A reading of an 1890 Account of the Lincoln-Shields Duel

In 1890, John George Nicolay and John Hay— President Abraham Lincoln’s secretaries, published the ten-volume biography: Abraham Lincoln: A History, which you can see on Archive.org here.  You can hear a Librivox reading of the chapter related to the Lincoln-Shields duel and the two other challenges it sparked here.  Be aware that this reading is 18-minutes long.


James Shields & His Working Relationship with Lincoln Before & During Civil War

To set up the events that later transpired between Lincoln and Shields, without turning this post into a tome, I hope you will forgive my necessary jumps in time and assumptions of knowledge below. Bear with me.

James Shields- Where’d he come from?

James Shields was born in Dungannon, Ireland. His 1840 U.S. Citizenship application shows a May 17, 1810 birthday, his tombstone in Carrollton, Missouri shows a birthdate of 5-18-1810, but scholars who have examined Irish records believe he was actually born May 6, 1806.

By about age five, James’ father died, leaving his mother Catherine to care for three sons. Luckily for them, the Shields’ family owned land—an unusual thing for a Catholic family at that time. In fact, it appears that James Shields was born into a family of relative prosperity, though those fates might have later changed during the 1847 Irish Potato famine.

James first attended a “hedge school,” which was Irish Catholic defiance against English penal education laws that were prejudiced against them. The schools were often run by itinerant teachers who taught Gaelic and secretly added Irish history to regular academics. Later, James was enrolled in a Protestant grammar school in Carrickmore, Ireland, where he was taught Greek, Latin, Irish, English. At some point, he entered divinity school but left when he decided to migrate to the U.S. as a young man—arriving between the ages of 18-24. By all indications, the 5’9″ man was intelligent and book-loving.

It is unlikely that Shields came to America with any notable amount of money. He worked as a merchant sailor for a while, though he took a three-month break from the sea to teach the children of a Scottish laird when his ship ran aground nearby. He did return to the sea, but while entering New York Harbor one day, a sudden wind caused a flailing ruckus of swinging masts and other ship parts. In the fray, Shields was injured. For three months, he recuperated in a hospital run by nuns. It was then that he de decided to give up sailing and remain in America.

Shields, Law, Politics, Lincoln

Time passed and James Shields settled in Kaskaskia, Illinois, where he opened a school for adults and children until he set his sights on a law career. He worked as a law clerk during two years of intense study, then passed the bar exam in 1832.

People of Irish descent faced a great deal of prejudice in the United States at the time, but Shields was a determined and driven man and deeply loyal to his chosen country. An eager soldier, he enlisted in the Army to fight in the Mexican War and the Black Hawk War, rising in rank to Brigadier General. It would not be his last military action.

By late 1830’s, Shields (a diehard Democrat) and Abraham Lincoln (a Whig leader) were both legislators and lawyers. When the Illinois capital was moved to Springfield, both men moved with it.

Lincoln, being a progressive kind of politician, lobbied with his party and won financial concessions to improve Illinois infrastructure. In other words, Illinois increased its debt at the suggestion of Lincoln and his friends. That’s important to consider when we’re tempted to demonize Shields and other government officials later. Such debt was justified by the needs of citizens, but it came with a more profound cost. There were a number of causes for the 1837 U.S. Financial Panic and ultimate Illinois crisis, including Andrew Jackson’s 1836 Specie Circular, the closing of the Second Bank of the United States, defaulted foreign loans, and mismanagement of state finances and debt. The money of the State Bank of Illinois was suddenly worth a fraction of its face value, and some banks closed.

Shields & Lincoln Work Together On an Issue in 1837

Shields didn’t entirely agree with his Democratic party about how to address the problem. He called for a bipartisan solution to bail out the banks, calling on Whig leader Abraham Lincoln to collaborate on a plan of action.

A quick aside: When the State Bank of Illinois was first chartered in ~1816, a legislative act stated that, in the event of bank failure, the state’s governor, auditor, and treasurer were “authorized and required” to refuse the bank’s money in payment of taxes. Remember that in a moment.

The Shields-Lincoln proposal made its way into law, and it essentially prevented more banks from being shut down. It worked. For a while

In 1841, Shields became Illinois’ state auditor of public accounts. In 1842, the financial crisis spiked. There was a run on the banks—people rushed to withdraw their savings, removing monies from circulation. When a third bank went bust, Shields took drastic action. As State Auditor, he did what he was “authorized and required” to do. He, the governor, and the treasurer issued a proclamation that required all Illinois citizens to pay their taxes in gold or silver (specie) rather than with State Bank of Illinois bank notes. The proclamation incited Lincoln’s politically driven Rebecca letter—which led to Shields challenging Lincoln to a duel. Read my picture book Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words to learn more.

How did Lincoln and Shields Work Together Toward a Common Cause During the Civil War?

Though they appeared to have maintained a courteous professional relationship after the “affair of honor,” I found no evidence that Lincoln and Shields were close friends, which isn’t surprising since Shields and Stephen Douglas, one of Lincoln’s biggest political rivals, were especially chummy. When Douglas ran against Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, Sheilds stumped for Douglas, which means he campaigned for him. But, when Lincoln won the presidency and South Carolina seceded from the Union—sparking ten more states to follow—Shields vowed to help Lincoln save the Union.

On April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter was fired upon and the Civil War began, fifty-five-year-old Shields was ready to re-enlist in the army. He was soon called on as a commander with the rank of brigadier general. He was involved in several campaigns, including a skirmish with Confederate Stonewall Jackson. Even a bullet to the shoulder didn’t sway Shields from his military devotion and acumen. You can read a bit about some of his Civil War battles here. Lincoln suggested that Shields be promoted to Major General, a two-star rank, but other military officials disagreed.

Though Shields didn’t work directly with Lincoln during the Civil War, both men fought in different ways for the same common cause.

After the war, Shields went on to become governor of the Oregon Territory, and he remains the only U.S. senator to have represented three states: Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri.

For more information about James Shields, check out Courage and Country: James Shields; More than Irish Luck, by Sean Callan (1st Books, 2004).

Lincoln—19th-Century Dueling Terms

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 an interesting note to the reader 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 and apology, 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 then to manage all details of the fight to ensure fairness.

You can see Lincoln’s handwritten duel terms, along with a transcript in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress here. 

First page of Lincon’s handwritten duel instructions and terms. Note the first term, weapons, at bottom.

An interesting analysis of duels (including the Hamilton-Burr affair), from a 2004 perspective, can be found in Alison LaCroix’s article titled “To Gain the Whole World and Lose His Own Soul: Nineteenth-Century American Dueling as Public Law and Private Code,” published by The University of Chicago Law School’s Unbound.

You’ll find expanded information about the Lincoln-Shields duel through my categorized blog posts linked here. 


Add photos here.

Lincoln—Bloody Island—Site of the Lincoln-Shields Duel

1837 Robert E. Lee map of Bloody Island http://www.stltoday.com/news/multimedia/robert-e-lee-map/image_34f13d87-e7e8-54db-92f6-35e3d79ae863.html

Approximately twenty-five miles from St. Louis, Missouri—smack-dab in the Mississippi River— is a lovely fishing/picnic/nature-rich park called The Lincoln-Shields Recreation Area. Unfortunately, there is no marker on the property to explain the park’s name or its historic significance. For that, you have to cross the river to the Alton, IL shore and find the two information markers.

During my research for ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS, I visited the “island”, camera in hand, and found only a few park goers casting their lucky lures into the Mississippi. To each of them, I asked the same question: Do you know where the park’s name originated? Not one person knew the answer—that Abraham Lincoln faced a duel on those shores, long before he knew that he was risking the future of this great country.

Both human intervention and the brushes of time and nature have changed the area a great deal during the 176 years since the duel. For one, channels and roadways have been added to the Missouri side, so the island is practically a peninsula today. It is impossible to know for certain where the original “field of honor” was, but it’s easy to imagine. I walked the trails, made note of foliage, and generally got a feel for the place. I imagined being on the ferry boat—operated by horse-powered windlass— with Lincoln and Shields as they made their way from Alton, IL to the island and an unknown fate.

From the Alton, IL side, looking at what was Bloody Island. This marker incorrectly states that Lincoln did not write “the” letter.
Early primary sources mention the irony of the planned duel to the prison. ***forgive the bird poop on the photo***

At the time of the duel, Bloody Island was a one-mile-long sandbar in the middle of the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri. Considered outside the jurisdiction of both states, it became a popular location for duels—hence the menacing name.

Over the generations, the island has been referred to by many names, including Sunflower Island and McPike’s Island. During the Civil War, it was renamed Smallpox Island because Confederate soldiers with smallpox were quarantined and later buried on the island.

Bonus trivia: Five years before the 1842 Lincoln-Shields duel, the U.S. Army sent an officer engineer to help solve the problem of shifting soils that expanded the island and narrowed the shipping channel. The man’s name was Robert E. Lee—who later led the Confederate forces during the Civil War.