On May 12, 1806 James Shields was born in Co. Tyrone.
Many of us may never have heard of Shields, but he could have drastically changed American history, as he once came close to abruptly ending the life of Abraham Lincoln.
Apart from this fact, Shields was a rather extraordinary Irishman. To this day he is the only person to represent three states as US Senator – Illinois from 1849 to 1855, Minnesota from 1858 to 1859 and Missouri in 1879 – and with political circles as they stand now, it is hard to say if his record will ever be broken.
Shield was the nephew of another James Shields, who served as a US Senator from Ohio. The younger Shields moved to the US from County Tyrone around 1826.
He first settled in Illinois, where he studied and practiced law, and eventually rose to Illinois State Auditor in 1839. The Democrat was not the most popular person in Springfield, especially with a young Republican rising star named Abraham Lincoln.
During a recession during Shields' time as State Auditor he made the decision that only silver and gold could be used to pay taxes, not paper money. Lincoln, a prominent member of the Whig party, did not agree with Shields’ instructions and penned an anonymous satirical letter to the local newspaper in which he questioned the intelligence of the State Auditor. This was followed by an equally harsh letter from Lincoln's wife-to-be Mary Todd, but when Shields came to the paper to find out who his critics were, Lincoln claimed credit for both letters.
Shields was seriously offended and challenged the future President to a duel, which was was illegal in Illinois at the time. The pair, therefore, went to the the infamous Bloody Island in the middle of the Mississippi river.
Shields was considered a crack shot. He had served as a brigadier general in the Mexican-American war in 1846, serving under Zachary Taylor along the Rio Grande. Lincoln was much taller, however, which provided an advantage in dueling. Furthermore, Lincoln was the person challenged which meant that he was able to pick the weapons used and set the rules.
The pair faced off on September 22, 1842. Lincoln used his longer reach to fire off a branch above the Irishman’s head.
A peace was quickly negotiated when the seconds and other parties intervened in the duel, but it took some time to pacify Shields and convince him to shake Abe’s hand. He was eventually talked around and the duel came to an end, allowing Lincoln to continue on to change the course of US history and Shields to make his own piece of American history in the Senate.
When the war came to an end in 1848, and despite his unfortunate turn as State Auditor, Shields ran for the Senate from Illinois but his election was made void because he did not fulfill the required amount of years spent as a US citizen. Shields had been naturalized in 1840 leaving him a year short of the nine years he needed to serve in the US Senate. He later returned to reclaim his seat.
When defeated in his bid for reelection in 1855, he moved to Minnesota where he was once again elected Senator from 1858 to 1859.
During the American Civil War, Shields served as a brigadier general of volunteers from California, commanding the 2nd Division of the V Corps, Army of the Potomac. He was wounded at the Battle of Kernstown on March 22, 1862, but his troops inflicted the only tactical defeat on "Stonewall" Jackson during the campaign.
He moved to Missouri in 1866 and in 1879 he was elected to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Senator Lewis V. Bogy.
Shields died in Ottumwa, Iowa on June 1, 1879, aged 73, shortly after taking office in Missouri. He is buried in St. Mary's Cemetery, Carrollton, Missouri.