Anyone who knows me is aware I love history. I am currently listening to a biography of Robert E. Lee, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda while reading S. C Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.
Cross referencing the two sources, I am exploring the campaign of the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862. During that period Jackson suffered one defeat at the hands of a union Col. Nathan Kimball, who had been given command after the serious injury of Brigadier General James Shield. This was Jackson’s only defeat of the campaign, due to faulty information about the size of Shield’s army (9000 men, but reported as 3000). Jackson with his 4000 men was unsuccessful in the engagement.
As a result of the victory, James Shield was promoted to Major General by President Abraham Lincoln, later withdrawn, reconsidered and rejected. But, those names faintly rang a bell for me. Let me give you a bit of the back story. Two decades before this battle, James Shields was the state auditor of Illinois and Lincoln was a self described “prairie lawyer”. Illinois was in a financial crisis and Shields created a plan where the Bank of Illinois would no longer accept paper currency from private citizens looking to pay off debt. Gold and silver, which the common man did not have access to, became the only acceptable currency. Shields sided with the Democrats and supported the decision to close the Illinois Bank.
This made him the target of the Whig party, in particular a young country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who writing under the penname “Rebecca” wrote strong letters to the editor of the Sangamo Journal, making fun of Shields who fancied himself as a ladies’ man. In the course of these letters he shamed Shields, intensified when Mary Todd (engaged to Lincoln for the second time and consider quite a catch), taunted Shields with her own letter to the editor under the pen name “Cathleen”.
Then Mary Todd and a friends of her’s decided to write under the pen name “Rebecca” and “Aunt Becca” wrote that Shields was “a ballroom dandy, floatin’ about on the earth without heft or substance, just like a lot of cat fur where cats had been fightin.” That was enough for Shields who demanded the name of the author of the letters.
The editor revealed that Lincoln was the writer, and Lincoln also took responsibility for the letters written by Mary Todd. When he refused to make a written apology, scoffing at Shield’s demand, before he was challenged to a duel.
Duels, being illegal in Illinois, a small sandbar island in the middle of the river in Missouri known as Bloody Island was selected for the meet. It was famous for duels, cockfights, bare knuckle fights. Lincoln, being the challenged party had the choice of weapons. Not wanting to kill or be killed by Shields (known as an excellent marksman), he avoided pistols and announced his preference for cavalry broadswords of the largest size. Being a towering six foot four inches compared to Shields’ comparatively diminutive five foot eight inch frame, this gave Lincoln a considerable advantage in reach.
As they met on the field of honor, a large plank was placed between them, with each being instructed to stand at the end of the board. When practicing, Lincoln was lopping off the tops of trees around Shields while Shields was unable to reach Lincoln at all. Seeing the immensity of Lincoln’s strength and reach advantage, the bystanders were able to convince Shields to call off the duel.
Have you heard of the Lincoln-Shields duel (175 years ago today)? I am sure you know of the Burr-Hamilton duel, and perhaps of the Jim Bowie Sandbar fight (190th anniversary was September 19th, four days ago) following the Wells-Maddox duel? Duels made names for those engaged, establishing reputations in the telling and retelling of them.
The reason you’ve not heard of the Lincoln-Shields duel is likely because of Lincoln’s refusal to speak of it. After being elected president, a young army officer asked him about it. “Is it true that you once went out to fight a duel and all for the sake of the lady by your side?” “I do not deny it,” replied Lincoln. “But if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.”
Lincoln teaches two lessons from this story, first one: Shameful acts are not the kind of thing upon which to build a reputation and ought to never be mentioned or rehearsed. The second is equally important. 20 years after the altercation, Lincoln was in a position to reward an old enemy for an accomplishment and acted to do so. When the power to do good to one who at one time opposed us in present, bless rather than curse.
Scripture mentions both of these qualities. The things that evil men do ought not to even be spoken of (Ephesians 5:12), including our own misdeeds. It is one of those difficult commands, for us to return a blessing for a curse (1 Peter 3:9).
So, while my crazy brain remembers dates of odd things like duels, I was reminded of a far more important lesson.
By the way, James Shields served as a U.S. Senator for the states of Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota, the only person to ever represent 3 different states in that capacity.