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!




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–PlaceWithin 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”

Whiteside agrees.

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.

Lincoln—Select Sources/Bibliography

You won’t see a full bibliography or quotation sources in the back matter of Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words. Wanna know why?

Simply put, even my super-whittled-down select sources resulted in a book that was too long to fit the standard 32-page format. So my editor and I made the difficult decision to direct readers here, to the book page of my website. Below, you will see the slightly-expanded Select Sources that would have appeared in the book if I’d had more space. What does appear in the book’s back matter are the following three very cool links that I encourage you to visit:

Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections, where you can see old issues of the Sangamo Journal and the actual Rebecca letters

Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Association, where you can see modern transcripts of the Rebecca letters

The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, where you can see the only surviving note/letter related to the duel—Lincoln’s handwritten note to his “second,” Dr. E.H. Merryman, with terms for the duel.

For expanded information about the Lincoln-Shields duel, see my categorized blog posts on the book page here. 

Now, without further Ado…

Quotation Sources:

Title page: “It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” Lincoln purportedly repeated this quote—either drawing from a conversation or borrowing from it.  McClure, Alexander K. Abe Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories (Chicago: The Educational Company, 1901) Also in Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008), p. 575.

pg. 6 “That brings to mind…” Variations of quote appear in McClure, Abe Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories. Also see

pg. 6 “If I did not laugh…” Jennison, Keith W. The Humorous Mr. Lincoln (New York: Cromwell, 1965).

pg. 16 “You have made assumptions…” Wilson, Douglas. Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, (New York: Knopf, 1998). Earliest reproductions of the Lincoln & Shields letters can be found in Lamon, Ward. The Life of Abraham Lincoln, (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co, 1872) via

pg. 18 “I did not want to kill Shields…” Wilson, pg. 281. Also Linder, Usher P. Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois (Chicago: Chicago Legal News, 1879).

pg. 20 Duel terms. See Lincoln’s letter to Merryman at

pg. 27 “I did write the Lost Township letter…” Wilson, pg. 281. Or Lamon at

pg. 31 “If all the good things I have ever done…” Burlingame—physical book and online at

Select Sources for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words (please forgive formatting errors):

Abbatt, William. “The Lincoln-Shields Duel.” Magazine of History with Notes and Queries. New York, 1906.

Basler, Roy P. “The Authorship of the ‘Rebecca’ Letters.” Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 2 (1942).

Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: A Life. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Callan, J. Sean. Courage and Country: James Shields. Bloomington, 2004.

Centennial History of Madison County, Illinois and Its People 1812-1912. Ed. Norton, William T. Alton: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1912.

Clay, Edward Williams. “Abraham Lincoln, Banking and the Panic of 1837 in Illinois.” Accessed August 20, 2017.

Clinton, Catherine. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.

Condon, William H. Life of Major-General James Shields: Hero of Three Wars and Senator From Three States. Chicago, 1900.

“Crack of the Pistol: Dueling in 19th Century Missouri.” Missouri State Archives. Accessed May 15, 2015.

Davidson, Alexander and Bernard Stuve. A Complete History of Illinios from 1673-1873. Springfield: D.L. Publisher, 1877. E-book.

Day, Charles W.M. Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society with a Glance at Bad Habits. Boston, 1843. E-book,

Epstein, Daniel Mark. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.

Herndon, William H. and Jesse William Weik. Springfield: Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. Herndon’s Lincoln Publishing Company, 1888.

Lincoln, Abraham. (original letter, in Lincoln’s hand, to Dr. Merryman re: terms of the duel). The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

“Lost Townships—Dear Printer.” Sangamo Journal, August 19, 1842.   (1st letter)

Houghton, Walter R. and James K. Beck and James A.Woodburn. Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture. New York, 1893. E-Book,

“Letter from the Lost Township.” Sangamo Journal, September 2, 1842. (2nd letter-A.L. wrote this)

“Letter(s) from the Lost Townships. Sangamo Journal, September 9, 1842. (3rd & 4thletter)

“Cathleen poem.” Sangamo Journal, September 16, 1842.

Merryman, E.H. “Communication—Gent…” (letter to the editor) Sangamo Journal.October 8,   1842.

Myers, James E. The Astonishing Saber Duel of Abraham Lincoln. Springfield: Lincoln-Herndon Building Publishers, 1968.

Nicolay, John G. and John Hay. Abraham Lincoln: A History. New York: The Century Co., 1890.

Sabine, Lorenzo. Notes on Duels and Duelling. Boston, 1855.

Saby, Rasmus S. and William Watts Folwell. “General James Shields, Soldier, Orator, Statesman.” Minnesota Historical Society Collections. 1915.

Strozier, Charles. Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Turner, Justin G. and Linda Levitt Turner. Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters. New York: Knopf, 1972.

Whiteside, John D. “To the Editor of the Springfield Journal.” Sangamo Journal, October 14, 1842

Wilson, Douglas L. Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Wilson, John Lyde. “The Code of Honor or Rules for the Government in Duelling.” Charleston: James Phinney, printer, 1838. (includes Code Duello)

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. 


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Lincoln and the 19th-Century Gentleman’s Code of Conduct


As a society, we are a very casual lot these days. It was different in Lincoln’s time. A man’s worth was wrapped up in his honor and how he was esteemed by others. Only gentlemen were allowed in upper-class social circles and in many business and political dealings. To be considered a gentleman, a man needed to be well-bred and well-educated (even if self-educated), and he was expected to exhibit refined and gentlemanly deportment and cultural prowess. Above all, he was to present the right appearance.  In 1843, Charles Dickens understood the pressures of this class system when he wrote, “keep up appearances whatever you do,” in his Martin Chuzzlewit novel.

Being a gentleman required a standard of etiquette and moral conduct, with rules like “Never scratch your head, pick your teeth, clean your nails, or worse of all, pick your nose in company. Spit as little as possible and never upon the floor.” And, “if you are going into the presence of ladies, beware of onions, spirits, and tobacco.” We laugh at such “rules” today, but in the class system of the 19th century, such behaviors betrayed one’s class.

One 1843 book of etiquette states that “courtesy is the cement of society.” Indeed, hat-tipping, bowing, conversing intellectually, writing formal notes and letters, and never talking or writing about another gentleman behind his back—it was all a way to show respect and avoid offending the honor of another person.  Oh, and it gave the appearance of self-importance.

If a gentleman crossed the line and offended another gentleman, a challenge could be issued and they could land on the field of honor. A gentleman would never lower himself by dueling against a man from a lower class. So, how did Lincoln—a backwoods, self-taught man of no breeding, land in a duel with Shields? One must assume that, though he didn’t have the pedigree or advantages of the standard gentleman, Lincoln was in the process of building himself, and he had earned the respect of those around him. He was an avid reader, an active young politician, an involved community member, and he was a smart and likable guy. And, who wouldn’t be drawn to a man with his ready wit and knack for storytelling? Lincoln was a truly self-made man who fit in with multiple classes.

Read the 1860 Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette here.

See the Art of Manliness blog here

See a list of additional posts about the Lincoln-Shields duel here.