Abraham Lincoln’s connection to Alton is well-known. He debated fellow Senatorial hopeful Stephen Douglas in downtown Alton in 1858. Lincoln eventually would lose the election, but the wit and wisdom displayed by the future president is evident in reading the text of the debates. Honest Abe’s words defined him. Often quoted in political circles and popular culture, Lincoln, slight yet tall, aptly embodies the Richelieuian phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Even though Lincoln will forever be linked to the bloody American Civil War, early in his political career he found himself involved in a unique combative confrontation.
In 1842, Lincoln was challenged to a duel by fellow Illinois politician James Shields over a letter Lincoln had written and had published in the Sangamo Journal in Springfield. The letter personally attacked Shields, vilified and obviously embarrassed him. Lincoln had actually had his wife, Mary Todd, and one of her friends revise and sharpen the barbs he threw. A calculated and appropriate move, considering he signed the letter, “Rebecca.” When the editor of the paper was asked by Shields as to the identity of Rebecca, he revealed that it was Lincoln, per Abe’s request. Lincoln and Shields had previously been able to work together on political issues, but on the latest matter of banking in Illinois, no compromise was able to be brokered. Shields demanded that Lincoln retract his slanderous words. Lincoln refused, so Shields threw down the gauntlet.
On September 22, 1842, the two men and their seconds met in Alton. Dueling had been outlawed in Illinois back in 1836, so the battle had to be held in neutral territory, most likely one of the islands in the Mississippi River. Although historians debate the location, Bloody Island seems to be the likely settling as duels had been held there before. As the challenged party, Lincoln was allowed to choose the weapons used in the fight. Instead of the usually chosen pistols, Lincoln decided on large cavalry broadswords. Lincoln was much taller than the vertically challenged Shields and used his stature to his advantage. Lincoln employed his sword and evident reach to slice down a willow branch high above Shields’ head. Shields was not intimidated. Calmer heads would prevail, however. At the urging of friends, Lincoln relented and eventually apologized to Shields. The two entourages then emerged on the banks at Alton well behind a log they had intentionally dressed to look like a covered corpse. Spectators were horrified and women fainted, all to the amusement of a few, especially the duelists.
Both men and their parties retired to The Old ’76 tavern at the corner of Market and Front streets. They spent the rest of the afternoon drinking and toasting one another’s continued good health and political success. Shields would go on to serve with distinction in the Mexican War and win Senate seats in Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri. Lincoln’s involvement in the duel would embarrass him for years. He often refused to discuss it, and even publicly buried the broadsword decades later. However, the lesson in reconciliation learned on Bloody Island would serve Lincoln and his nation well a quarter-century later following the Civil War during Reconstruction.