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.
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
1830—The political party headed by Jackson calls themselves the Democratic Party.
1832—Jackson opponents, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, call themselves National Republicans.
1832 – James Shields is admitted to the bar. Begins law practice.
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
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—Gov’t teeters on brink of collapse. Whigs and Democrats fight over what to do. Lincoln & Shields work together to negotiate a compromise that saves the banks.
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 state bank notes.
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 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. Mostly 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. 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…”
Date? Shields leaves for Quincy on state business – 110 miles from Springfield, IL.
Before Sept. 8 (per reference in the 9/9 letter to a clerk, Wash, said to have embezzled funds)—Shields (via Whiteside) demands name of writer of Rebecca letter.
Editor refuses to answer for at least 24 hours to allow Lincoln’s advice.
Sept. 9, 1842—Shields is still out of town (per Wilson, pg. 274).
Letter to editor—published Sept. 9, 1842 (dated August 29, 1842) —Third Rebecca letter—The shortest—which includes another letter purportedly from Rebecca’s sister. Possibly written by editor. “I know he’s a fighting man and would rather fight than eat…” 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?”
Letter to editor Published Sept. 9, 1842 (dated Sept. 8, 1842) Fourth Rebecca letter. —“Becca” offers her hand in marriage. Likely written by Mary Todd and Julia Jayne. (Wilson is sure Julia is involved in this one.)
Date? Lincoln leaves for Tremont, expecting to be on the 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 to Springfield from court business. (Wilson, 274)
Learns that Lincoln is the writer. Lincoln is in Tremont. Shields and Whiteside head to Tremont to confront Lincoln.
Sept. 16—Lincoln’s friend, Dr. Elias H. Merryman hears that Shields and Whiteside left in pursuit of Lincoln in Tremont. Merryman and Mr. Butler race to get to 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 but will if pushed.
Sept. 17 afternoon—Shields and Whiteside arrive in Tremont, IL in afternoon.
Sept. 17—Shields sends Lincoln a letter—via Whiteside—that begins, “I regret that my absence on public business compelled me to postpone…” (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 hands Whiteside a note for Shields that begins, “Your note of today was handed me by Gen. Whiteside. In that note, you say you have been informed…” “assumption of facts…”)
Sept. 17—Whiteside hands Lincoln a note from Shields disavowing all intention to menace and requesting retraction of the offensive journal article. (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 agree between themselves 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—Lincoln, Merryman, and Whiteside arrive in Springfield late at night. Shields is delayed because his horse became lame during his return to Springfield. Word of the impending fight spreads throughout Springfield. An arrest is probable. Merryman and Lincoln agree that Lincoln should leave early the next morning.
(Whiteside & Merryman ride in a buggy together for a while – they vow to work toward a peaceful resolution.)
Sept. 19, 1842—Lincoln writes two-part letter to be handed to Shields by Whiteside. 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…”
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.”
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 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.
Sept. 20 late night—Whiteside’s later letter to the editor claims that Shields’ arrived in Springfield.
11pm – Whiteside and Shields leave Springfield and travel all night.
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 10:30am)
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 matter 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.
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.