Dueling Broadswords

August 2007


Listening to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays game a few weeks ago, I kept hearing the name James Shields. Not all that odd, since Shields is a righter hander for the Rays. Odd though, is that there is a connection between James Shields and Abraham Lincoln.


Of course, the connection involves a different James Shields. This one served as state auditor of Illinois from 1841–1843 and was a bit touchy. He took exception to a letter published in the Sangamo Journal, the local Springfield, Illinois, newspaper. The editor informed Shields that the letter poking fun at the auditor and signed “Rebecca” was written by Abraham Lincoln. Now Lincoln was a smart man and would not wittingly write a letter to raise the ire of anyone, lest his authorship became known. But this particular letter was written by Mary Todd (not yet Mrs. Lincoln) and her friend Julia Jayne. Mary had a good laugh writing the letter but unfortunately had none of Lincoln’s pragmatism. Lincoln was quick to defend Mary’s honor by accepting authorship at once, although he did hint at the truth when later writing to Shields, “and without stopping to inquire whether I really am the author….”


Lincoln was required to write an answer to Shields because Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln accepted the challenge as it was the honorable thing to do, but took steps to ensure that all would be well in the end. Lincoln interestingly chose as weapons “cavalry broadswords of the largest size.” The duel was to take place on September 22, 1842, on Sunflower Island, Missouri, three miles across the river from Alton, Ill. (Dueling was illegal in Illinois.) The dueling party had to travel a good 100 miles from Springfield to Alton, quite the excursion in 1842.


All was in place by 5 pm on the appointed day, as Lincoln warmed up his broadsword a little by hacking at tree branches well above Shields’ head. Lincoln’s seemingly ingenuous behavior was enough for Shields to realize quickly that Lincoln’s superior height and strength reduced Shields’ chance of victory to nil. The seconds agreed to call off the duel.


Rowing back to Alton, Lincoln draped a red shirt over a log in the bottom of the boat to create the illusion of a bloody corpse. It was said that women fainted at the sight, but Lincoln, Shields, and the seconds burst into laughter. Lincoln was known for his strategy and humor, balanced well on that September day.


Shields would go on to serve as brigadier general in the Mexican and Civil Wars as well as U.S. senator from Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri. He is the only person to have served as senator from three states.