Abraham Lincoln once Dueled on an Island in the Mississippi River
Lincoln-Shields Duel | Sunflower Island, Mississippi River
In 1842, the state of Illinois ran out of money and decided that it would no longer accept its own printed money as a form of currency. Citizens would only be able to pay taxes with silver and gold, which most did not have. This decision was obviously very unpopular, as it made the state’s paper money virtually worthless.
James Shields, the state auditor, sided with the Democratic Party on rejecting currency and shutting down the State Bank of Illinois. That made him a target for attacks by members of the Illinois Whig Party. Lincoln, then a 33-year-old Whig and state legislator, strongly opposed the Democratic financial plan and wrote attacks against Shields.
Lincoln was friends with Simeon Francis, the editor of the Sangamo Journal, and was allowed to publish a letter on August 27, 1842, under the false name “Rebecca.” It is written from the perspective of an Illinois farm wife whose neighbor cannot pay his taxes due to the rejection of state currency. The farmer, a man named Jeff, attacks this policy before going on to attack Shields individually. Lincoln, writing as the farm wife, calls Shields a “fool” and a “liar.”
After angry statements and letters from both parties, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln responded with a final call for peace, writing that he would admit to being the author of the original newspaper letter and would apologize if Shields would retract his earlier letters and rewrite them in a more polite manner. If this request was not met, he would fight the duel. As the person being challenged, Lincoln got to set the rules. Among other things, there was to be a line between the two of them, and crossing over this line would result in death. The duel was to be fought in Missouri, as dueling was still legal there, and the weapons would be broadswords.
Lincoln and Shields met for their duel on “Bloody Island,” a sandbar in the Mississippi River right outside of Alton. To demonstrate his advantage in height and reach, Lincoln swung his sword over his head and chopped down a high tree branch. This was enough to convince Shields to reconsider the wisdom of battling the much larger Lincoln, and the two called a truce.
The men returned to the boat, chatting in a friendly manner. John Broughton took a log and put it at one end of the boat, and covered it with a red shirt to make it look like the figure of a man covered with blood. As the boat reached Alton, the landing was crowded with people who were waiting to learn the result of the duel. When they saw the dummy at the end of the boat, some almost stepped into the water to see who it was that had been slain.
News of the “duel” spread among the Alton community. The editor of the Alton Telegraph, John Bailhache, who had recently returned from a trip, wrote a scathing article regarding the action of the two men. Both Lincoln and Shields were personal friends of his, and he called their action disgraceful and unfortunate. Bailhache further stated that a friendless, penniless, and obscure person would be placed in jail and then sentenced to the penitentiary for the same action. He called upon Attorney General Lamboro to exercise zeal in bringing the two men to justice. However, Bailhache was happy the two men were returned to their family and friends unscathed, and hoped the citizens of Springfield would select some other town rather than Alton, if they intended to take each other’s life in the future.
Later, Lincoln and Shields rarely spoke of the duel. Once when asked about it, Lincoln brushed the subject aside and spoke no further on the matter.
In later years, Sunflower Island - where the duel was held - took on the name of Smallpox Island, after the Confederate soldiers were housed in a hospital there during the smallpox epidemic. Later, it was known as McPike Island, Ellis Island, and Bayless Island. The Lincoln – Shields Recreation Area in Missouri was named after the event. There a monument stands in memory of the soldiers who were housed in the hospital on the island during the Civil War. Most of the island was destroyed by flooding during the construction of the bridges and dam.


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