Relevant History welcomes back Warren Bull, award-winning author of two novels on Kindle about Abraham Lincoln as an attorney (Abraham Lincoln for the Defense and Death in the Moonlight), plus a collection of historically-themed short stories, Murder Manhattan Style. His Young Adult novel, Heartland, about a family living in "Bleeding Kansas," is available on Kindle and, in paperback, from Avignon Press. His short stories have been published in several anthologies and other venues including Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Sniplits, The Back Alley, and Mysterical-E. For more information, check his web site and group blog.
As unlikely as it sounds, Abraham Lincoln was once involved in a duel…almost. In the early morning of September 22, 1842 Lincoln crossed the Mississippi river to a small island named "Bloody Island" where he was prepared to meet James Shields who had challenged him to a duel that could prove fatal to either or both of men.
Although Lincoln and Shields were members of different political parties, they worked harmoniously together in the state legislature. They found a practical way to get needed legislation that helped save state banks during a dire financial situation.
However, when Shields became state auditor, he made a series of decisions that many thought were foolish. For example, he issued a proclamation that county tax collectors should only accept gold and silver in payment for taxes and school debt. Lincoln and others thought that was especially hard on the indigent who had limited access to hard cash.
Lincoln wrote a number of anonymous letters to a newspaper editor using his well-honed sarcasm and satire to criticize his political opponent. Possibly in an effort to impress Mary Todd, the critique quickly turned from the political to the personal. Mary Todd and her friend Julia Jayne began sending anonymous letters of their own, which further upped the ante, and the level of venom, referring to Shields at one point as, "…overly pompous, a hypocrite and a liar."
Other letters followed recounting fictitious social situations and painting Shields as wholly inadequate with the ladies.
Lincoln told the newspaper editor not to mention the role of the two women. When Shields demanded to know who had written the letters, the editor gave Shields only Lincoln's name. Shields was appalled that his former friend had been responsible for such insulting, outrageous allegations. He sent Lincoln a letter demanding an immediate retraction of all charges. Lincoln reacted to the hostile tone of the letter by refusing to apologize until Shields sent a more "gentlemanly" epistle. Shield's response was to challenge his political rival to a duel.
Although dueling was illegal in Illinois, it was still actively practiced. Anyone refusing to defend his honor would be considered a coward by the general public, which could end a political career.
As the challenged party Lincoln had the right to set the conditions for the conflict. He made the strangest demands for any duel any time and anywhere. Lincoln insisted on a combat "pit" ten feet across by twelve feet long with a board hammered sideways into the middle of the fighting ground that neither man could step over on pain of death. He also insisted on "Cavalry Broadswords of the largest size" as the weapons. This gave Lincoln at 6' 4" a tremendous advantage over Shields who was 5' 9" tall.
Both stubborn and brave Shields accepted the conditions and showed up for the confrontation.
Lincoln demonstrated his advantage by hacking away at branches of a Willow tree on Shield's side of the pit but well beyond Shields' reach. Their seconds worked out a settlement in which Lincoln admitted authorship (including for the letters he had not written) and stated he "…had no intention of injuring your [Shields] personal or private character or standing as a man or a gentleman." By some accounts, by the time Lincoln and Shields returned to the Illinois side of the river they were already joking with each other about the cancelled swordfight.
Despite the risk of bloodshed and the absurdities involved, there was a lesson to be learned. Lincoln was never again as reckless or as harsh in his criticism of others. He became more aware of the possible consequences of intemperate language. He and Shields renewed their friendship and remained close for the rest of their lives. Shields later served as a Brigadier General in the Union Army.
Over time Lincoln became increasingly embarrassed about the duel. Later in life he refused to even discuss it.
A big thanks to Warren Bull. He'll give away a paperback copy of Murder Manhattan Style to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I'll choose the winner from among those who comment by Sunday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available within the U.S. only.
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