Sept. 22, 2022

Abraham Lincoln’s Duel

Abraham Lincoln’s Duel

September 22, 1842. A young Abraham Lincoln meets a political rival on Bloody Island to face off in a life-or-death duel.


Cold Open 

It’s March 22nd, 1862, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, almost one year into the American Civil War.

Brigadier General James Shields sits on a horse, bellowing commands to his subordinates as his troops come under Confederate fire. He is determined to follow his orders; to hold the town of Winchester for the Union—whatever the cost.

For the past year, Union forces have struggled to defeat the Confederate Army. And exasperated, President Abraham Lincoln recently reshuffled his general staff to get his stalled army on the move. One of his new appointees is Shields, a former statesman and old friend.

Now on the battlefield, Shields scans his surroundings, looking to see where the Confederates are shooting from. As he stands in his stirrups to get a better view… a shell explodes nearby.

Shields struggles to control his horse. As it rears up, he slide from the saddle… and hits the ground with a hard thud. A horrible pain shoots through Shields’s left arm and shoulder.

Dazed, Shields looks up to see officers crowding around him. He hears a doctor saying that a shell fragment has broken his arm and he needs to get to the rear for treatment. 

Shields fights to stay conscious as he tells his men he doesn’t want to leave the battlefield now. Today’s fight is crucial to the war effort. But as he tries to speak and rally his soldiers, he can’t stop his eyes from closing. And soon his body goes limp.

In an opening skirmish before the Battle of Kernstown, James Shields is injured by shrapnel from a Confederate shell. Throughout the next day’s battle, Shields will have to receive reports and issue orders from a cot behind the frontlines. But his men will stand strong and push the enemy back, keeping the Confederates a safe distance away from President Lincoln’s government in Washington DC. The display will further prove Shields’s devotion to Lincoln, a stark reversal from his days as the president’s political adversary.

For years, the two men were not on the same side and did not always see things eye to eye. Long before Shields fought to protect Lincoln the president, he attempted to kill Lincoln the budding politician. Twenty years before the Battle of Kernstown, Shields and Lincoln had a disagreement over politics. Their spat quickly escalated. And eventually, Shields and Lincoln took up arms against each other, determined to fight to the death in a duel on September 22nd, 1842.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is September 22nd, 1842: Abraham Lincoln’s Duel.

Act One

It’s September 16th, 1842 at the offices of the Sangamo Journal in Springfield, Illinois, six days before James Shields and Abraham Lincoln’s duel.

Editor Simeon Francis sighs as he reads a letter at his desk. It’s from Illinois’s Democrat state auditor, James Shields. He wants to know the identity of an anonymous writer whose letters were recently published by the paper.

Simeon knows that James expects a prompt reply. But he also knows that revealing the name is going to cause an ugly argument involving his friend Abraham Lincoln. 

Lincoln is a local lawyer and Whig politician. A month ago, Simeon agreed to print a letter from him. Written under the pseudonym “Rebecca,” who was the first of several anonymous notes written by the 33-year-old and his fiancée, Mary Todd, that Simeon published over the next few weeks.

The letters were highly critical of Shields’s fiscal policies. Shields was one of the signatories of a proclamation insisting that citizens pay their state taxes in gold or silver rather than paper money issued by the failing Illinois State Bank. This meant savings that many Illinoisans had in the bank was worthless. And that didn’t sit well with Lincoln.

Lincoln and Mary’s letters also turned personal. They include critiques of Shields’s pursuit of women, mocked his looks, and called him a fool and a liar. Given the harsh language of the letters, Simeon doesn’t want to reveal Lincoln’s identity to Shields. He worries that a quarrel between the two men might escalate. But he doesn’t see any other way out of the awkward situation - Lincoln left him explicit instructions not to hide that he was the author of the letters if anybody inquired.

So, Simeon takes out a piece of paper and begins his response to Shields. His pen scratches as he declares that the man who has criticized and insulted the auditor is an outgoing member of the Illinois House of Representatives, Abraham Lincoln. He hands the letter to his secretary, asking that it be delivered by hand with all due politeness and best wishes. But Simeon’s hopes that Shields and Lincoln can avoid conflict will soon be dashed.

When Shields receives Simeon’s response, he writes another letter. This time to Lincoln. In it, he demands an apology for the slurs Lincoln wrote about him. The following day, he instructs his friend, John D. Whiteside, to hand-deliver his message to Lincoln.

Letter in hand, John heads to the Tremont County Courthouse where he has been told Lincoln will be arguing cases.

The lawyer is not hard to find. At six feet four inches tall, Lincoln stands head and shoulders above the men around him; and even if you weren't able to see him, his high-pitched Kentucky twang makes him unmistakable.

John approaches Lincoln and asks for his attention. He hands over Shields’ letter and waits while Lincoln opens it and reads the contents.

As he scans the handwritten note, Lincoln betrays no emotion. When he finishes, he re-folds the parchment and hands it back. Lincoln tells baffled John that he is disappointed that Shields called for an apology without first asking him whether he wrote the letters or not.

John inhales sharply and wonders if he heard Lincoln correctly. He expected him to simply apologize. Instead, he realizes that the lawyer is using a technicality to wriggle out of the accusation. He hasn’t admitted to writing the letters, but he hasn’t denied it either.

So, John tries to pin Lincoln down, asking, “Do you deny you are the author of the letters, sir? The editor of the paper says you are!”

Lincoln says he will not respond until Shields is prepared to write in a more gentlemanly way. John stands with his mouth open in shock. He retorts that this affair would never have begun if Lincoln had written his letters to the newspaper in a gentlemanly way.

John shakes his head and turns away from Lincoln. He knows that an apology and retraction will satisfy Shields’s honor and the matter will go no further. But he also knows if Lincoln continues to play word games and avoids accepting responsibility, then Shields is prepared to demand satisfaction another way.

Over the next four days, Lincoln and Shields will continue to bicker by letter. Each will try to claim the moral high ground. And eventually, a frustrated Shields will demand that Lincoln retract his allegations or face a duel. Lincoln will refuse to back down. And the two men will meet on a dueling field, the unseemly spat in the newspaper will threaten to cost one of them his life.

Act Two

It’s 5 o’clock in the evening on September 22nd, 1842.

On a small boat, Elias H. Merryman, a Springfield physician, rows Abraham Lincoln across the Mississippi River. He speeds up his strokes and glides the vessel onto a nearby island where they’re supposed to meet James Shields.

After days of arguing, Lincoln and Shields agreed to end their conflict once and for all in a duel. It was not a decision taken lightly. Dueling is illegal in Illinois and most surrounding states. Even if one man survives the encounter, he risks being arrested for murder.

As the challenged party, Lincoln was permitted to choose the location and weapons of the duel. For the site of the contest, he chose Bloody Island. A popular dueling spot since its position mid-river means it slips between jurisdictions of Missouri and Illinois. Elias agrees with Lincoln’s choice. Today, he is Lincoln’s second. And he doesn’t want either he or Lincoln to face charges if Shields ends up dead.

As Elias steps onto dry land, he reaches back and helps Lincoln out of the boat. Then, he escorts Lincoln to the patch of land identified for the duel, where Shields and his second, John D. Whiteside, wait for them. On the sidelines, Elias recognizes a handful of the combatants’ friends who stand at a safe distance with concerned looks on their faces.

The two seconds, Elias and John lay a wooden plank on the ground. They mark a line a few feet back, either side of the plank. Each of the duelists must remain behind the plank but in front of the line, otherwise, they will forfeit the contest.

Lincoln and Shields step forward and each pick up a cavalry broadsword, testing the weight of the heavy blades in their hands. It’s an unusual weapon for the duel, but Elias thinks that Lincoln has chosen well. He isn’t that confident with a pistol and, with a seven-inch height advantage, Elias knows Lincoln will have the longer reach with a sword.

But Elias is confused when Lincoln stands back and swings his sword before the duel begins. Shields looks on puzzled. Lincoln is swinging high, in an exaggerated movement that wouldn’t ever threaten an opponent. Instead, the swift arc of the blade chops through a tree branch above Shields’s head.

Elias realizes that Lincoln’s wild swing was a deliberate move to prove that his tall frame and long arms give him a distinct advantage. As the branch falls to the ground, Lincoln looks into Shields’s eyes. Elias senses a moment of hesitation from the challenger.

As Lincoln stares down Shields, Elias then hears a voice behind him. It’s one of Shields’ and Lincoln’s mutual friends, saying that the quarrel is out of control, and nobody wants to see blood spilled today. He suggests that now might be a good time for the two dueling parties to reconsider their options.

The two seconds, Elias and John talk it over while Shields and Lincoln stand apart, swords still in hand. John agrees to concede Lincoln’s main sticking point; he unilaterally withdraws the letter he delivered to the courthouse on Shields’s behalf. Elias suggests that Lincoln will apologize for any ill feeling the notes in the newspaper have caused. And then, each second walks over and explains the deal to their duelers. Both men readily agree to its terms. 

Elias can sense the relief in Lincoln now that the matter has been resolved to both men’s satisfaction. And within a few minutes, Elias and Lincoln return to their boat and re-cross the Mississippi back to Illinois.

As they approach the shore, a few bystanders wait for them. They have heard rumors about a duel between two Illinois politicians. They want to see which of the two combatants is returning alive, and which may be returning bloodied, or even dead. They are disappointed though as both Lincoln and Shields step out of their boats, alive and well.

In the years following their last-minute truce, Lincoln and Shields will set aside any hard feelings and forge an unlikely friendship. But as the years pass, time and careers will pull the men apart again. Shields will go on to serve as a US Senator for Illinois and Minnesota; Lincoln will serve a term as a Whig in the US House of Representatives, before emerging as a leader in the new Republican Party.

But, eventually, the two men’s paths will cross again. In 1860, Lincoln will win the presidential election and will be forced to steer America through one of its darkest chapters. As he presides over a nation at war with itself, the commander-in-chief will enlist the help of his former enemy who will take up arms as a brigadier general. Together, the two former adversaries will fight for a Union victory. And on an unexpected anniversary amid the turmoil, Lincoln will make one of his most momentous political acts to date.

Act Three

It’s September 22nd, 1862 just outside Washington, D.C., exactly 20 years since President Abraham Lincoln’s duel with James Shields.

Inside his summer cottage, Lincoln invites his cabinet members to join him at a table. As they sit down, Lincoln pulls out a document he hopes will change America. 

A year ago, civil war broke out between the North and South over longstanding disagreements about slavery and states rights. For much of it, the war has not gone in the Union’s favor. In the six months since James Shields’ division found victory at the Battle of Kernstown, Union has suffered several unexpected and demoralizing losses.

But five days ago, the Union ground out an important victory at the Battle of Antietam. Lincoln wants to take advantage of the rare success to issue a proclamation he and his cabinet have been working on for months; one that will free the slaves in the Confederacy when the new year begins. 

Today, Lincoln reads aloud the preliminary emancipation proclamation one final time to ensure the members of his cabinet fully understand its meaning. He knows the proclamation is supported enthusiastically by some members of his cabinet, but only reluctantly by others.

As he finishes, Lincoln takes a moment to look in the eyes of each of the seven men gathered. Then, he asks his cabinet whether they agree with the words of proclamation. When they indicate they do, Lincoln picks up a pen and signs his name at the bottom of the page.

When he picks up the document and hands it to his Secretary of State, Lincoln probably does not realize that it is 20 years to the day since his almost-duel with James Shields.

And in those years since then, both he and Shields were embarrassed by their youthful, hot-headed quarrel and quickly closed down the conversation if anybody brought it up. But their last-minute truce will have profound consequences for the nation’s future. Because of their actions on that day, Shields and Lincoln will both be alive and both able to contribute to a Union success in the Civil War twenty years later; a feat that may never have been possible had they gone through with their duel on Bloody Island on September 22nd, 1842.


Next onHistory Daily. September 23rd, 1957. Three years after the United States Supreme Court abolishes segregation in schools, nine African American students attempt to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, Pascal Hughes for Noiser.