Dueling was still a big deal in mid-19th Century America. So much so, it actually decimated the U.S. Army’s officer corps. It seemed no one was immune, from President Jackson on down to the common man. One such common man was future President Abraham Lincoln. The young politician made the mistake of publicly denouncing an Illinois banker. The banker demanded satisfaction while Lincoln demanded the public challenge be fought with swords.
The whole row started with a public debate about banking in 1842. Lincoln was a young man at this time, a lawyer and member of the Illinois State Legislature. Even then, Lincoln’s rhetoric was formidable. His debating skills were feared by opponents, and as a lawyer, his closing arguments were near-perfect. The debate that got Lincoln into a duel was one about banking in Illinois with state auditor James Shields.
Lincoln criticized the closing of the bank and its refusal to accept its own issued currency. Farmers in Illinois now had worthless money while the bank would only accept gold and silver as payment on debts. In a letter to the Sangamo Journal newspaper, Lincoln wrote an editorial criticizing the bank, the Democratic Party, and personally insulting Shields. Shields demanded a retraction, and when he didn’t get one, he demanded a duel. Lincoln, the challenged, got to choose the weapon.
Honest Abe chose cavalry swords because he knew if he were to choose pistols, Shields would likely kill him. Lincoln, a very tall man by the standards of the day, was also very strong, so his reach and his power gave him the edge in a sword fight. Lincoln did not want to kill his opponent, instead intending to use his seven-inch advantage in height and reach to disarm the man.
When the time came, the two men met at Bloody Island, Mo. for the match. There, they received the swords and stood apart with a plank dividing them. Neither man could cross the wooden board. Instead of swinging at Shields, Lincoln lopped a branch off a nearby tree with a single blow. Shields understood the demonstration and called a truce.
In an interesting historical footnote, Shields would later lead Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley as a Brigadier and was the only General to defeat Stonewall Jackson in battle during the campaign. It cost him a lot – he was nearly killed in the process. Lincoln awarded his former rival a promotion to Major General for the action.