On September 22, 1842, Abraham Lincoln almost fought a duel.
Lincoln was a Whig member of the Illinois Legislature and a critic of state auditor James Shields, a Democrat. Their collegial relationship was strained by Shields’s actions in office, specifically the decision to only accept silver or gold as payment rather than state-issued bank notes.
Lincoln wrote an anonymous letter, signed “Rebecca,” ridiculing Shields and the actions taken by his office. The letter ran in the Sangamo Journal, and word of it spread throughout the area. Mary Todd, not yet married to Lincoln, and her friend Julia Jayne wrote more “Rebecca” letters that further attacked Shields.
One such letter appeared on page 2 of The Illinoian of Jacksonville, Illinois, on September 3.
Embarrassed by the public criticism, Shields demanded the name of the author. Lincoln took full responsibility. Dissatisfied with Lincoln’s failure to apologize, Shields challenged him to a duel. Since dueling was illegal in the state of Illinois, the men agreed to travel to Bloody Island, a common dueling spot off the coast of Missouri in the Mississippi River. As the one being challenged, Lincoln chose the terms of the fight. A plank, 10 feet long, “firmly fixed on edge, on the ground” would be “the line between us which neither is to pass his foot over upon forfeit of his life.” To avoid the likelihood of death in a pistol duel, Lincoln chose “Cavalry broad swords of the largest size” as his weapon of choice. Such large swords would emphasize Lincoln’s considerable height advantage.
The day of the duel arrived, and the men traveled with their seconds to the designated location. As they drew their weapons, the tall Lincoln easily cut a tree branch from above his head, far out of Shields’s reach.
Duel illustrations from The Astonishing Saber Duel of Abraham Lincoln by James E. Myers, illustrated by Betty Madden
After seeing Lincoln’s advantages on display, the seconds convinced the men to settle their differences more peaceably. Lincoln apologized for any insult to Shields’s character, and the two reestablished a civil working relationship. Lincoln was embarrassed about the incident for the rest of his life.