Lincoln—Dueling Terms & What Led to the Lincoln-Shields Duel

General Dueling Rules:

American dueling took root as early as the first colonial settlers in the 16th century and was popular throughout most of the 19th century. During these times, nothing was more valuable to a man than his honor—how he was viewed by the public. In the 19th century, politicians, lawyers, and newspaper editors were the most common participants in duels. As you’ll see in my post about gentlemen’s code of conduct, or etiquette, gentlemen went to great lengths to avoid offending each other.

Just as there were rules for being a gentleman, there were rules for dueling combat. Until 1838, most duels operated under the twenty-six rules of the Irish Code Duello, but in 1838, then-former South Carolina Governor John Lyde Wilson published The Code of Honor, a 22-page booklet that included rules for the principals (duelists), the Seconds (friends/managers), and with guidelines for the “field of honor” and weapons, as well as the proper way to exchange related notes. The booklet was small enough to carry with one’s dueling pistols. The booklet begins with a long note to the public that explains the motives behind its creation. It also includes this justification for dueling: “If an oppressed nation has a right to appeal to arms in defence of its liberty and the happiness of its people, there can be no argument used in support of such appeal, which will not apply with equal force to individuals.” Sounds to me like a well, if the nation can do it, so can we kind of logic. tsk, tsk!

When a gentleman felt offended, he sent a formal note to the offender by way of his friend (or second), asking for a retraction of the menacing action or words. Any response was exchanged the same way—via the offender’s friend (second). When an offended man didn’t receive “satisfaction” by way of retraction, he could seek it by challenging his offender to a duel on the “field of honor.”  If both parties were gentlemen, the challenged was rather stuck with accepting.

To decline a challenge was risky and ill-advised. As The Code of Honor explains, a man who refused a challenge could be “posted.” In other words, a description of his bad behavior would be printed and posted in a public place for all to see, along with notice that he had refused the challenge. Anyone concerned with his reputation would not decline.

Once the duel challenge was accepted, each man (now a principal) announced his official “second.” The seconds’ job was to be an intermediary—to prevent the duel and restore all honor by negotiating a compromise. If the seconds failed to prevent the duel, their job was to manage all details of the fight to ensure fairness.

From Abraham Lincoln’s Political Career through 1860
From Abraham Lincoln’s Political Career (Morrill, A.G., 1917)
From Abe Lincoln’s Yarns (A. McClure, 1901)

The Lincoln-Shields Duel:

Between August 19 and September 9, 1842, a series of letters addressed to the editor of the Sangamo Journal, from a fictitious farmer’s wife named Aunt Rebecca, pointed an accusatory and defaming finger at James Shields and the Democratic party. The letters were followed by a September 16th poem (related to the Rebecca letters), signed by fictitious Cathleen. The poem and probably two of the Rebecca letters were written by Mary Todd, likely with the help of her friend Julia Jayne. Lincoln only admitted to writing the second Rebecca letter, but it was a doozy. You can read a transcript of it, in all its colloquial color in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln here.

James Shields, then the Illinois state auditor, was MAD!  Shields wrote a letter to Lincoln on September 17, 1842. It was delivered by way of Shields’ friend, John D. Whiteside. The letter is written in formal style, with gentlemanly niceties. Until Shields gets to the point. He writes, “I have been the object of slander, vituperation and personal abuse…” He later explains that the editor of the newspaper gave up Lincoln’s name. “I will not take the trouble of enquiring into the reason of all this, but I will take the liberty of requiring full, positive and absolute retraction of all offensive allusions used by you in these communications, in relation to my private character and standing as a man, as an apology for the insults conveyed in them. This may prevent consequences…”  The specific consequences were implied.

As was custom, Lincoln returned a reply that also began with a gentlemanly tone, but he soon landed his own accusatory blow. He writes, “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…” I suspect Lincoln enjoyed wielding this technicality against his political foe. Lincoln later admitted only to writing one of the letters, not all of them. He could have simply apologized for the letter he wrote, but he didn’t. Maybe because he would have had to reveal Mary Todd and Julia Jayne’s involvement. Or maybe he was just being stubborn. Anyhoo, Lincoln’s response let Shields know that he didn’t appreciate the assumption. The back-and-forth notes escalated from there until Shields challenged Lincoln. Lincoln, likely with the counsel of friends, chose broadswords instead of pistols. And he spelled out very unusual terms for the field of honor.

Abraham Lincoln’s second was Dr. Elias H. Merryman, a military man with duel experience. Other Lincoln friends also rushed to Bloody Island, hoping for a peaceful resolution. They included William Butler and Albert T. Bledsoe. James Shields’ second was John D. Whiteside, and his additional friends were Dr. Thomas M. Hope, and Gen. W.D. Ewing.

In my book, Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, only two of Lincoln’s dueling terms appear on the page. Following are all four of the terms (with corrected spelling) that Lincoln dictated to Merryman. Merryman was charged with getting the letter/terms to Whiteside:

1st Weapons — Cavalry broadswords of the largest size precisely equal in all respects — and such as now used by the cavalry company at Jacksonville—

2nd Position — 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— Next a line drawn on the ground on either side of said plank & parallel with it, each at the distance of the whole length of the sword and three feet additional from the plank; and which lines the passing of his own such line by either party during the fight shall be deemed a surrender of the contest— The fight in no case to last more than fifteen minutes—

3- Time — On Thursday evening at five o’clock if you can get it so; but in no case to be at a greater distance of time than Friday evening at five o’clock

4th Place — Within three miles of Alton on the opposite side of the river, the particular spot to be agreed on by you—

Any preliminary details coming within the above rules, you are at liberty to make at your discretion; but you are in no case to swerve from the above rules, or to pass beyond their limits—

You can see the hand-written letter, along with a transcript, at the Library of Congress page here.

Remember to take a look at The Code of Honor. Be sure to skim through the entire booklet because the Irish Code Duello is included at the end. Now that you know about the Lincoln-Shields duel, perhaps you’ll find the “rules” that they abided by.


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