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The Duel that Could Have Changed the Nation
Posted by Failed Success on 04/21/06 at 08:22 PM
A few words of satire from one of our nation’s most famous Presidents very nearly changed history as we know it.
In the early morning hours of September 22, 1842, a young Abraham Lincoln crossed the Mississippi River at Alton, IL on his way to a small island where he would engage in mortal combat with a political adversary.
With hundreds of onlookers present and ready for a good fight; Lincoln, who was known for being levelheaded and gentle, prepared to kill or be killed. How did it come this?
Abraham Lincoln had been elected to the Illinois state legislature as a Whig in 1834. During this time, Illinois had enormous debt problems. These financial issues kept the politicians in the state’s legislature busy, and the Whigs and Democrats were continually at odds with each other over what to do.
James Shields was another politician in the state’s legislature who had been elected in 1836 as a Democrat, Lincoln’s opposing party. While their two parties were arguing over the situation, Lincoln and James were able to constitute a compromise that would save state’s banks and help the state rebound from its financial woes. Even though the two were in opposing parties, they saw eye to eye on many of the issues and were able to work together for the greater good.
The Beginnings of Animosity
This feeling of mutual understanding and compromise would change over the years, though, when Shields became the State Auditor of Illinois. During this time, Shields was repeatedly scorned for many of the foolish decisions he was making. Shields had issued a proclamation that ordered county tax collectors to accept only gold and silver, rather than its own state-issued paper money, for payment of taxes and school debts. This particular proclamation brought him criticism from all quarters.
Lincoln was one of those who thoroughly disagreed with Shields decisions and proclamations and began writing a series of letters to the editor of the Sangamo Journal under several assumed names, including Jeff and Rebecca.
Putting his renowned sarcastic wit and talent for satire to the task, Lincoln, through his assumed identities, lampooned Shields poor policies and mismanagement of his duties. Throughout this series of letters, Lincoln’s friends Mary Todd and Julia Jayne also began sending letters of their own. The two got carried away and their letters became increasingly more vicious attacking the character and personality of Shields, in which they stated that he was “overly pompous, a hypocrite, and a liar”.
The satire also began to take on a life of its own in the social scene as letters were written from assumed identities recalling fictitious events at parties and social clubs that painted a poor picture of Shields, as well as stating Shields apparent inadequacies with the ladies.
Because of Shields vain and overly pompous personality, he became a natural target for satire. Word spread quickly of these “letters” in the newspaper and Shields was outraged. He was determined to discover who had begun this criticism. Shields pressured the editor of the paper to reveal the sources of these letters. The editor gave Shields only Lincoln’s name, as Lincoln himself had instructed him too. Even though Lincoln was not the only one taking part in this letter writing campaign, he had decided to take the blame for it if things got out of control. He especially wanted to protect Mary Todd, the friend who would soon become his wife.
Shields Presents the Challenge
Shields was hurt and appalled to find out Lincoln’s involvement and demanded, by way of a hand delivered letter, an immediate retraction. The aggressive tone of the letter led Lincoln to refuse until he received a more “gentlemanly” letter. Shields responded by challenging Lincoln to a duel.
Dueling was illegal in Illinois. Lincoln could not believe that Shields was refusing to settle the matter with anything else but an old fashioned duel. Lincoln felt the entire situation was ludicrous and completely silly. However, the public was very fond of duels and felt that they were a true indication of courage. Politicians knew that to refuse a duel would lead to lack of public support and would most likely cost you your office. Word had spread very quickly and it seemed that in no time at all, everyone in the entire state knew of the challenge. Lincoln knew that refusing to accept the duel was out of the question. Many also believed that the driving force behind Lincoln accepting the duel was to impress Mary Todd, who he was courting at the time.
Lincoln Sets the Parameters of the Duel
Due to the fact that Lincoln was the one who had been challenged to the duel, tradition gave him the privilege of choosing the time and location of the duel, as well as the weapons that were to be used. Being a man of humor and wit, and having no desire to kill Shields, or allow himself to be killed; Lincoln put together the most ridiculous set of circumstances that he could think of regarding the logistics of the upcoming duel.
Lincoln stated that the duel would be held on an island in the river near the city of Alton, IL. Some historians believe that it was Sunflower Island, while others believe it was Bloody Island. Bloody Island had long been a popular dueling spot because it was in the middle of the river and was claimed by Missouri where dueling was still legal. Either island would have allowed them to escape any legal implications.
Lincoln stated that the weapons he wished to use would be “Cavalry Broadswords of the largest size”. He figured that he could easily disarm Shields using the swords, whereas pistols would most likely lead to one of their deaths, if not both. He also added that he wanted the duel to be carried out in a pit 10 feet wide by 12 feet deep with a large wooden plank dividing the square in which no man was allowed to step foot over.
These “conditions” were designed not only to be ridiculous; but also to give Lincoln, who at 6’ 4” had longer legs and arms and towered over the much smaller Shields, a decided advantage. Lincoln hoped that these unorthodox conditions that gave him an almost unbeatable advantage would persuade Shields to withdraw the challenge and settle things in a more gentlemanly fashion.
Shields, however, was extremely stubborn and refused to yield despite the conditions that Lincoln had requested. He agreed to Lincoln’s conditions and no other negotiations were made. Much to Lincoln’s dismay, the two headed to the appointed island early in the morning on September 22 and prepared to do battle in their “Saber Duel”.
It All Comes to a Head
While their respective parties set up the dueling area, their “seconds” (friends of the duelers who handled negotiations and ensured that all of the conditions for the duel were met in accordance with the agreed upon terms) tried desperately to resolve the issue peacefully. Their pleas for a peaceful settlement began to sway the stubborn Shields as he began to realize that there was no way to win this duel against Lincoln if it was carried out.
At the last minute, Lincoln demonstrated his obvious physical advantage by hacking away at some of the branches of a nearby Willow tree. The branches were high off the ground and Shields could not hope to reach them; while Lincoln, with his long arms holding a long broadsword, could reach them with ease. This final display was enough to drive home the precarious situation that he was now in, and Shields agreed to settle their differences in a more peaceful way.
Their seconds began discussions and finally agreed that a note in which Lincoln admitted authorship of the letter and asserted that he “had no intention of injuring your (Shields) personal or private character or standing as a man or gentleman” would satisfy the honor of both them. The two headed back to Alton with their entourage where a crowd of anxious people awaited on the banks of the river to find out what had happened. Several people screamed and one woman fainted when they spotted a corpse in one of the boats. The “corpse” turned out to be a large log with a red shirt draped over it. Someone had set up the deception just to get a reaction out of the awaiting audience. This led both Lincoln and Shields to laugh hysterically at the “corpse” as well as at just how absurd the events of this day had been.
The Effects of the Duel on Lincoln and our Nation
After the duel, both groups had the appropriate after parties and reflected on the fact they both could have met their ends because of a few sarcastic comments and hurt feelings. The two were civil with each other after this unfortunate incident and remained friends and political allies for the rest of their careers.
Lincoln was extremely embarrassed about the whole incident and refused to talk about it very often. 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.
It’s interesting to ponder what might have happened if the events of the duel had gone a bit differently. Shields went on to become a brigadier general of the Union army (nominated by Lincoln himself), and of course Lincoln became the President of the United States. If Lincoln had been killed in this duel, the entire course of the nation’s future may have been radically different. Scholars argue over Lincoln’s contributions and impact on our nation’s history all of the time, but most agree that Lincoln made a difference in the way our nation grew leading up to the Civil War, as well as throughout the Civil War until his death. Who knows what would be different today if Abraham Lincoln had died that fateful night on the island.
- Civil War Times Magazine (February 2002 Issue)
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