Pistols or Broadswords

On the morning March 22, 1862, Colonel Turner Ashby led his 7th Virginia Cavalry Regiment, numbering about three hundred men, north on the Valley Pike toward Winchester. Accompanying him was a mounted artillery battery of three guns under the command of Captain Robert Chew. Colonel Ashby had received intelligence the previous day that Union General Alpheus Williams’s Division had departed from Winchester and was marching east through Snicker’s Gap. Amid rumors the town was currently occupied by only a small infantry brigade, Ashby decided to sweep into Winchester and capture the city before Stonewall Jackson’s small army could arrive.

James Shields

Wartime Photo of James Shields

Late in the morning of the 22nd, as Turner Ashby was approaching Newtown, a young boy approached him with news that Winchester had been abandoned. As he got closer to town this information was confirmed once again by another citizen of the city. Ashby immediately dispatched a courier to General Jackson with this information, which triggered Stonewall to double down and push his infantry even harder on their march.

It was about two P.M. when Turner Ashby’s force passed through Kernstown. The weather was sunny for a change, with the temperature reaching into the mid-fifties. A Federal squad of mounted troops under Major Angelo Paldi, members of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, had been stationed along the Valley Pike about two miles south of Winchester. A small detachment of this unit, while scouting to the front, inadvertently bumped into the advance of Turner Ashby’s Cavalry near Abraham’s Creek. There was a skirmish and the 1st Michigan scouts were quickly repulsed.

After his close call with Ashby’s Cavalry, Paldi rode back to Winchester and notified his commander, Colonel Thornton Broadhead, of the threat. Broadhead commanded four companies of both the 1st Michigan Cavalry and the 46th Pennsylvania Infantry. He quickly dispatched his subordinate, Colonel Joseph Copeland, and his remaining forces south to reinforce Paldi. At the same time he sent a message to both General Nathaniel Banks and General James Shields asking them to send reinforcements.

Taking advantage of the time afforded him, Ashby positioned his men and artillery on the Valley Pike near a spot called Hillman’s Tollgate. Meanwhile, Colonel Copeland arrived opposite him with his small force. Realizing his detachment was insufficient to repel Ashby’s troops, he too sent a request to General Shields requesting assistance. This time Shields responded.

General Shields quickly put his men on the road marching south. Shields, himself, rode at the head of the advancing column accompanied by a company of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry. Immediately behind him was Colonel Nathan Kimball’s Huntington’s Artillery Battery, with the 8th and 67th Ohio Infantry following closely behind them. Other regiments in Kimball’s Division lagged well behind.

Shields map

Map Showing Troop Placement on March 22, 1862

Shields had been skeptical about the need for assistance and had not responded to the first call. As he advanced through Winchester, however, he could hear the sounds of Rebel artillery fire and decided to take charge of the effort to silence them. The General rode directly to Milltown which was situated on a low hill just north of Abraham’s Creek. Here he personally managed the positioning of six rifled artillery pieces. Shields was determined to silence Ashby’s guns.

While arranging the guns on the left of the line, however, James Shields’s luck ran out. A well-placed shot struck the head of one of the battery’s horses and exploded. The horse and the driver were killed instantly. Shell fragments and horse flesh filled the air. One of the pieces of shrapnel struck Shields in the left arm just above the elbow. The bone was shattered and his shoulder and left side were badly bruised.

Milltown Kernstown

1897 Photo Showing Milltown in the Distance Where Shields was Wounded

Shields fell to the ground writhing in pain. The surgeon from the 4th Ohio Infantry was called to his side to attend to him. Attempts to remove him from the field by wagon were thwarted for a time by Chew’s Battery. Eventually they were able to extricate him by ambulance and take him back to Winchester. Command of the division would fall upon Colonel Nathan Kimball. Kimball would have responsibility for fending off Stonewall Jackson’s attack the following day at the First Battle of Kernstown.

Kernstown sketch

Alfred Waud Sketch of the First Battle of Kernstown

James Shields was fortunate as the injury would not require the amputation of his arm. His military contributions to the Civil War, however, would be stunted. Still, he would be credited as the only commander to defeat Stonewall Jackson on any battlefield during the Civil War. In reporting the fight to his superiors, however, he claimed he had intentionally positioned his men north of the city to deceive Stonewall Jackson into thinking he had abandoned Winchester altogether. He also maintained he had responded to Colonel Ashby’s attack on March 22nd with a small force in order that he might prolong the deception. According to Shields it was the combination of these ruses which resulted in the Union victory at Kernstown.

The day after the First Battle of Kernstown, James Shields was promoted to Major General. His political affiliation with the Democratic Party, and perhaps doubt over his claim of the deception he had perpetrated on Stonewall Jackson, did not play well with politicians in Washington. His promotion was “withdrawn, reconsidered, and finally rejected.” The episode would mark the end of Shields’s Civil War military career. Even though Lincoln would offer him command of the of the Army of the Potomac later in the war, Shields would reject the proposition due to the poor relationship he had had with Secretary of War Stanton.

James Shields life, though, would include much more than just military acumen. James was born in Altmore, County Tyrone, Ireland on May 6, 1806. He received his early childhood education there. In 1822 he attempted to migrate to the United States. The ship he was traveling on was caught in a storm and he was shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland. He was one of only three survivors. It would take him four more years to complete his emigration to the United States.

On coming to America Shields would busy himself by participating in several different occupations. He would serve as a purser on a merchant ship, a lawyer, and even a fencing instructor. By 1832, though, we find him in Kaskaskia, Illinois practicing law. Here he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1836 and by 1839 he was voted State Auditor. All of these events would set a path for him in the politics of our nation.

In 1842 much of the nation was still suffering from the Panic of 1837. The depression had been harsh on most people and even harder on financial institutions. By August of that year the Illinois State Bank had declared it could no longer accept paper money to pay off debts owed to it. Only gold and silver could be accepted. James Shields, who was a Democrat and the State Auditor, decided it would be better to declare bankruptcy and close the facility, which he did.

Illinois Whigs opposed Shields’s financial plan. One of the opposition leaders, who described himself as a “prairie lawyer,” decided to write an editorial expressing his disagreement. Using the pseudonym “Rebecca”, he wrote a provocative editorial to the Sangamo Journal in which he attacked the political and financial philosophy of James Shields and that of the State of Illinois itself.

Shields photo

1840’s Photo of Illinois State Auditor James Shields

The author of the editorial, a young man by the name of Abraham Lincoln, assumed the persona of an Illinois farmer in his commentary. Lincoln wrote: “’I’ve been tugging ever since harvest getting out wheat and hauling it to the river, to raise State Bank paper enough to pay my tax this year, and a little school debt I owe; and now just as I’ve got it…, lo and behold, I find a set of fellows calling themselves officers of State, have forbidden to receive State paper at all; and so here it is, dead on my hands.’”

Lincoln even went on to mock Shields by writing about his romantic pursuits. “His very features, in the ecstatic agony of his soul, spoke audibly and distinctly–’Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you all. Too well I know how much you suffer; but do, do remember, it is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting.'”

When Abraham Lincoln’s girlfriend, Mary Todd, wrote a second editorial which further belittled him, James found out who the author had been and sent a note to Lincoln demanding he write a retraction. Shields wrote: “I have become the object of slander, vituperation and personal abuse. Only a full retraction may prevent consequences which no one will regret more than myself.”

Lincoln early photo

Photo of Abraham Lincoln Taken in 1846.

When Abraham refused to retract his statements Shields promptly challenged him to a duel. The duel was to take place on Bloody Island on the Mississippi River in Missouri where the practice was still legal. Because he was the one being challenged, Lincoln would have the choice of weapon. He chose broadswords. Lincoln explained: “I didn’t want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”  For his own part, he did not want to kill Shields, but “felt sure [he] could disarm him” with a blade.

The two men gathered at Bloody Island on September 22, 1842 as planned. Each man chose his weapon and approached their opponent with only a plank separating the two of them. Mr. Lincoln “swung his sword high above Shields to cut through a nearby tree branch.  This act demonstrated the immensity of Lincoln’s reach and strength, and was enough to convince Shields, that he was at a fatal disadvantage.  With the encouragement of bystanders, the two men called a truce.” There would be no duel.

In the history of the United States no sitting President ever fought a duel and only two future Presidents would tempt life and limb. Andrew Jackson was the first to participate in the practice. He is known to have killed a neighbor of his named Charles Dickinson in May of 1806. It is rumored, though, that  he participated in over a hundred others. Abraham Lincoln would be the only other, President to be, to partake of the deadly ritual. What would U.S. and Civil War history have been without him?

The careers of each of these men would diverge at this point, and, strangely enough, they would become friends. James Shields would start to build a military career. Shields would fight in the Second Seminole War, and when hostilities broke out with Mexico in 1846, he went off  to war as a brigadier general in command of a brigade in the Volunteer Division.

James Shields fought at the Battles of Vera Cruz and Cerro Gordo where he was severely wounded in the chest by a charge of grapeshot. The wound was so severe that the doctor was able to pass a handkerchief completely through Shields’s body while cleaning the wound. Though the injury was considered to be mortal, Shields would survive, but it would put him out of the conflict for nine weeks.

Shields was back in the saddle and in command of his brigade again at the battles of Contreras and Churubusco. He was wounded once again at the Battle of Chapultepec. Here he had his horse shot out from beneath him, fracturing his arm in the process. In spite of the injury, he continued in the engagement on foot until the contest was concluded. He returned to Illinois in July of 1848 having been breveted to the rank of major general.

Following the Mexican War, and his return to Illinois, he was elected to the U. S. Senate. He served in that capacity until 1855. He was defeated when he ran for reelection so he decided to move to Minnesota. When that state was admitted to the Union, he served in the U.S. Senate from this state as well. Following the Civil War, he was appointed Senator from Missouri for a short time. James Shields is the only person ever to serve in the United States Senate from three different states.

Statesman, Senator, and Warrior; James Shields distinguished himself in everything he attempted, except perhaps dueling. James Shields passed away on June 1, 1879 in Ottumwa, Iowa, possibly from a heart attack. Fittingly, there was a military funeral to honor his passing. Following his death he would be honored by the erection of a statue of his likeness in the United States Capitol.

Shields statue

James Shields Statue in United States Capitol


Ecelbarger, Gary L. We are in for it!: The First Battle of Kernstown. White Mane Publishing Company, Inc. Shippensburg, Pa. 2015.

Tanner, Robert G. Stonewall in the Valley: Thomas J. ’Stonewall’ Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Spring 1862. Doubleday and Company. Garden City, N.J.





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