Lincoln’s Near Duel-to-the-Death with an Irish Rival
By Niall O’Dowd
Abraham Lincoln’s long-standing and colorful history with the children of Ireland played a major role in his political rise, his presidency, and ultimately the Union victory in the Civil War. Much of that history has never been told, such as the near duel between Lincoln and rival — and future Union general — James Shields, reminiscent of Hamilton — Burr.
James Shields is one of the most amazing Irishmen of any era. He became a US senator from three different states, a feat never again accomplished, and he was the only Union general to out think and defeat Stonewall Jackson. He also had a “man-of-mystery” image with allegations of a torrid affair with a Confederate informer. He was a hero to Irish Americans who bitterly blamed Lincoln for not keeping and promoting him as a Civil War general of the highest rank. In later life, he sought to establish Irish townships in Minnesota.
He is most famous, however, because he came within minutes of possibly taking Abraham Lincoln’s life in a duel that could have changed American history forever.
Yet, there are relatively few sources on this amazing man, a County Tyrone native who came to America at the age of sixteen to join an uncle who promised him a good living. When he arrived, his namesake uncle had passed on, and he was alone.
He did not lack the fighting Irish spirit, however. An ancestor had fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, ironically, against Stonewall Jackson’s ancestor John Jackson. The Battle of the Boyne was the climactic moment in the war between the Catholic King James and his Protestant rival William of Orange for the throne of England.
On the morning of June 30, 1690, King William was reconnoitering the battlefield and stopped for breakfast within range of the Catholic guns. John Jackson was with him. As William remounted, a Jacobite soldier fired twice. The first one missed. The second, however, would have killed him, but for striking John Jackson’s pistol before hitting William in the shoulder, causing a minor wound.
One of the great “what ifs” of Irish history is, what would have happened if Jackson had not deflected the bullet? John Jackson saved King William’s life in that battle, condemning the Shields family to eviction and hardship. Little did the ancestors know that their ancestral offspring would also meet on a battlefield, both commanding armies generations later with the future of another British colony, America, at stake.
Like all Catholics on the losing side, the Shields clan were punished for their effrontery in daring to rebel. Once extensive landowners in Antrim, they had to relocate to forsaken mountain land in Tyrone.
James Shields was born in Altmore, County Tyrone, on May 12, 1806. His father died when he was six, and his Scottish mother reared her family singlehanded.
He grew up in an Ireland where old soldiers abounded, Irish men who had fought Britain’s Napoleonic wars. From them, from an early age, he learned the stagecraft of military skills and became an accomplished swordsman and shooter. His uncle, also James, came home from America for a time. A veteran of the War of Independence, he had been injured at the Battle of New Orleans.
From him, most likely, James also learned how to lead men. He received an education in the classics from a priest relative and learned to speak French from the old soldiers. He came to America unusually talented.
He put to sea for a time and rose to the rank of purser, but after an accident that badly injured him, he decided on a career as a lawyer. He also served as a soldier when on home leave from the ship.
Home from the sea, he moved to Illinois to the territorial capital called Kaskaskia and was admitted to the bar in 1832. He ran for public office soon after, winning a seat in the state legislature and moved to Vandalia, the state capital.
There he met the young Abraham Lincoln and Democratic Party veteran Stephen Douglas, two men who would go on to dominate American discourse for the most vital years in US history. Shields befriended Douglas so much that he was best man at his second wedding. He also followed him into politics as a Democrat.
It is no exaggeration to say that a man selected three times as a senator from separate states and a war hero to boot could also have been a leading presidential contender, were it not for his Irish birth.
He was described thusly in the Minnesota Historical Society Collections: “His personal appearance and manners were engaging. He was five-feet-nine inches tall, of fine figure and graceful bearing. His voice was well modulated; his speech frank, clear and resolute. He was prominent in debate and influential in council.”
Another contemporary account described him as a “gallant, hot-headed bachelor from Tyrone County, Ireland.”
It was clear that Shields was a hit with the ladies but also a politician on the rise, when he was elected State Auditor of Accounts in 1841, a statewide office. Soon he and Lincoln would cross paths in a near duel that, if it had gone ahead, might have changed history as surely as John Jackson blocking the bullet meant for King William did.
The near duel with Shields haunted Abraham Lincoln his entire lifetime. “If all the good things I have ever done are remembered as long and well as my scrape with Shields, it is plain I will soon be forgotten,” he told James Herndon.
The genesis of the Lincoln-Shields feud was Lincoln’s view that Shields was levying excessive taxation. In August of 1842, the Illinois State Bank declared bankruptcy and said it would no longer accept paper money, and gold and silver, which most ordinary citizens did not have access to, would be needed to pay debts. Shields decide to close the bank and became a target of Whig fury.
Abraham Lincoln took to the pages of the Springfield Journal under the pseudonym “Rebecca” to mock the Irishman Shields. It was nasty stuff, and Shields did not take to it kindly. Chiefly, Lincoln sneered at Shields’s ladies’ man reputation, which may also have reflected a tinge of jealousy on the part of the less-than-handsome Lincoln.
The letters were spiteful. “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.”
Lincoln showed the letter to Mary Todd — the couple had only recently gotten back together after Lincoln had called off their earlier engagement — and she found it delightful. A few days later, without Lincoln’s knowledge, Mary Todd submitted her own critique to the Journal under the pen name “Cathleen.”
Mary Todd composed a sneering ditty, the first few lines of which ran:
Ye Jews Harp awake the auditors won
Rebecca the widow has gained Erin’s son
The pride of the North from the Emerald Isle
Has been wooed and won by a woman’s smile.
Shields was infuriated by the low satire. He demanded Simeon Francis, the newspaper’s editor, reveal the author, which Francis surprisingly did.
Declaring it an affair of honor, Shields demanded a duel. “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 refused to retract his remarks. He returned Shields’s letter with the request that Shields rewrite it in a more “gentlemanly” fashion. Instead, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. It would be held in Missouri, where dueling was still legal.
Since Lincoln was challenged by Shields, he had the privilege of choosing the weapon of the duel. He chose cavalry broadswords “of the largest size.”
“I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols,” he later said. He was right; going back to his military upbringing in Ireland, Shields would surely have won a pistol duel.
Subsequently, Shields also exhibited great bravery in the war with Mexico and as a Civil War general. Lincoln, with his much longer reach, had chosen wisely.
The Lincoln-Shields duel is one of these “what if” moments in history. If Shields had won, history would have changed dramatically. Stephen Douglas would likely have been president, and the issue of slavery might have turned out very differently.
Luckily, Lincoln had his pick of weapon.
How heavy were the swords? In the early 1870s, Army Captain M. J. O’Rourke, an Irish-American historian and teacher of the history of the sword, in referring to cavalry swords, described them as those “ponderous blades, in wielding which they required all the strength of both [hands].”
Lincoln created conditions so favorable to him because of his towering height that he was sure that Shields would demur. He ordered “a plank ten feet long, and from nine to twelve inches abroad, to be firmly fixed on edge, on the ground, as the line between us, which neither is to pass his foot over upon forfeit of his life.”
Forced to literally toe that line, the five-foot-nine Shields had no chance against the long-limbed Lincoln swinging a mighty broadsword. Surely Shields would concede?
But even that condition, which likely meant certain death, was still not enough to deter Shields, who certainly did not lack bravery. So on September 22, 1842, Shields left his home state, where a duel was a criminal act, and headed for Bloody Island, Missouri, where Lincoln awaited him. It was a “to be a kill or be killed” standoff.
They advanced to the field where the score was to be settled once and for all. Both men were surrounded by seconds, close friends to ensure a fair fight. It was clear the rival supporters wished for a settlement.
At the last moment, the seconds intervened and cobbled together a Lincoln apology that satisfied both parties, so the duel was called off. The duelers left the field in much better form than when they arrived, laughing and talking. Subsequently, the men became friends.
Lincoln never forgot the incident, which troubled him deeply the rest of his life. In a letter written about the aftermath of the incident on December 9, 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln wrote that an army officer during a receiving line at the White House asked her husband, “Is it true . . . that you once went out, to fight a duel and all for the sake of the lady by your side?”
Lincoln replied, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.”
However, it was not the end of the Shields-Lincoln relationship. The two men would soon enough be comrades in arms against the South in yet another twist of fate. Shields was set to become a war hero; he was a senator from three different states, had a record never surpassed, and success that was a rallying point for the Irish in the Union Army. He was also a strong proponent of Irish resettlement in the Midwest.
But all that was in the future. In the present, the American political landscape was rearranging itself, and a rising Lincoln and the newly arrived Irish found themselves at the center of it.
Niall O’Dowd is the founder of IrishCentral, Irish America Magazine, and the Irish Voice. He is also responsible for publishing IrishCentral.com and the Irish Emigrant newspaper in Boston. For his work on the Irish peace process — the subject of a book, Daring Diplomacy, and PBS Special, An Irish Voice — he was awarded an honorary doctorate by University College Dublin.
Excerpted from Lincoln and the Irish: The Untold Story of How the Irish Helped Abraham Lincoln Save the Union with author's permission. Copyright © 2018 Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.