Duel-y noted: Lincoln's time in Madison County was marked by a swordfight and a great debate

News-DemocratNovember 5, 2013 

Long before Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States, he frequented Madison County.

Donald Winkler, an author and Lincoln expert, said that in the early 1840s the young lawyer "rode the circuit in Illinois twice a year, traveling from courthouse to courthouse for three months in the spring and three months in the fall." These trips included stops in Madison County where Lincoln worked as an attorney for a railroad based in Alton.

Later, in 1858, Lincoln debated political rival Sen. Stephen A. Douglas in Alton, the last of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates that helped make Lincoln a national figure.

But Lincoln's most sensational trip to Madison County and the metro-east came in September 1842 when Illinois Auditor James Shields challenged him to a duel.

While history largely forgot the event, Lincoln experts say it might have been responsible for a key change in Lincoln's demeanor that eventually made him successful in politics.

According to James E. Myers, author of "The Astonishing Saber Duel of Abraham Lincoln,'' the dispute centered on a series of anonymous letters to the Springfield newspaper, the Sangamon Journal. The letters were extremely critical of Shields on a professional and personal level. The auditor believed Lincoln or his future wife, Mary Todd, wrote the criticisms and sought a chance to get even.

The letters attributed to the future president called Shields a liar on political matters and mocked his personality and his appearance.

Lincoln allegedly penned a sarcastic note in the voice of Shields after the auditor appeared at a county fair where several eligible single women were available for courting.

"Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you all," Lincoln allegedly wrote. "Too well I know how much you suffer; but do, do remember, it is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting."

The meeting between Shields and Lincoln was set for Sept. 22 on Sunflower Island, a popular dueling spot in the middle of the Mississippi River. Now the island is a wildlife refuge and part of the Missouri bank of the river.

In 1842, the island was situated toward the Missouri bank of the river, which put it outside the reach of Illinois law. Dueling was deemed illegal in Illinois in 1839.

Shields, who was both short-tempered and short in stature, decided the only way to resolve the issue about the letters was the duel. Lincoln knew that, in that era, he would lose face politically if he declined. So he accepted and, as the person who received the challenge, was allowed to choose the weapons and ground rules for the duel.

Lincoln took advantage of his size by requesting cavalry broad swords as the weapon for the duel and decided the men would be required to stay on their side of a line drawn on the ground.

Just before the duel was to start, Lincoln, who had been making a show of his superior reach by flamboyantly spinning around while slashing with his sword, approached the line. He reached out with his long arm and slashed down a branch from a low hanging tree just over Shields' head.

Suddenly realizing he had no chance for any outcome other than his own slaughter, Shields agreed to make peace.

Many have speculated what would have happened if Lincoln, the man who 20 years later would fight the Civil War in order to hold the United States together and lead the successful effort to ban slavery in the United States, had been killed in 1842.

But Shields might have turned the tide of the Civil War in the other direction just as easily. While Lincoln never would be in a duel again, a story in the magazine Civil War Times indicates that Shields was challenged to a duel in 1850 by future Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis. The men were able to settle their dispute without facing off in mortal combat.

During the Civil War, Shields was nominated as a brigadier general in the Union Army. Lincoln, who had the final say on the issue, gave consent.

Some say the episode with Shields helped Lincoln shed a confrontational attitude and become more of a consensus builder, a trait that served him well in politics.

Lincoln returned to Alton in October 1858 for the last of seven debates with Douglas. Lincoln was the Republican candidate for U.S. senator; Douglas the Democratic incumbent. The primary focus of the verbal battle was the issue of slavery, which threatened to divide the country.

Douglas argued the country could continue forever divided into free and slave states. But Lincoln argued that, regardless of how badly Southerners wanted to keep the institution of slavery, it was immoral and should be abolished.

Douglas won the Senate election in 1858. Two years later, Lincoln was elected president and he presided during the Civil War, trying to hold the Union together while abolishing slavery across the country.

According to Winkler, while Lincoln wanted to be remembered for leaving a positive mark on his country and mankind, he never forgot his bloodless duel with a political foe.

Said Lincoln: "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."

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