Lincoln—Two Duels Sparked by the Lincoln-Shields Duel

Participating in duels in any role was a risky business in Lincoln’s day. Just as the tension between two opposing sides of a boxing match, a football game, a political debate today could lead to physical brawls, for the men acting as seconds to the dueling principals, the volatile and combative atmosphere could spell trouble. Which is what happened following the Lincoln-Shields duel.

Shields’ second, John D. Whiteside published his account of the Lincoln-Shields duel in the Sangamo Journal on October 7, 1842. Lincoln’s second, Dr. Elias Merryman took offense at what he considered to be falsehoods in Whiteside’s account, so he decided to publish his own account—which was much longer, more detailed, and included the notes exchanged on the field. It appears that Whiteside was so offended by Merryman’s attack on his integrity, he wrote to Merryman in a tone that stopped just short of a threat. Merryman—considered a combative type—decided to welcome it as a challenge. After all, unlike Whiteside, Merryman did not hold a state office, so his career was not in danger.

Merryman prepared to fight against Whiteside and he asked Abraham Lincoln to serve as his second. Yes, really! Lincoln traded roles in a new challenge. Ultimately, the duel was called off.

We now turn to James Shields. He was apparently annoyed and offended by William Butler, a friend of Lincoln’s who was especially outspoken and contemptuous during the Lincoln-Shields event.  Shields challenged Butler to a duel. Butler accepted with these terms, “to fight next morning at sunrise in Bob Allen’s meadow, one hundred yards’ distance, with rifles.” It appears Shields and his second, J.D. Whiteside, refused the terms because the location of the proposed field of honor was within the jurisdiction of Illinois and arrest would jeopardize both their careers. That duel, like the others, fizzled without event.

The moral of this story is stay away from duels!