Did you know… James Shields?

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James Shields( 10 May 1810 – 1 Jun 1879 )

General James Shields By Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs.

James was born in Altmore, County Tyrone, Ireland. He became a Federal Civil War general, challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel, defeated Stonewall Jackson, and served as US Senator from three different states – quite a record.

James’s ancestors suffered at the hands of the English, fighting on the wrong side in the Battle of Boyne (1690), which caused them to lose most of their lands and possessions. James’s parents were Charles Shields and Anne McDonnell, but his father died when he was only six – his uncle, also named James, took over as the father figure in his life, assuring that he received an education at the local school, and then engaging a private tutor. The tutor was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and taught him military science, French, Latin, and fencing.

At age sixteen, James tried to emigrate to the United States to an uncle there, but the ship he took from Ireland sank in a storm. James was at sea on wreckage a few days and washed up on the coast of Scotland. James was one of the few survivors. He had to scrabble about for a living, surviving on odd jobs around ships, learning to be a sailor. After four years, he again sailed for America, only to find that his uncle had died in the meantime.

Arriving in 1826, the twenty-year-old lad again had to fend for himself and took a job as a sailor. An accident at sea left him with two broken legs and no employment. He recovered physically but could no longer climb the masts, and the taste for life at sea left him. James fell back on the military training he’d received and volunteered in the Army for the Seminole Wars. He served well and rose to lieutenant. Following the war, he tried Canada for a short time, founding a fencing academy. There weren’t enough students to make a good living. James drifted south, settling in Kaskaskia, Illinois, just south of St. Louis.

He took odd jobs and tutored French. and began to study law. By 1832, he was admitted to the bar. His cases were mundane, but he acquired a reputation for honesty and industry. James joined in the growing sentiment against slavery – the Irish not generally being treated well at this time, either.

He ran for and was elected to the Illinois state legislature, and after two terms, became state auditor. James presided over the Panic of 1837 for the state, bringing Illinois finances back into order and shoring up banks. His policies were not entirely popular but later viewed as rescuing the state from insolvency. Illinois State Bank did go bankrupt, and James took heat for supporting its closure. In the legislature, he got into a debate with Abraham Lincoln on the topic.

A series of anonymous articles began appearing in Illinois newspapers decrying the practices that Shields promoted, particularly the state refusal to accept paper money as legal tender, as well as his personal conduct with women. James was sure that Lincoln was behind the articles, and felt his honor was impugned. There is some debate as to whether Lincoln actually authored the articles – some think it was actually Mary Todd. Whether Mary wrote one or more of the letters or merely submitted them without Abraham’s knowledge, or some of each, they were published, poking fun at James Shields. Shields was furious and demanded a retraction, which Lincoln refused. James then challenged him to a duel, to be carried out in Missouri, where dueling was still legal.

Lincoln had the choice of weapons. He thought Shields might well kill him if it were pistols or rapier, but Lincoln was seven inches taller, and the rail-splitter was a good deal more fit. Accordingly, he chose cavalry broadswords, figuring his bulk would allow him to disarm Shields without either getting hurt.

Bloody Island

On September 22, 1842, the two men met at Bloody Island, East St. Louis, on the Missouri side of the river. Taking up weapons, they faced each other across a ditch, with a plank between them that neither was allowed to cross. With the characteristic presence of mind, Lincoln raised his sword, and cut a small tree branch on his opponent’s side with a swish, demonstrating his superior reach and strength. Witnesses to the feat entreated the two men to mend their differences, and not actually carry out the duel. Shields, seeing himself overmatched, relented. Accounts differ regarding whether Lincoln apologized, or simply threatened to make good on the proposed violence. Everyone agrees that the actual fighting did not take place and that Lincoln and Shields afterward became friends.

James continued to serve as state auditor for a time, and then in 1845 was appointed a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. His term was unremarkable. He moved to a job with the U.S. Federal Land Office and contemplated starting an Irish colony in Iowa. These plans were aborted by the start of the Mexican-American war. Zachary Taylor, James’s old commander from the Seminole Wars, appointed him a brigadier general. He took control of Tampico after it was abandoned, and fought at the Battles of Veracruz, Cerra Gordo, and Chapultepec. He was wounded and had his horse shot from under him, continuing to lead the charge on foot. With a broken arm, and recovering from grapeshot, he sat out the remainder of the war in the hospital.

After his return to Illinois, he was brevetted major general but returned to practicing law after receiving honors from both Illinois and South Carolina. In 1848, he was appointed the governor of the new territory of Oregon but declined the post. James had his eye on the U. S. Senate from Illinois. He ran and was elected – but forced to resign because he did not yet meet the constitutional requirement of being a U.S. citizen for nine years. He returned to law and then ran again in a special election to replace himself after meeting the time requirement for citizenship – again succeeding.

As a senator from Illinois, James opposed slavery and supported a homestead act. He was a champion of veteran’s pensions. But in 1855, in a three-way race with Lincoln and Turnbull, he lost the senate seat. Undaunted, James moved to Minnesota territory and called large numbers of Irish emigrants to come to the land of the thousand lakes. When Minnesota became a state in 1858, James ran and returned to the Senate from his newly adopted home state. Since the normal senatorial term was half completed, James drew straws to see who would serve the short, and who the long term of the two senatorial seats. James got the short stick, and when he ran for re-election, he was defeated.

Shields then moved to California, taking with him a bride. The Carr and Shields families were friends, dating back to Ireland. James and Ann finally acknowledged their attraction to each other and were married. Their marital bliss was short-lived, as James received an appointment as Brigadier General of Volunteers, serving in the 1st Division of 5th Corps in the Army of the Potomac. His wife returned to Missouri while he served in the Army.

During the Civil War, Shields most prominent engagement was at the First Battle of Kernstown, during Jackson’s Valley Campaign, in March 1862.

Battle of Kernstown

Shields commanded Kimball, Carroll, and Sullivan. The battle took place just north of the town of Kernstown, south of Winchester, Va., just off modern interstate 81. Jackson was moving northwest, having received poor intelligence that there was a small force of Federals, under Tyler that could easily be overwhelmed. Instead, reinforcements quickly came forward and Jackson’s troops were outnumbered two to one. Jackson’s flanking maneuver exposed his own right flank against a vastly superior force. It has often been shown that in battle, correct intelligence makes all the difference – and this was no exception. Kimball moved his troops forward toward the exposed right flank while doubling up Tyler’s force. Moving quickly, Jackson’s troops made it to a stone wall in front of them, with Opequon Creek on their left to the west. This forced Tyler to attack a fortified position, slowing progress. Federal forces under Sullivan and Carroll moved south, threatening to come up behind Jackson, and leave him stuck between two forces. Shields got constant information from his commanders and urged them to close the trap. Tyler kept up the pressure until Jackson’s famous Stonewall Brigade ran out of ammunition. As more Federals poured in, the line began to fold. Helplessly, Jackson tried to rally and make it an orderly retreat, realizing the hopeless situation. He is said to have stopped a fleeing soldier.

Jackson: “Where are you headed, son?” Soldier: “Sir, I’m out of ammunition!” Jackson: “Then go back, and give them the bayonet!”

Cozzens, Peter. Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign.

But the soldier kept running, as did many others.

Examining the after-action reports, Lincoln praised Shields and became worried about McClellan and Fremont. Taking matters into his own hands, he assigned a brigade to reinforce Fremont, lest Jackson take that way north and threaten Washington. He was reportedly disgusted with the inadequacy of McClellan’s defenses and offered command of the Army of the Potomac to Shields. Shields turned him down, not because of animosity toward Lincoln, (their quarrel largely was forgotten) but because he said he couldn’t work directly with Secretary of War Stanton.

James Shields was promoted to major general for his actions, but Congress withdrew the promotion. Angered by the slight, Shields resigned.

He collected his wife and began an odyssey working for the railroads that led him back to California, Mississippi (after the war), Wisconsin, and finally Missouri. He ran for Congress, lost, was elected to the United States Senate from Missouri, thus becoming the only person to ever serve in the Senate from three different states, Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri. The Missouri seat was to fill a vacancy, and Shields resigned after three months, declining to seek re-election. He returned home to Mary, living quietly. Shields died unexpectedly in Iowa on June 1, 1879, while on a lecture tour, after reportedly complaining of chest pains. He was broke, and forgotten by many – his grave was unmarked for a long time. Mary survived him, living until 1928.

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