Friday, May 11, 2007

The 16th president of the United States has been remembered as a calm and persuasive person. A man who was level-headed and intelligent. A "Prairie lawyer". Abraham Lincoln was all of these things.
He was also a phenomenally witty individual. So witty, so sharp, so very capable with sarcastic prose that in the early hours of September 22, 1942 he found himself in a duel to the death on Blood Island. This isn't fiction.

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In 1834 Abraham Lincoln, a Whig, was elected to the Illinois state legislature. James Shields, a legislator with the rival party, was also present. At that time the state's banks were nearly bankrupt. While neither party could agree on the proper method to resolve the pressing financial issues these two men arranged a compromise. An agreement that was intended to secure future prosperity for the fine citizens of Illinois. For a time all was well.

As the political careers of the two men continued to develop they found themselves increasingly divided on issues of finance. Shields was elected to be State Auditor. From his office he had made a series of poor decisions that earned him fair criticism. For example: one law required tax collectors to accept only hard gold and silver as payment for debts. This effectively destroyed the value of paper currency. Economist and most politicians agreed that it was a piss-poor idea.
Lincoln, thoroughly disagreeing with those policies, used his knack for biting satire to fling barbs at his opponent. Under the name "Rebecca" and other pen-names he began to write letters to the editor of Sangamo Journal. The letters were scathing. They exaggerated James Shields egotism and character which required creativity according to those who knew the man. As it turns out the Auditor was rather fond of himself. Very much an egotist.
The letters were continued by Lincoln's future wife Mary Todd and others from his close circle. Eventually Shields demanded that the Editor give up the names of his attackers. Per Lincoln's instructions he said that Lincoln had been the sole writer. Upon learning the author wasn't a woman at all and infact his former friend Shields wrote a furious letter demanding that Lincoln publicly take back all the things he had said about his honesty, honor and personality. Determined and unimpressed by the rudeness of the letter Lincoln replied saying that only a more gentlemanly letter would sway him. The next letter he received was a challenge to a duel.

Though duels were illegal they were not unheard of. As a politician they were truly dangerous. To participate in one has its potentially lethal consequences of course. To refuse would ruin a career. The people love a fight and courageous men who accepted challenges honorable combat.
As the recipient of a challenge to duel Abraham Lincoln was alloted by tradition the right to choose the weapons and location.
Lincoln took full advantage of his rights by stipulating that the duel was to take place on an island near Alton, IL. Bloody Island was the likely location, technically a part of Missouri where duels were legal. The following conditions were cleverly designed to not only give himself a clear advantage over his opponent but to highlight the absurdity of the situation. Hopefully that would make Shields retract his challenge.

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The weapons to be used would be "Cavalry Broadswords of the largest size". Also, the battle was to take place in a fighting pit measuring 10' by 12' with a large wooden board in the center which neither man could step across without forfeiting his life.
But James Shields was an angry stubborn man. He accepted the ridiculous terms.

A disappointed Lincoln and the irate Shields met on Blood Island and prepared themselves while their seconds tried desperately to reach conclusion that wouldn't require anyone to be cut to ribbons.
As the debate went on Lincoln, who was 6'4" took a saber in hand reached up and began to lop branches off of a tall willow tree. As Lincoln did this his much shorter opponent realized the severity of his disadvantage and allowed himself to be persuaded to resolve their differences sans-broadswords.
Upon returning to the shore the men agreed that a letter from Lincoln admitting authorship of the inflammatory declarations and stating he had no intention to impune the character of Shields would rebalance the honor of the two gentlemen.

Years later the two men would join into a more agreeable relationship, even becoming political allies. During the Civil War James Shields was made a Brigadier General with the approval of President Lincoln.

Twenty years after the affair Lincoln buried the cavalry broadsword.

He always disliked talking about it.

Here is an interesting book on the subject:
Myers, James E. The Amazing Saber Duel of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln-Herndon Building, 1968



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