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Lincoln-Shields Duel

Although this debate [Lincoln Douglas debate number seven] is Lincoln's most famous association with Alton, he had several other relationships with the city.

Sixteen years earlier, in one of his less celebrated adventures, Lincoln narrowly avoided a duel with James Shields directly across the river from Alton.

Shields, then State Auditor of Illinois, had issued a proclamation that ordered county tax collectors to accept only gold and silver for payment of taxes and school debts. The proclamation brought him criticism from all quarters, the height of which was a series of letters to the Sagamon Journal signed "Rebecca." In them he was called a fool, a liar, a hypocrite, and a "conceity dunce." At Shield's request, the editor identified Lincoln as the author. In a series of notes, Shields demanded satisfaction from him. Lincoln accepted. Lincoln, as custom, specified the terms of the duel: use of cavalry broadswords; a dueling area which would make it nearly impossible for a man of Shield's height to win' and the place to be "Within three miles of Alton on the opposite side of the river. From the second term it appears Lincoln wished Shields to understand the folly of his actions.

Word of the duel reached Springfield where the sherif was known to occasionally jail prospective duelists to let them calm down. Fear of arrest caused Lincoln to flee to Jacsksonville where he obtained the broadswords.

On September 22, 1842, Lincoln and Shields, each with three seconds, rowed across the Mississippi from Alton. While the parties set up the dueling area, the principal seconds tried to resolve the issue peacefully. To demonstrate his obvious physical advantage, Lincoln then reached up and lopped off a high willow branch. After discussion the two seconds finally agreed that a note in which Lincoln admitted authorship of the letter and asserted that he "had no intention of injuring your (Shields) personal or private character or standing as a man or gentleman" would satisfy the honor of both them.

Reprinted from Bluff City Profiles Alton, Illinois 1837-1987 Sesquicentennial Commemorative Book

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