Abraham Lincoln, then 33 years old, wrote two letters to the Springfield newspaper in 1842, condemning a rival politician. He signed the letters “Rebecca,” calling the man an idiot and a liar, among other things. Young Mary Todd, whom Lincoln was courting at the time, was aware of his letters.
Mary started sending her own “Rebecca” letters to the newspaper, criticizing the man cruelly and making fun of the fact that he wasn’t married, because she thought it would be a lot of fun. Eventually, the man decided that things had reached a breaking point, and he stormed into the newspaper’s office to ask if Abraham Lincoln was the author of the letters. When informed that Lincoln had written the letters, the man demanded a duel.
Lincoln had been poking this man, and he was not someone to be taken lightly. James Shields, the fiery-tempered state auditor of Illinois, was an Irishman. The first man in American history to be elected to the U.S. Senate from three distinct states, he would later go on to serve as a general in the Mexican American War (during which he suffered two wounds).
Lincoln became constrained by his challenge. Even if he couldn’t admit to composing the messages Mary Todd had sent, blaming a young girl would make him look cowardly. So, grudgingly, he agreed to take on Shields’ challenge.
Lincoln was given the opportunity to select the weapons and establish the ground rules for the fight. Normal duels were fought with pistols, but Lincoln was aware that doing so would probably result in his death. Instead, he decided to use broadswords, and he established laws that guaranteed him victory.
Shields and he were required by Lincoln’s rules to stand 10 feet apart on opposing sides of a board. Each man would die if the other approached any closer. Lincoln’s rules ensured that, despite being seven inches taller than Shields, he would be able to reach Shields with his sword but that Shields would be unable to touch Lincoln. Lincoln had every right to impose his terms, even though they were unsporting.
Shields recognized right away that Lincoln had made arrangements intended to prevent him from losing the battle. But Shields wasn’t a coward, and on the morning of the duel, he showed up prepared to fight no matter what happened.
As was customary in such situations, the men the combatants had selected as “seconds” made an effort to broker an honorable settlement before the duel started. It’s not apparent why Shields gave in. Some stories say that while the seconds were trying to get Shields to give in, Lincoln reached up and quickly cut off a large branch from a tree.
According to other sources, Lincoln’s second suggested to Shields’s man that Lincoln had been compelled to engage in the duel to preserve the honor of a young woman, leading Shields to be content with a mildly regretful apology. Regardless of the motivation, Shields accepted Lincoln’s type of apology in which he acknowledged drafting the first letter and stated that he never wanted to damage Shields’ reputation. Before Lincoln’s long arms had to take action, the duel was called off.
Shields could have been unarmed, and Lincoln later confided to a friend that he had no intention of killing Shields. He felt the entire incident to be extremely embarrassing and, for the rest of his life, refused to talk about it. Years later, when questioned about the rumor that he had once come dangerously close to dueling James Shields, an army officer asked Lincoln if the report was real. Lincoln replied that he would not deny it, but that if the officer wanted to be his friend, he would never bring it up again.
Following their reconciliation, Lincoln and Shields maintained a friendly connection. Shields served as a general in the Federal army during the Civil War, and his commander in chief was the man with whom he once almost dueled with broadswords on a Mississippi island.
From David Goldman:
In his 1968 book, The Astonishing Saber Duel of Abraham Lincoln fanatic and Springfield native James Myers commemorated this little-known, hardly discussed event. Together with a coworker, James Myers bought the structure that had housed the Lincoln-Herdon Law Offices. These two men used their own money to bring it back to its former glory and open it to tourists. I had the privilege of acting as the first tour guide and building manager. Later, it passed into federal ownership to serve as a national shrine. A little fascinating history.