James J. Shields: Tyrone Native Served America Well—and Often

By Pat Hickey

No textbook tells the story of James J. Shields, but his personal story and resume are among the most impressive of any American, in any era.

(Left: "Churubusco" by James Walker, 1819-1889. James Shields fought there during the Mexican War.)

Shields' attainments are even more remarkable when you consider his modest start. He arrived in America in the 1820s a penniless Irish Catholic immigrant, without a friend or patron.

By the time he died in 1879 at age 73, Shields had ably served as a soldier, a teacher, a lawyer, a judge, an Illinois Supreme Court justice, and a state auditor. These were in addition to his service as a state representative, a brevet major general in the Mexican War; military governor of Tampico, Mexico; territorial land agent; U.S. senator for, respectively, Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri; and brigadier general of Union troops.

Shields in his Civil War uniform.

Shields possessed "a compelling personal story," in the words of today's political speak, one that made him a national hero 150 years ago. Today he is perhaps most generally known as a footnote to history the only man who ever challenged young Abraham Lincoln to a duel.

The Tyrone-born Shields associated with other prominent Americans, as well. He was a loyal and constant friend of Lincoln nemesis Senator Stephen A. Douglas, cordial with General and President Zachary Taylor, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, and Senator Henry Clay, and was the commanding officer of Capt. Robert E. Lee in America's war with Mexico. Shields was, by all accounts, a courageous soldier, suffering wounds to his lungs at and legs in Mexico, and shoulder and arm at Kernstown, Va., where he defeated legendary Confederate commander "Stonewall" Jackson.

Shields is an enduring presence in Chicago, where Shields Avenue runs alongside Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox. Clearly, Illinois, which selected Shields' statue for its first entry into the Statuary Hall in 1893, understood his contribution to the state and the country.

The Irishman served Illinois from the time he arrived in America in 1822 or 1823 until he resigned his commission in the Civil War. He continued to serve his adopted country until his death in 1879.

According to a monograph published by John Edgar Shields of Gaithersburg, Md., Shields can trace his origins to a general who died in the service of King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. He was born to Catholic parents Charles and Anne (McDonnell) Shields, on May 6, 1806, in Altmore, on the outskirts of Dungannon.

Most of Shields' biographers and acquaintances agree that he was educated by a "hedge" priest and later in a Protestant academy. He had a good classical training and was at home with Latin, Greek, Irish, Spanish, and French, in addition to English. He learned military tactics and swordplay from the Duke of Wellington's pensioners in and around Dungannon.

Outraged, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.

Some accounts, including William Condon's "Life of Major General Shields, Hero of Three Wars and Senator from Three States" (Chicago: 1900), state the young Shields went to sea and was shipwrecked and injured in Scotland prior to his arrival in America, providing a suitably harrowing start for such an adventure-filled life.

Shields eventually settled in downstate Kaskaskia, Ill. Here he taught school to French-speaking settlers, as well as American, and studied law. He put his martial skills to use in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Later that year, he gained admittance to the state bar and began a career in law and politics.

It was then that Douglas became Shields' life-long friend and political partner. This was the Age of Jackson, and most men in the West were Democrats, including Douglas and Shields.

Mary Todd Lincoln

In 1836, Shields was elected to the Illinois legislature. The Whigs there, including Abraham Lincoln, opposed Jackson's policies, setting the stage for Shields' entry into the national stage.

In 1839, Douglas helped Shields gain appointment to the post of Illinois state auditor. Shields insisted that debtors pay the state's bank the face value on money they owed it and not the devalued price. This stance angered Lincoln and the Whigs, but saved Illinois from economic ruin.

By 1842, Mary Todd, who had flirted with the handsome Shields, had refocused her attention on Lincoln. With Julia Jayne, she apparently collaborated with her future husband in crafting a series of demeaning articles about Shields written under a nom de plume. Outraged, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. (See below.)

En route to the dueling ground, Lincoln apologized to Shields, and tried to never speak of the affair again.

In 1845, at Douglas' recommendation, President James K. Polk appointed Shields Commissioner of the Land Office in Washington. Shields in this role allocated public lands for railroad use, ensuring that the railways would continue to ably serve the rapidly expanding nation.

The Battle of Cerro Gordo, where James Shields nearly lost his life.

America's imperialistic war with Mexico, launched in 1846, again put Shields in harm's way as a brigadier of Illinois Volunteers.

In Mexico, Shields served as governor general of Tampico. (Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, Ill.) Shields was wounded and nearly died at Cerro Gordo. An Irish-born Mexican army surgeon saved Shields' life by prodding a silk handkerchief through the sucking chest-wound with a ramrod. Shields recuperated and led the New York Irish and the South Carolina Palmettos to victory at Churubusco, Chapultepec, and Mexico City.

J. Sean Callan, in "Courage and Country: James J. Shields More Than Irish Luck" (1st Books Library, 2004) recounts Shields' rescue of two women in the siege of Mexico City. A popular street ballad of the 1850s refers to the exploit, when Shields, defying orders, entered the capital with a squad of volunteers, and rescued both women:

Of the all the conquering siege had brought,
More bravely against the Foe,
Than General Shields for Women wrought
Defying Mexico

Brevetted to major general, Shields returned to Illinois a hero of national renown. Polk appointed him Territorial Governor of Oregon in 1849, but Shields declined the office to run for the U.S. Senate from Illinois. The Illinois assembly elected him, but Shields' enemies and the Whigs refused him his seat, saying he had not met the time requirement for citizenship. The assembly, dismissing the claim, again elected Shields, who became the state's first Catholic senator.

Shields in California

James J. Shields arrived in the Los Angeles area in the summer of 1860, spending about a month there before moving to San Francisco on Aug. 1, 1860. For a time he lived in an apartment on the northeast corner of Mission and Brady. He later rented a law office on the northeast corner of Montgomery and California. On Aug. 15, 1861, he wed Mary Ann Carr in the city's St. Ignatius Church. Two Jesuits, Fr. Maraski, assisted by Fr. Colby S.J., officiated. Judge Calkery was best man and Susie Sweeney was bridesmaid. St. Ignatius was destroyed in the aftermath of the earthquake in 1906. Shields left San Francisco for the war Dec. 11, 1861, and returned in March 1863. He left the Golden State for good in mid-1865. (Source: J. Sean Callan, "Courage and Country: James J. Shields More Than Irish Luck")

Shields' devotion to Douglas left him vulnerable in Illinois, though. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, brokered by Douglas, unleashed a hunt for escaped slaves in so-called "Free States," stalling secession but enraging Northerners. Lincoln and Democratic rival Lyman Trumbull worked to unseat Shields. Trumbull replaced Shields in the Senate, and Shields left Illinois, settling in Minnesota Territory, where in 1857 he was elected U.S. Senator.

California was Shields' next stop. After Minnesota's Republicans defeated him at the end of his two-year term, Shields moved west. He wedded Mary Anne Carr, the daughter of a friend from County Armagh, and the marriage produced five children. He was appointed railroad commissioner for California, and also established a gold mine in Mazola, Mexico. The launch of America's Civil War in April 1861 returned Shields to uniform.

Lincoln appointed his old foe and friend brigadier general, and within a year Shields, though severely wounded, handed "Stonewall" Jackson his only defeat at the hand of the Union Army, at the Battle of Kernstown. Lincoln approved Shields' appointment to major general, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Trumbull and other enemies in Congress, blocked the promotion.

Suffering from his many war wounds and the rebuff offered by men who never saw combat, Shields resigned and returned to California.

In 1866, Shields and family moved to Carrollton, Mo., where he lectured and practiced law. In 1879, he was elected by the Missouri legislature to complete the term of a senator who died, and Shields represented a third state in the Union he fought to preserve. Due to ill health, he refused renomination and died June 1, while giving a speech in Ottumwa, Iowa.

In 1893, a bronze statue of Shields, in his major general's uniform, was placed in the Capitol, where it resides, albeit somewhat less securely, today.

Chicago native Pat Hickey grew up not far from "35th and Shields." He is director of development at Leo High School, once a largely Irish-American Catholic high school for boys whose students are now entirely African-American.

Women, Politics Lay Behind Shields-Lincoln Duel


Library of Congress
Lincoln, as he appeared about the time of Shields' challenge.

The duel between Abraham Lincoln and James J. Shields was to take place by the Mississippi River near Alton, Ill., on Sept. 22, 1842.

Earlier, there appeared in the Sangamo Journal, a Whig newspaper based in the state capital, a series of letters, under the nom de plume "Rebecca," attacking Shields. Shields' honesty, courage, integrity, and national origin were treated with abuse and sharp wit.

As state auditor, Shields had taken positions very much at odds with Whig policy, particularly irking rising Whig star and state representative Lincoln.

An 1898 book titled "Abraham Lincoln's Stories and Speeches," written and edited by J. B. McClure, suggests Shields was the victim of joshing rather than libel, receiving such jibes from "Aunt Becca" as: "Jeff tells me the way these fire-eaters do is to give the challenged party the choice of weapons, which, being the case, I tell you in confidence, I never fight with anything but broomsticks or hot water, or a shovelful of coals or some such thing; the former of which, being somewhat like a shillelah, may not be so very objectionable to him."

Shields demanded of the editor the name of the letters' author and was told it was Lincoln. The McClure book states that future wife Mary Todd was the author, with Lincoln shouldering the responsibility. Some historians, though, suggest that Lincoln collaborated with Todd and Julia Jayne on the letters.

Shields then confronted Lincoln. Though illegal in Illinois, the challenge had its own forward momentum, and the newspapers of the time publicized the pending duel for weeks. It would have been difficult for any man, let alone a politician on the rise, to back down.

As the individual challenged, Lincoln had the choice of weapons and chose large cavalry broadswords. Seconds argued the protocols, while cooler heads attempted to prevail. Shields would not be mollified, however. At one point, looking to deter Shields, the 6-foot 4-inch reached with his broadsword and cut a length of branch from a tree, showing Shields how his 7-inch height advantage provided an edge.

Eventually, though, bloodshed was avoided and Lincoln apologized, with Lincoln and Shields becoming friends.

Carl Sandburg, in his biography of Lincoln, treats the affair as a shabby episode in Lincoln's otherwise exemplary life. Sandburg states that a legend arose that Lincoln, when challenged, demanded as the dueling weapon "horse dung at five paces." The story, while apochryphal, suggests that Lincoln was embarrassed by the affair. During the Civil War, an officer asked the president of the duel, and an angry Lincoln advised him to never speak of it again. — Pat Hickey



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Tags: American, Civil, Hero, J., James, Politics, Preservation, Regan, Shields, War


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