It’s hard to imagine the Abraham Lincoln we have come to know as a duelist, but he came quite close to fighting in one. James Shields might have cut Honest Abe down to size 23 years before Booth shot him, and I mean cut.
Either Lincoln or his soon to be wife, Mary Todd, or possibly both of them, joined together to write some newspaper articles in the Summer of 1842, mocking the State auditor, Shields, concerning some public financial matter that would just bore you to tears (turns out he was right and they wrong). There is some information, perhaps just rumor, that there was at least some romantic interest earlier on between the very attractive Shields and equally attractive Mary, which might have played some role in the drama, although we will likely never know. Taking the pseudonym Aunt Becca, the letters lampooned Shields and his Democrat friends.
Here’s a sample of the tomfoolery in the letter Lincoln later takes credit for, which, you might expect, would insult the very serious Shields (and please blame Lincoln for the spelling errors):
“I say it’s a lie, and not a well told one at that. It grins out like a copper dollar. Shields is a fool and a liar. With him truth is out of the question, and as for getting a good bright passable lie out of him, you might as well try to strike fire from a cake of tallow. I stick to it, its all an infernal whig lie."
An infernal whig lie? Actually, Lincoln was the Whig and Shields a Democrat, but that was just part of the fun. Lincoln goes on to portray Shields at a Whig fair, where they wouldn’t let the Democrats in “for fear they’d disgust the ladies, or scare the little galls, or dirty the floor. I looked in at the window, and there was this same fellow Shields floatin about on the air, without heft or earthly substance, just like a lock of cat-fur where cats had been fightin.” Lincoln also mocked him for his egotism and handsomeness, putting into his mouth apologies for their only being one of him to marry all the women at the fair: “It is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting”. All right, hardly brilliant comedy, and not Lincoln’s best work, but he was a sentimentalist at heart, not a satirist.
Shields, a famously vain and egotistical man, demanded the name of the letter writer from the publisher of the “Whig” paper, who, perhaps frightened, but also reputedly with Lincoln’s permission, gave him Lincoln’s name but not Mary’s. Soon, Lincoln, while away on circuit as an attorney, received a note from Shields delivered by his second, General Samuel Whitesides, who Lincoln had actually fought under in the Black Hawk War.
Lincoln wrote back to Shields as follows:
“Your note of to-day was handed me by Gen. Whiteside. In that note you say you have been informed, through the medium of the editor of the Journal, that I am the author of certain articles in that paper which you deem personally abusive of you; and without stopping to enquire whether I really am the author, or to point out what is offensive in them, you demand an unqualified retraction of all that is offensive; and then proceed to hint at consequences.
Now, sir, there is in this so much assumption of facts, and so much of menace as to consequences, that I cannot submit to answer that note any farther than I have, and to add, that the consequence to which I suppose you allude, would be matter of as great regret to me as it possibly could to you.”
This non-answer answer reminds me of Hamilton’s toying with Burr in a series of letters before Burr shot him dead. While not denying he was involved, Lincoln played the role of the victim and actually asked what it was that was Shields found offensive, as if he didn’t know. But this was the typical dance between potential duelists, and usually, it worked out.
Lincoln, opposed to dueling (it was also illegal in Illinois), knew how to play the game. He delivered a letter to his friend, and now “second,” Dr. Elias H. Merryman. which was pure gamesmenship. It suggested that should Whitesides “wish to adjust this affair without further difficulty, let him know that if the present papers be withdrawn, & a note from Mr. Shields asking to know if I am the author of the articles of which he complains, and asking that I shall make him gentlemanly satisfaction, if I am the author, and this without menace, or dictation as to what that satisfaction shall be, a pledge is made that the following answer shall be given”.
The “answer” he pledged to give admitted his writing one of the letters but claimed: “I wrote that wholly for political effect. I had no intention of injuring your personal or private character or standing as a man or gentleman; and I did not then think, and do not now think that that article, could produce or has produced that effect against you, and had I anticipated such an effect I would have forborne to write it. And I will add, that your conduct towards me, so far as I knew, had always been gentlemanly; and that I had no personal pique against you, and no cause for any.’
In other words, while unofficially admitting he was the author, Lincoln would only openly admit his authorship if Shields’ threatening letter was withdrawn.
However, Lincoln made it clear that he was prepared to fight. He could do no less without public embarrassment, as the matter had now been published in several newspapers. No dummy he, Lincoln, as the challenged person, had choice of weapons, rules, time and place, and designed them to his favor.
The weapons he chose were not the typical pistols, but “[c]alvalry broad swords of the largest size, precisely equal in all respects – and such as now used by the calvary company at Jacksonville.” Swords? Broad swords of the largest size? Lincoln wasn’t crazy. Although it is doubtful that Lincoln was much practiced in fighting with calvary swords, Shields was a trained swordsman. But he was also a much shorter man, and Lincoln, especially for his day, was huge, with a gigantic reach and reputedly possessing enormous physical strength. It may or may not be true that at some point on the way to the battle, Lincoln showed Shields his reach advantage by cutting off a high branch with the sword.
Moreover, Lincoln made sure the playing field was also to his advantage, as there was no way that Shields could get anywhere close to him. There was to be placed “[a] plank ten feet long, & from nine to twelve inches broad to be firmly fixed on edge on the ground, as the line between us, which neither is to pass his foot over upon forfeit of his life. In other words, if Shields crossed the line, he would, apparently, have to forfeit his life (how, you wonder, would they have managed that)). This would allow Lincoln to stand far back so that Shields could not reach him. If Shields approached the line, Lincoln, with his huge reach, could touch him easily if he wished. It’s hard to believe the Lincoln we know would do so, but it’s impossible to say for sure.
If not resolved, the fight was to occur within a few miles of Alton (where Lincoln was practicing law at the moment) on the opposite side of the river, i.e., Missouri, where dueling was still legal. The spot finally chosen had the ominous name, Bloody Island, although this was due to a massacre of Indians on the spot (a monument stands there today) and not dueling.
But, it wasn’t resolved, at least not yet. They met on the island, where through some combination of the intervention of friends, Lincoln’s willingness to apologize, and Shields’ recognition that he could get killed, finally allowed for the duel to be called off amicably.
The whole scandal was not over. Lincoln wrote to his good friend and former bedmate (I mean that in the 18th century non-sexual sense), James Speed, and informed him of two others that Shields challenged to duels, including Merryman (for whom Lincoln was the second). It all came to nothing in the end, with perhaps some embarrassment to Shields.
As with all historical matters, there are always holes in the story, and it is very difficult to tell history from rumor or legend. For one thing, it is hard to believe that Shields would have been frightened regardless of Lincoln’s supposed advantages.
Shields, you see, was no ordinary political pompous ass, but a truly remarkable man. Born in Ireland, he came to America as a young man. He became a hero in the Black Hawk War (in which Lincoln fought but could not claim any heroic acts). In the Mexican War he was a highly successful general, where he commanded, among others, Robert E. Lee, and was also appointed a regional governor. He famously led a raid there to rescue two women, for which feat he was celebrated in song (whereas Lincoln, in Congress, was ridiculed for his opposition to the war).
Shields later fought in the Civil War, and, before being forced off by anti-Democrats in the administration, was the only officer who beat Stonewall Jackson in the field, and that while being wounded. He was also severely wounded in Mexico and nearly died before returning to the field, and was wounded again while facing Jackson. He was a successful lawyer, judge, and U.S. Senator from three States (Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri). I’m pretty sure no one else has ever done that before or after him. Shieldsville, Minnesota, a town he founded, is still named for him.
Shields was also, not surprisingly, very well connected, being a close friend of, among others, Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s other nemesis, but also, from his Mexican War days, President Zach Taylor and General Winfield Scott, not to mention, Lincoln’s political hero, Henry Clay.
Lincoln and Shields actually knew each other well before their falling out, both serving in the Illinois Senate, and even working together on a number of occasions despite being from different sides of the aisle. It is not surprising, knowing Lincoln, that the two became friendly after their abated duel. I was surprised that although Lincoln’s ability to make fast friends among former enemies is celebrated by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her recent critically acclaimed Team of Rivals, she mentioned Shields only in passing, and does not cover the duel or his relationship with Lincoln at all. Although they remained political opponents, when war came again, Lincoln made him a brigadier general, and would have made him a major general if he was not forced out by political opponents in the administration like Stanton and Trumbull (who replaced Shields as an Illinois Senator).
No doubt Shields was a courageous fellow. He reputedly rode by himself into a Sioux Indian camp, successfully demanded his stolen cattle back and threatened to kill their chief if they didn’t come up with them. Even if that story is apocryphal (and it sounds it), his bravery and feats during three wars are enough to make you wonder. At the end of the day, he might have killed Lincoln if they had actually crossed swords (he could have thrown the damn thing, for all we know). And then we would never have heard of either of them.
For his part, it seems like Lincoln wanted his nearly consummated duel to be forgotten. According to Mary, when an officer later asked President Lincoln if he had nearly fought a duel to protect Mary's honor, Lincoln replied that he had, but that if the officer wanted to be his friend, he would never mention it again.
I suppose he wouldn’t be too happy to know that Bloody Island is now known as the Lincoln Shields Recreation Area. Even Abraham Lincoln can’t have everything he wants.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .