Dueling was a major conundrum for gentlemen of the nineteenth century. Since dueling was against the law, engaging in contests of honor could endanger one’s career and prospects. To refuse a duel however was inconceivable: it meant forfeiting one’s honor and manhood–it meant being a coward, in an era where that was the most despicable thing one could be.
The field of honor, was therefore a great crucible for true character. Some men were indeed revealed to be cowards or cheats. Some people did not deign to fight but fired their bullets in the air and waited to see if their opponent would shoot them in cold blood. Other men fought it out and wound up as killers or as corpses. The man who solved the problem with the greatest panache was Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, who found a completely satisfactory way out of the terrible conundrum (although it was a close thing).
In 1842, Lincoln, then an Illinois state legislator, allegedly wrote a series of anonymous letters criticizing a hot-headed Democrat named James Shields, the state auditor. The national financial crisis of the preceding years had left the state coffers in disarray and had infuriated the electorate–circumstances which left the auditor ripe for mockery. It is unclear how many of the letters, Lincoln authored himself—his future wife Mary Todd probably was much more culpable (although Lincoln was courting her at the time and was trying to both impress her with his wit and gallantry as well as shield her from any scandal). Unfortunately the anonymous letters acquired a life of their own as other writers added to the canon. Ultimately the letters hinted tauntingly at Shield’s cowardice and…inadequacy as a man. The irate Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.
Lincoln realized that he had gone too far and tried to apologize to Shields, however the latter was not appeased by any words. Since he had been challenged, Lincoln was allowed to choose the location and the weapons. A cunning lawyer, Lincoln chose Bloody Island as the battleground: this spit of land on the Missouri side of the Mississippi was disputed between the states (and by the flooding river). The island’s actual legal location was therefore unclear (a useful subterfuge for possible legal tangles). James Shield had a reputation as a crack shot and a fearless fighter, but he was small, whereas, at 6’4” Lincoln towered above his compatriots and was known for immense physical strength. Lincoln also excelled at championship submission wrestling–as a younger man he had frequently grappled against all challengers on the frontier and he was only thrown twice.
For the dueling weapons, Lincoln chose the heaviest & longest cavalry swords, which gave maximum advantage to his height and strength (and possessed the added advantage of being terrifying). The future president showed up at Bloody Island early and dug a fighting pit which, in the event of a sword fight, would prevent Shields from escaping or circling away. When Shields and his entourage arrived they were dismayed by these provisions and preparations, however the bold Shields continued to demand satisfaction. It was only when he witnessed Lincoln hack off a large willow branch far above the ground, that Shields finally was swayed by Lincoln’s apologies. The two men settled their differences and remained friends and political allies for the rest of their careers. During the civil war Lincoln appointed James Shields as a Brigadier General.
Lincoln was personally ashamed of the whole incident and did not refer to it often. ’I did not want to kill Shields and felt sure I could disarm him…,’ he later wrote, adding, ‘I didn’t want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.’ According to one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s letters an officer once asked President Lincoln if it was true that he had nearly fought a swordfight for his wife’s honor. Lincoln responded, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.” Perhaps the near disaster taught him to keep his sarcastic humor more in check (although his letters and quips reveal this always remained difficult for him). It also taught him to create allies through self-deprecation, sincerity, and–failing that–intimidation. I think Lincoln may have been embarrassed because the whole affair revealed that, if everything else failed, he maintained a cunning ability to win at any cost—a steely strength which lay within the genteel and amiable man.