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Lincoln's Forgotten Duel

Lori Eberhart
Civic Memorial High School, Bethalto

Abraham Lincoln once remarked about his notorious duel with James Shields, "If all the good things I have ever done are remembered as long and as well as my scrape with Shields, it is plain I shall not be forgotten." The duel, however, has been almost completely forgotten, although it had far-reaching effects on Lincoln; he learned a great deal from the experience.

The events that led up to the duel between Abraham Lincoln, then a state legislator, and James Shields, attorney and auditor of the State of Illinois, began when Shields came under fire by anonymous letters published in the Sangamo Journal of Springfield. A person or persons claiming the pseudonym "Rebecca" wrote the letters. The letters criticized Shields for signing some proclamations with which the general public disagreed. One of the letters ridiculed Shields' Irish ancestry and ordered, "Go back to the place from whence you came. Perhaps there you can succeed; but here you cannot." Another attacked his lack of courage.

Historians believe that Lincoln's future wife, Mary Todd, or even Lincoln himself wrote the letters. Even though they were not the only two suspects, Lincoln received the blame, which resulted in Shields challenging him to a duel. Dueling was illegal in Illinois under a law of 1839, but the duel occurred anyway. Since Shields had challenged Lincoln, the privilege of selecting the terms of the duel belonged to Lincoln. Lincoln selected the Broad Sword as the weapon for the duel, which was to take place about three miles from Alton, Illinois, on the opposite side of the Mississippi River, in Missouri.

On September 22, 1842, both parties crossed the river and attempted to negotiate a settlement of the two gentlemen's differences; however, James Shields's quick temper caused him to refuse the compromise. As the duel began, Shields became aware that Lincoln outmatched him with his long reach. This became apparent to everyone when Lincoln reached far overhead and cut off a willow branch with one quick stroke. Shields's precarious position became obvious to him, thus causing him to back down and make peace with Lincoln. From this point, Lincoln and Shields are said to have had a friendly relationship.

There are many possible reasons for the Lincoln-Shields duel of 1842. Publicity played a large part in the decision of both sides to participate in a duel. Both men were politicians and knew that the public was fond of duels. Another reason for Lincoln to duel may have been to impress his beloved Mary Todd. The duel might have resulted from Lincoln's recovery from deep depression; he was full of energy and ready to fight. Whatever the reason for it, the duel almost took place and both men were affected by it.

Lincoln began to be more careful about what he wrote in letters and other papers, even those he wrote to his closest and most intimate friends. Never again did he so harshly use another person to try to further his political career, which would some day take him to the highest office in the land. In many ways, the duel prepared Lincoln for success as president. During his term, the country became engaged in the Civil War. Throughout that stressful time, Lincoln showed the same iron will and certainty of purpose that was evident during the duel.[From James E. Myers, The Astonishing Saber Duel of Abraham Lincoln; Walter B. Stevens, A Reporter's Lincoln.]

Abraham Lincoln traveled to Alton to meet James Shields in a duel. Friends of both opponents negotiated a truce, and the duel was averted.


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