Lincoln—My working Timeline for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words
For all books I work on, I compile a timeline during my research—one that ultimately shows the breadth of that research, though that’s not the reason for its creation. The timeline keeps me grounded in time and context and offers the quick reference I need while experimenting with different story approaches.
As you peruse my timeline for ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS, you might be surprised by some of what is noted. Believe me, I needed every little detail to understand the story–even those factoids that are not reflected in the book itself. We are who we are because of the people who came before us. The same is true of governments, societies, traditions, etc. Writing about a historical subject requires the reverse-engineering of cause-and-effect events.
For expanded information about the Lincoln-Shields duel, see my categorized blog post links from the book page here.
Please note that this timeline was created for my personal and professional use, and I have not prettied it up to impress. I offer it merely as a peek into my process.
1700’s – Democratic party is oldest in country. Originally sparked by Jefferson followers.
1809, February 12—Abraham Lincoln is born in Hodgenville, Kentucky
1809-1819—Kaskaskia becomes Illinois’ first capital
1810, May 5—James Shields is born in Dungannon County Tyrone County, Ireland
1818, Dec. 3—Illinois is admitted as 21st state to the union.
1818—Illinois State bank temporarily closes during a financial scare.
1819-1839—Illinois state capital moves to Vendalia for these years.
1822 James Shields (age 16?) sails to America
1829—Andrew Jackson takes office as 7th U.S. president
The Democratic-Republican party of Jackson dropped “Republican” from their name. Became the Democrats
1830—The political party headed by Jackson calls themselves the Democratic Party.
1831—The sandbar in the Mississippi between Illinois & MO is named Bloody Island because of the number of deadly duels that take place there.
1832—Jackson opponents, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, call themselves National Republicans.
1832 – James Shields is admitted to the bar. Begins law practice.
1832 — National Republican political party changes their name, adopting the British Liberal party name—the Whigs. They favored reform.
1834—Group opposed to Jackson’s politics form new political party, the Whigs. (They remain Democrats’ primary opposition for 20 years)
1834—Lincoln is elected to Illinois State legislature
1835—Shields is elected representative in State Legislature.
(In 1836-37, he was representative from Randolph County, Kaskaskia)
1836—Andrew Jackson issues the Circular Executive Order, requiring purchasers to pay for government lands with specie (silver or gold) after August 15, 1836. The order is meant to curb land speculation by investors and to limit the amount of paper money in circulation. Non-investor settlers are allowed to use cash until Dec. 15, 1836 on lots up to 320 acres. The circular is partly responsible for the panic of 1837. It is repealed in May 1838.
1837—Financial Panic of 1837. Jackson’s previoius policy of moving national monies into select state banks ultimately results in corruption, failed banks, and loss of citizen monies and lands. The Illinois government teeters on the brink of collapse. TheWhigs and Democrats fight over what to do. Lincoln & Shields work together to negotiate a compromise that saves the banks.
1837—Army engineer Robert E. Lee is sent to Bloody Island to solve the problem of the narrowing shipping channel.
1837—Martin Van Buren—elected President as a Democrat
1838 —Also note: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln mentions earliest ‘Lost Townships” letters in the Journal on Feb. 10, May 5, May 26, and Sept. 15, 1838. The first of these ‘Lost Townships’ letters has parallel style to the first and third Rebecca letters, published four years later. This appears to be further evidence that the journal editor, Simeon Francis, was involved in the Rebecca letters.
1839—Illinois state capital moves to Springfield.
1839—Sheilds is elected State Auditor.
1841—Shields becomes Illinois State Auditor of Public Accounts.
1841—Lincoln and Shields work together on the Shields-Lincoln proposal which makes its way through the legislature and into law. Permits the bank to continue to suspend specie payment without being forced to shutter its doors. (Callan, Sean)
1842, February—State Bank of Illinois fails (per Roy P. Basler—“Authorship of Rebecca…”)
1842, early summer— (per William Butler quote in MARY TODD ONCE AGAIN, pg. 200), at a party at the Edwards’ home, Shields “squeezes Miss [Julia Jayne’s] hand”, presumably meaning that he is too forward with his intentions. Julia takes her revenge by co-writing the last Rebecca letter with Mary Todd’s.
1842, summer—Both Illinois State Bank and Shawneetown Bank finally collapse with a circulation of $4,500,000.
1842—State bank of Illinois defaults. Camaraderie between Lincoln & Shields ends. Shields aligns with the state governor and treasurer to adopt a policy to refuse the devalued state bank notes.
August 1842—Lincoln & Mary Todd might have re-ignited their courtship in secret. They were regularly welcomed together in the home of Simeon Francis, the Sangamo Journal editor.
August 15, 1842—(published Aug. 22) Governor Thomas Carlin, Auditor James Shields and Treasurer Milton Carpenter sign a proclamation. The state office will no longer accept payment of taxes in any notes issued by Illinois’ state bank for college, school, or seminary debts. (Burlingame)
August 10, 1842—First Rebecca letter (not counting others published in the 1830s) published August 19th (see Basler, Roy P. “The Authorship of the ‘Rebecca’ Letters.” Abraham Lincoln Quarterly. Vol. 2, No. 2. June, 1942.)
The letter mostly complains about the sad predicament in which Illinois citizens find themselves following the failure of the State Bank in February, 1842. It condemns the Democrats for the proclamation. Shields is not mentioned in this letter. Basler is convinced the editor wrote this letter (similar style and tone as 1838 letters).
August 20, 1842 (dated), Shields publishes a second proclamation or clarification of procl., related to the original, under his sole signature—it ruffled feathers. (published August 26th?)
September 2, 1842 (dated August 27, 1842)—Second Rebecca letter (written by Lincoln) The letter makes Shields, the state auditor, the butt of the joke and condemns Democrats for the banking crisis, but also implies Shields’ vanity and veers into suggestive allusions about girls chasing him. Excerpt: “Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you all. Too well I know how much you suffer; but do, do remember, it is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting.” The letter is full of colloquialisms and dialect. References the hand-squeezing and pinning of Julia Jayne. Begins: “Dear Mr. Printer, I see you printed…”
Sometime before Sept. 8 (per reference in the 9/9 Rebecca letter about a clerk that “Wash,” said to have embezzled funds)—Shields sends his friend John D. Whiteside to the editor to demand the name of the writer of the Rebecca letter(s). The editor refuses to answer for at least 24 hours to allow him time to seek Lincoln’s advice. Lincoln tells editor to give his name only.
Date? Shields, knowing that it would take time to settle the issue about the Rebecca letters, leaves for Quincy, IL to first take care of state business – 110 miles from Springfield, IL.
Sept. 9, 1842—Shields is out of town (per Wilson, pg. 274).
Sept. 9, 1842 (dated August 29, 1842) —Third and shortest Rebecca letter appears in the Sangamo Journal. It is with a companion letter (below), purportedly from Rebecca’s sister. Once again, James Shields is ridiculed. And the letter acknowledges that Shields has sent Whiteside to the editor to find the writer of the Sept. 2nd Rebecca letter, which offers a hint about a possible challenge to fight (this later points to the authorship). Excerpt: “I know he’s a fighting man and would rather fight than eat…” And “Now I want to tell Mr. S—that, rather than fight, I’ll make any apology; and if he wants personal satisfaction, let him only come here, and he may squeeze my hand as hard as I squeezed the butter…”
“Wouldn’t he—may be sorter let the old grudge drap if I was to consent to be – be-his wife? I know he’s a fightin’ man, and would rather fight than eat; but isn’t marryin’ better than fightin’, though it does sometimes run in to it?”
It is likely that Shields would not have had time to ask the editor about who wrote these two companion letters. Shields likely assumed they, too, were written by Lincoln.
Sept. 9, 1842 (dated Sept. 8, 1842) Fourth Rebecca letter. —Silly spoof that has “Becca” (now widowed) offers her hand in marriage to Shields. Likely written by Mary Todd and Julia Jayne. (Wilson is sure Julia is involved in this one.)
Sept. 15, 1842— Lincoln leaves for Tremont, IL, expecting to be on the court circuit for several weeks.—50miles away
Sept. 16, 1842 (date published)—Cathleen Poem appears in Journal. Said to have been delivered to editor by Julia Jayne’s brother George (Wilson, 272). Likely the work of Mary Todd and Julia Jayne. Excerpt: “Ye jews-harps awake! The Auditor’s won-
Rebecca, the widow, has gained Erin’s son,
The pride of the north from the emerald isle
Has been woo’d and won by a woman’s sweet smile.”
Sept. 16—Shields returns home to Springfield from court business, learns Lincoln is at Tremont. Shields and his friend John D. Whiteside ride toward Tremont to confront Lincoln personally. (Wilson, 274)
Same day: Lincoln’s friend, Dr. Elias H. Merryman hears that Shields and Whiteside left in pursuit of Lincoln in Tremont. Merryman and mutual friend William Butler race all night to warn Lincoln first. They pass Shields and Whiteside in the night and arrive Saturday morning, Sept. 17. Lincoln tells Butler & Merryman that he doesn’t want to fight Shields but will if pushed.
Sept. 17 afternoon—Shields and Whiteside arrive in Tremont, IL in the afternoon.
Sept. 17—Shields sends Lincoln a note—via Whiteside—that begins, “I regret that my absence on public business compelled me to postpone…” And “In two or three of the last numbers of the Sangamo Journal, articles of the most personal nature and calculated to degrade me, have made their appearance. I was informed by the editor of that paper that you are the author of those articles….I will not take the trouble of enquiring into the reason…, but I will take the liberty of requiring a full, positive, and absolute retraction of all offensive allusions…in relation to my private character and standing as a man, as an apology for the insults conveyed in them. This may prevent consequences which no one will regret more than myself.” Your ob’t serv’t, Jas. Shields
(Presumably delivered by Whiteside, based on Merryman’s later letter to the editor that includes, “About sunset General Whiteside called again, and receives from Mr. Lincoln the following answer to Mr. Shields note…”)
Sept 17—Lincoln replies via note delivered by Whiteside to Shields that begins, “Your note of today 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 further than I have, and to add, that the consequences to which I suppose you allude, would be matter of as great regret to me as it possibly could be to you. Respectfully, A. Lincoln
Sept. 17—Shields replies to Lincoln via note delivered by Whiteside (possibly two days later). Excerpt: ” you intimate that I assume facts and menace consequences and that you cannot submit to answer it further…I will be a little more particular. The editor…gave me to understand that you are the author of an article which appeared I think in that paper of 2d Sept. inst, headed the Lost Townships, and signed Rebecca or Becca. I would therefore take the liberty of asking, whether you are the author of said article or any other over the same signature, which as appeared in any of the late numbers of that page. If so, I repeat my request of an absolute retraction…” (per Whiteside letter)
Sept. 17—Lincoln returns Shields’ letter with verbal statement that there will be no negotiations until Shields’ accusatory note is withdrawn. (per Whiteside letter. Merryman claimed this was by note)
Sept. 17—Whiteside hands Lincoln a note from Shields, designating Whiteside as his friend [aka second aka duel manager]. NOTE: Whiteside’s letter to the editor states that the notes about seconds/friends were exchanged on Sept. 19th.
Sept. 17—(either by note or verbal instruction through Whiteside) Lincoln designates Merryman as his second.
Merryman and Whiteside return to Springfield together in a buggy and agree to try to “settle the matter amicably” w/o a fight. Merryman makes clear that “the only conditions on which it could be so settled; viz, the withdrawal of Mr. Shields’ first note”. Merryman later said that Whiteside made him promise not to tell Shields about this plan to avoid a fight for fear that “He would challenge me next, and as soon cut my throat as not.”
Monday, Sept. 19, 1842—Merryman and Whiteside ride in a buggy together on the way back to Springfield, and they vow to work toward a peaceful resolution. Lincoln rides separately. The three men arrive in Springfield late at night. Word of the impending fight spreads throughout town. An arrest is probable. Merryman & Lincoln agree that Lincoln needs to leave town—bound for Alton, the dueling ground— early the next morning to avoid arrest.
Shields is delayed because his horse becomes lame during his return to Springfield.
Sept. 19, 1842—Lincoln writes a two-part letter to be handed to Whiteside by Merryman. IF Shields withdraws his accusation, part one of the letter—an explanation and apology—is to be delivered to Shields. Part One begins: “In case Whiteside shall signify a wish to adjust this affair without further difficulty, let him know, that if the present papers be withdrawn, and 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 shallb e given: I did write the “Lost Township” letter which appeared in the Journal of the 2d inst….”
IF Shields refuses to withdraw his accusation, Part Two of the letter spell out the four terms of the duel.
1st–Weapons— “Cavalry broadswords fo the largest size.” (commonly referred to as “wristbreakers” because they were 44″ long total, with a 35.5″ blade, and they weighed ~6 lbs.)
2nd–Position— “A plank ten feet long, & from nine to twelve inches broad to be firmly fied 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 the passing of his own such line by either party during the fight shall be deemed a surrender of the contest.”
3rd–Time- Thursday at 5:00 pm
4th–Place—Within three miles of Alton on the opposite of the river.
Sept. 20, 1842 morning—Merryman and Whiteside met about Lincoln’s instructions. Whiteside says there is no point trying to settle the affair, adding that he would as soon think of asking Shields to “butt his brains out against a brick wall as to withdraw that paper.”
Lincoln doesn’t wait for Whiteside or Shields to approve his terms.
Sept. 20, 1842 afternoon—Whiteside claims that affidavits are being sworn for their arrest. He and Shields leave Springfield immediately.
Merryman refuses to delay the time to wait for Shields (maybe referring to date & time of duel?)
Merryman presses Whiteside for acceptance of Lincoln’s terms. All are concerned about oaths of political office and threat of arrest.
Sept. 20 Tuesday—11:00pm Merryman and two friends meet Lincoln in Jacksonville to secure swords.
Sept. 20 late night—Shields finally arrives in Springfield with lame horse (per Whiteside’s later letter to the editor)
Sept. 20 11:00 pm – Whiteside and Shields leave Springfield and travel all night toward Alton.
Wed. Sept. 21—Whiteside and Shields arrive in Hillsborough and meet General Ewing. Later, they meet with Dr. Hope. The three become Shields’ “friends”. (Whiteside states that the proposition requires 3 friends for each Lincoln and Shields)
Sept. 21 Wednesday—Merryman’s later letter to the editor states that “we” procured broadswords and left for Alton.
Sept. 22 Thursday—11am Merryman and Lincoln (and likely other friends) arrive in Alton, IL. Shields and party are already in town.
Lincoln, Merryman and friends (William Butler and Albert T. Bledsoe) cross Mississippi River to Bloody Island. (according to McPike, quoting a witness, this was 10:30 am)
Shields and party (Whiteside, Dr. Thomas Hope, Ewing) follow.
Sept. 22— John H. Hardin (relative of Mary Todd) & Dr. English paddle a canoe in a rush to reach the island in time. (A.L. A History. Volume One)
Sept. 22 On Bloody Island—Gen. Hardin and Dr. English hand a letter to Merryman and Whiteside: “As the mutual personal friends of Messrs. Shields and Lincoln, but without authority from either, we earnestly desire to see a reconciliation of the misunderstanding which exists between them. Such difficulties should always be arranged amicably, if it is possible to do so with honor to both parties.
Believing ourselves, that such an arrangement can possibly be effected, we respectfully, but earnestly, submit the following proposition for your consideration.
Let the whole difficulty be submitted to four or more gentlemen, to be selected by yourselves, who shall consider the affair, and report thereupon for your consideration. —John J. Hardin, R.W. English”
Merryman consults Lincoln who says Shields must withdraw his accusation.
Note exchanged from Shields’ side to Lincoln’s side: Missouri, Sept. 22, 1842—Gentlemen- All papers in relation to the matter in controversy between Mr. Shields and Mr. Lincoln having been withdrawn by the friends of the parties concerned, the friends of Mr. Shields ask the friends of Mr. Lincoln to explain all offensive matters in the articles which appeared in ‘The Sangamon Journal’ of the 2d, 9th, and 16th of September, under the signature of ‘Rebecca,’ and headed ‘Lost Townships.’
It is due to Gen. Hardin and Mr. English to state that their interference was of the most courteous and gentlemanly character. –John D. Whiteside, Wm. Lee D. Ewing, T.M. Hope”
(note that Whiteside’s letter to the editor later stated that “this was all done without the knowledge or consent of Mr. Shields, and he refused to accede to it, until Dr. Hope, General Ewing, and myself declared the apology sufficient, and that we could not sustain him in going further.”)
Note exchanged from Lincoln’s side to Shields’ side: Missouri, Sept. 22, 1842 Gentleman- All papers in relation to the matter in controversy between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Shields having been withdrawn by the friends of the parties concerned, we, the undersigned, friends of Mr. Lincoln, in accordance with your request that explanation of Mr. Lincoln’s publication in relation to Mr. Shields in ‘The Sangamon Journal’ of the 2d, 9th, 16th of September be made, take pleasure in saying, that, although Mr. Lincoln was the writer of the article signed ‘Rebecca’ in the ‘Journal’ of the 2d, and that only, yet he had no intention of injuring the personal or private character or standing of Mr. Shields as a gentleman or a man, and that Mr. Lincoln did not think, nor does he now think, that said article could produce such an effect; and, had Mr. Lincoln anticipated such an effect, he would have forborne to write it.
We will further state, that said article was written solely for political effect, and not to gratify any personal pique against Mr. Shields, for he had none, and knew of no cause for any. It is due to Gen. Hardin and Mr. English to say that their interference was of the most courteous and gentlemanly character. –E.H. Merryman, A.T. Bledsoe, Wm. Butler.
1842, Oct. 3—Shields challenges Butler to a duel. It never happens.
1842, Oct. 5—Lincoln writes to his friend Joshua Speed about his duel with Shields and the other two that were sparked.
1842, Oct. 7 (published)—Whiteside letter to the editor of Sangamo Journal, written Oct. 3, 1842.
1842, Oct. 14 (published)—Merryman letter to editor of Sangamo Journal, written Oct. 8, 1842.
1843—Whigs reject Lincoln’s bid for Congressional nomination, presumably, in part, because of the duel
Bonus: See a concise timeline of political parties here.