failed, and without further incident, the party arrived in Virginia, where they received word from the president to take their prisoner to Richmond for trial. On March 26, 1871, after an exhausting three-week journey, a wearied Nicholas Perkins handed Burr over to the U.S. attorney in Richmond. 

After all the troubles of capturing Barr, coupled with an expensive trial that dragged on for five months, Burr was acquitted. This was due in part to a technical error and a strict interpretation of the act of treason by John Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Court. Regardless, Aaron Burr was a free man. But he would never again play a role in American politics. mb

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