Lincoln Avoids Duel With Apology
By Pat Hickey, Washington Times, 3/12/05
The duel between Abraham Lincoln and Illinois State Auditor James J. Shields was to take place by the Mississippi River near Alton, Ill., on Sept. 22, 1842.
Earlier, there had appeared in the Sangamo Journal, a Whig newspaper based in the state capital of Springfield, a series of letters attacking Shields under the nom de plume "Rebecca." Shields' honesty, courage, integrity and national origin were treated with abuse and sharp wit.
As auditor, Shields had taken positions very much at odds with Whig policy, particularly irking rising Whig star and state representative Lincoln.
An 1898 book titled “Abraham Lincoln's Stories and Speeches” written and edited by J.B. McClure, suggests Shields was the victim of joshing rather than libel, receiving such jibes from “Aunt Becca” as, "Jeff tells me the way these fire-eaters do is to give the challenged party the choice of weapons, which, being the case, I tell you in confidence, I never fight with anything but broom sticks or hot water, or a shovelful of coals or some such thing; the former of which, being somewhat like a shillelah, may not be so very objectionable to him!”
Shields demanded of the editor the name of the letters' author and decided that it was Lincoln. The McClure book states that Lincoln's future wife, Mary Todd, was the author, with Lincoln assuming the responsibility. More contemporary views suggest that Lincoln collaborated with Todd and Julia Jayne, a friend, on the letters.
Shields confronted Lincoln. Though illegal in Illinois, the challenge gained momentum, and the newspapers of the time publicized the event for weeks. It would have been difficult for any man, let alone a politician on the rise, to back down.
As the individual challenged, Lincoln had the choice of weapons and chose large cavalry broadswords. While seconds argued the protocols, cooler heads attempted to prevail. Shields would not be mollified, however. At one point, looking to deter Shields, the 6-foot-4-inch Lincoln reached with his broadsword and cut a length of branch from a tree, showing Shields how his 7-inch height advantage gave him an edge.
Eventually, bloodshed was avoided, and Lincoln apologized; Lincoln and Shields ultimately became friends.
Carl Sandburg, in his biography of Lincoln, treats the affair as a shabby episode in Lincoln's otherwise exemplary life. Sandburg states that a legend arose that Lincoln, when challenged, demanded as the dueling weapon “horse dung at five paces.” The story, though apocryphal, suggests that Lincoln was embarrassed by the affair. During the Civil War, an officer asked the president about the aborted duel, and an angry Lincoln advised him to never speak of it again.