HOW HE TURNED IT INTO A BIG LAUGH
President Lincoln was conferring one day with Union officers during the Civil War. One asked, “Is is true you once went out to fight a duel for the sake of the lady by your side?” Lincoln answered, “I do not deny it. But if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.” The conversation swiftly shifted to another topic.
Nearly 20 years before he reached the White House, Lincoln was indeed involved in an “affair of honor.” Given the response you just read, it’s no surprise you’ve probably never heard of it.
So here’s what happened when Abe Lincoln fought a duel.
Summer of 1842. Lincoln was an up and coming attorney in Springfield, Illinois’ young rough and tumble state capital. His on-again, off-again courtship of vivacious Kentucky belle Mary Todd was on again. Things looked bright for the lanky 33 year-old state representative.
For years, Whig Lincoln had a friendly working relationship with a fellow state rep, Democrat James Shields.
When Shields was elected State Auditor, things soured. They seriously worsened when Shields stopped accepting Illinois’ own paper money as payment for taxes in an effort to prop up the state’s shaky finances. That created hardship for farmers and working people. Lincoln and Shields parted ways over it.
And as so often happens in these situations, things quickly turned personal.
Lincoln put his dispute with Shields into words. Anonymously, which was an accepted practice at the time. Shields was known around Springfield for being pompous, quirky, even vain. And Lincoln went at him mercilessly in a letter printed under an assumed name in the Sangamon Journal.
“Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you all,” Lincoln’s letter had Shields fictitiously saying. “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!” There was lots more, but you get the idea.
The problem was, Lincoln didn’t write the next letter. Mary did.
Without telling her boyfriend, she wrote under the pen name “Cathleen” and took mocking Shields to a whole new level. Which understandably pushed Shields over the edge when it appeared in the newspaper.
He stormed into the paper’s office, demanding to know who had authored the letters. Lincoln had instructed the editor in advance that if Shields asked, his identity should be revealed. But that was before Mary got in on the act. Wanting to protect her from controversy, he accepted responsibility for both letters.
Shields wrote a letter of his own and had it hand delivered to Lincoln. It said, “I have become the object of slander, vituperation and personal abuse. Only a full retraction may prevent consequences which no one will regret more than myself.”
Lincoln returned Shields’ letter, demanding that he be addressed in “a more gentlemanly manner.”
Shields responded the way men in 1842 often did: he challenged Lincoln to a duel.
Abraham Lincoln had many qualities, both good and bad; but cowardice wasn’t among them. Just look at the string of tough guys who challenged him to none-too-genteel wrestling matches (all of whom were defeated, by the way). Yet Lincoln thought dueling as a means of settling disagreements was ridiculous in general, with this one in particular being especially so. However, he didn’t want to appear cowardly by backing down.
Dueling was illegal in Illinois, but it wasn’t in nearby Missouri. So the two agreed to meet on Bloody Island in the Mississippi River near St. Louis. It was close to Alton, Illinois yet safely across the state line. (The spot was so perfect for that purpose, the island got its name from all the duels fought on it.)
Because Lincoln had been challenged, he had the right to select weapons. He picked huge, heavy cavalry broadswords. Since he was 6’4” and his opponent stood only 5’9”, Lincoln knew the big cumbersome sword in his extra long arm would give him an advantage. “I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me,” the future president later recalled, “which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”
Both men were popular in Springfield and it seemed half of the town’s population traveled to Alton on Thursday, September 22 for the duel. They waited as the two principals and their seconds headed to Bloody Island.
The men faced each other on opposite sides of a wooden plank, which they weren’t allowed to cross. The mood was tense. The handful of spectators allowed on the island were worried. “I … began to believe he [Lincoln] was getting frightened,” one remembered.
Shaken, Shields was still willing to go ahead with the duel. But Shields’ friends weren’t. They pulled him aside and huddled. Although what they said was lost to history, it was probably something like, “Are you crazy? You saw what he just did. He’ll kill you. Call it off!”)
A face-saving compromise was quickly reached. Lincoln did a mea culpa and accepted responsibility for the whole matter. Shields, with the display of Lincoln’s upper arm strength still fresh in his mind, swiftly accepted. The matter was settled. But Lincoln being Lincoln, it couldn’t end without one bit of humor.
As the people back in Alton anxiously awaited word of the duel’s outcome, a boat came into view. As it drew closer, they were horrified to see a bloody body slumped over the bow. Folks surged toward the river bank as the boat docked.
Up close, they discovered it was a log with a bright red shirt pulled over it. Lincoln and Shields stepped onto the dock, howling in laughter at having pulled a fast one. The crowd soon joined in, and everyone went home happy as clams.
The two men remained on good terms for the rest of their lives. Shields moved around a lot and went on to serve as U. S. Senator from Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri. (That’s right; 3-count-’em-3 different states. Now that’s a political hat trick!)
When the Civil War began he was living in California and was sent east as a brigadier general.
In March 1862 Shields became the only Yankee general to ever defeat the legendary Stonewall Jackson in battle. But that turned out to be his one and only good day on the battlefield. The rest of his military record was dismal. He was soon promoted to major general; then the promotion was withdrawn; then it was considered again; finally it was shelved. Embarrassed by the big brass’ lack of confidence, Shields resigned his commission and left the army. The War Department didn’t stand in his way.
Still, Shields represents Illinois in Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol, where he has stood in uniform since 1893.
And Lincoln … well, you know how his story turned out.
Two people can overcome any difference, if they’re only willing to meet halfway. No trip to Bloody Island required.
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