Six Months at the White House/LXXV
It was not generally known before the publication of Dr. Holland's biography of Mr. Lincoln, that he was once engaged in a "duel," although a version of the affair had been published previous to his biographer's account of it, which, however, the few who saw it were disposed to regard as a fabrication.
One evening, at the rooms of the Hon. I.N. Arnold, of Illinois, I met Dr. Henry, of Oregon, an early and intimate friend of Mr. Lincoln's. Mr. Arnold asked me in the course of conversation if I had ever heard of the President's "duel" with General Shields? I replied that I might have seen a statement of the kind, but did not suppose it to be true. "Well," said Mr. Arnold, "we were all young folks together at the time in Springfield. In some way a difficulty occurred between Shields and Lincoln, resulting in a challenge from Shields, which was at length accepted, Mr. Lincoln naming 'broadswords' for weapons, and the two opposite banks of the Mississippi, where the river was about a mile wide, for the 'ground.' "
Dr. Henry, who had listened quietly to this, here broke in, "That will do for a 'story,' Arnold," said he, "but it will hardly pass with me, for I happened to be Lincoln's 'second' on the occasion. The facts are these. You will bear me witness that there was never a more spirited circle of young folks in one town than lived in Springfield at that period. Shields, you remember, was a great 'beau.' For a bit of amusement one of the young ladies wrote some verses, taking him off sarcastically, which were abstracted from her writing-desk by a mischievous friend, and published in the local newspaper. Shields, greatly irritated, posted at once to the printing-office and demanded the name of the author. Much frightened, the editor requested a day or two to consider the matter, and upon getting rid of Shields went directly to Mr. Lincoln with his trouble.
"'Tell Shields,' was the chivalric rejoinder, 'that I hold myself responsible for the verses.' The next day Mr. Lincoln left for a distant section to attend court. Shields, boiling over with wrath, followed and 'challenged' him. Scarcely knowing what he did, Mr. Lincoln accepted the challenge, seeing no alternative. The choice of weapons being left to him, he named 'broadswords,' intending to act only on the defensive, and thinking his long arms would enable him to keep clear of his antagonist.
"I was then a young surgeon," continued Dr. Henry, "and Mr. Lincoln desired me accompany him to the point chosen for the contest,--'Bloody Island,' in the Mississippi, near St. Louis,--as his 'second.' To this I at length consented, hoping to prevent bloodshed. On our way to the ground we met Colonel Hardin, a friend of both parties, and a cousin of the lady who was the real offender. Suspecting something wrong, Hardin subsequently followed us, coming in upon the party just as Lincoln was clearing up the underbrush which covered the ground. Entering heartily upon an attempt at pacification, he at length succeeded in mollifying Shields, and the whole party returned harmoniously to Springfield, and thus the matter ended."
This version of the affair coming from an eyewitness is undoubtedly in all respects correct. It subsequently came in my way to know that Mr. Lincoln himself regarded the circumstance with much regret and mortification, and hoped it might be forgotten. In February preceding his death a distinguished officer of the army called at the White House, and was entertained by the President and Mrs. Lincoln for an hour in the parlor. During the conversation the gentleman said, turning to Mrs. Lincoln, "Is it true, Mr. President, as I have heard, that you once went out to fight a 'duel' for the sake of the lady by your side?"
"I do not deny it," replied Mr. Lincoln, with a flushed face; "but if you desire my friendship you will never mention the circumstance again!"