Ward Hill Lamon—Abraham Lincoln’s former law partner, friend and sometime bodyguard—told a famous story about the 16th U.S. president’s premonition of his own death. According to the tale, just a few days before his assassination on April 14, 1865, Lincoln shared a recent dream with a small group that included his wife, Mary Todd, and Lamon. In it, he walked into the East Room of the White House to find a covered corpse guarded by soldiers and surrounded by a crowd of mourners. When Lincoln asked one of the soldiers who had died, the soldier replied, “The president. He was killed by an assassin.” (Interestingly, Lincoln supposedly later insisted to Lamon that the body on display was not his own—so he himself did not view the dream as a portent of his own demise.) Some historians have cast doubt on Lamon’s account, which was first published in the 1880s, nearly 20 years after the assassination. Though Lamon claimed to have reconstructed the incident based on notes he made in 1865, it does seem odd that neither he nor Mary Lincoln mentioned the dream right after the president’s murder.
Even if Lamon’s story isn’t true, Abraham Lincoln was apparently quite interested in the meaning of dreams and what they have to say about future events both positive and negative. Proof of his curiosity lies in an 1863 letter to his wife, who at the time was in Philadelphia with their 10-year-old son, Tad. Lincoln writes that Mary had better “put Tad’s pistol away” as he “had an ugly dream about him.” Moreover, members of Lincoln’s cabinet recalled that, on the morning of his assassination, the president told them he’d dreamed of sailing across an unknown body of water at great speed. He also apparently revealed that he’d had the same dream repeatedly on previous occasions, before “nearly every great and important event of the War.” This story again points to Lincoln’s interest in the predictive power of dreams—but it doesn’t offer hard evidence that he foresaw his own death.
Access hundreds of hours of historical video, commercial free, with HISTORY Vault. Start your free trial today.
Lincoln’s Reading Habits
No American president before or since has faced the problems that confronted Abraham Lincoln when he took office in 1861. Nor has any president expressed himself with such eloquence on issues of great moment. Lincoln’s writings reveal the depth of his thought and feeling and the sincerity of his convictions as he weighed the cost of freedom and preserving the Union. The Annotated Lincoln explores Lincoln’s essential writings examines the extraordinary man who produced them and explains the context in which they were composed. With generous annotations, Harold Holzer and Thomas A. Horrocks explore Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery, emancipation, racial equality, the legality of secession, civil liberties in wartime, and the meaning of the terrible suffering caused by the Civil War. Here is a look at Lincoln’s early life and literary influences from the introduction.
“Writing — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world.”
So Abraham Lincoln once eloquently put the matter in a declaration that offers itself as evidence of its truth, in one of his most curious and least remembered public addresses: a lengthy lecture on discoveries and inventions ranging from “the fig-leaf apron” in the Garden of Eden to America’s “steamboats and railroads.”
Mundane the speech may have otherwise been, but when its subject turned to writing — embracing everything from Webster’s dictionary to the “five books of Moses” — Lincoln proved positively inspired. Writing remained the greatest of discoveries, he emphatically insisted, “great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space.”
Lincoln spoke not only from conviction but also from personal experience. In regard to writing — even writing about writing — Lincoln stands as one of its most inspired practitioners. From his earliest scribblings as a teen- ager to his final memoranda on the day he went to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln may have spent more time writing — most of it wisely and memorably — than performing any other task. We think of him perhaps first as a rail splitter, an attorney, a debater, a stump speaker, a commander in chief, an emancipator, or a pardoner — but nearly all of those roles required mastery of the art of writing, and over the years Lincoln’s compositions, the most significant of which are featured in this volume, included legal documents, letters, and orations as long as 10,000-word stem-winders and as succinct as the 272 words he spoke at Gettysburg, along with presidential proclamations, dispatches, and declarations. With such a huge archive to his credit, it remains difficult to imagine how Lincoln ever found the time to do much else. Using the crude implements of the day — at the end of his life, no better than steel-nib pens and ink dipped regularly from inkwells and blotted once applied to paper — Lincoln created an American treasure trove of definitive thoughts on freedom, opportunity, and nationhood.
That Lincoln would come to be celebrated after his death as one of this nation’s greatest writers would have surprised and perhaps shocked some of the well-educated contemporaries who saw the living Lincoln as a man lacking the accoutrements of refinement, as nothing more than a country bumpkin who spoke like a hayseed and wrote like a yokel completely ignorant of the fundamentals of grammar. Lincoln, of course, was always aware of those who underestimated his intelligence and talents. As a young man, painfully conscious of his intellectual deficiencies, Lincoln committed himself to a rigorous course of self-education, so that by the time he reached middle age he possessed a steely inner confidence in his ability to hold his own intellectually with his more refined and better-educated peers. Behind the folksy nineteenth- and early twentieth-century images of Lincoln reading and writing by the hearth fire in a log cabin isolated on the prairie lies a real story of a man whose life was, in many ways, a constant act of becoming, including becoming a great writer.
Born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln was the second of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s three children. Lincoln’s Virginia- born parents named their first son in honor of his paternal grandfather, Abraham, who was killed by Indians in 1786. Within two years of Lincoln’s birth, his parents, in search of more fertile land, moved the family seven miles away to Knob Creek, where a third child, Thomas, was born, only to die shortly after birth. When Lincoln was seven years old, the family made another move, instigated primarily by Thomas Lincoln’s problems with land titles, this time across the Ohio River to the southern Indiana frontier.
In 1818, two years after arriving in Indiana, Lincoln’s mother died from a disease called “milk sick,” probably caused by drinking milk from cows that had ingested poisonous snakeroot. A year later, ten-year-old Abraham and his older sister, Sarah (who would die in childbirth in 1826), gained a stepmother when Thomas Lincoln married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children of her own. Although Lincoln deeply mourned the death of his mother, he developed a warm affection for his stepmother, who, unlike Lincoln’s father, encouraged and supported her stepson’s tireless pursuit of knowledge. After thirteen years in Indiana, the Lincoln family, searching for better economic opportunities, moved again, this time to Macon County, Illinois.
An exemplar of the self-made man, Lincoln worked tenaciously to overcome his humble beginnings. Self-conscious about the primitive environment into which he was born, the illiteracy of his parents, and a formal education limited to less than a year, Lincoln embarked on a vigorous regimen of self-improvement, spending as much time as he could enhancing his reading and writing skills. His limited exposure to formal schooling was not an unusual circumstance in early nineteenth-century America it was an experience shared by many of his generation, especially those residing in the western and southern regions of the country. What was extraordinary about Lincoln’s experience, however, was the remarkable trajectory of his career, which culminated in his election and reelection as president of the United States and his emergence as one of this country’s greatest writers of nonfiction, despite what he referred to as his “defective” education and the fact that he did not master the fundamentals of grammar until he reached his early twenties.
Lincoln’s writing skills in his mature years were primarily influenced by his youthful reading habits. His early reading tended to be intensive rather than extensive. Since books were scarce on the frontier, he would have read a few books more than once, memorizing much of what he read. The King James Bible, for example, was one such book that Lincoln, as well as many Americans of the time, read, reread, and memorized. As shown in several of the documents presented in this volume, Lincoln possessed a fluent knowledge of the Bible. An increasingly voracious reader, he devoured other books belonging to his stepmother or borrowed from neighbors, such titles as Aesop’s Fables, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and Mason Locke Weems’s and David Ramsay’s biographies of George Washington.
Other books integral to Lincoln’s development as a writer — and speaker — were Thomas Dilworth’s New Guide to the English Tongue (1740), William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution (1779), Lindley Murray’s English Reader (1795), and Samuel Kirkham’s English Grammar (1823). Lincoln was introduced to Dilworth’s work (popularly known as Dilworth’s Spelling Book) during his time in Indiana or later in New Salem, Illinois. In addition to lessons in spelling, pronunciation, and grammar, the SpellingBook contained selections of prose and verse by leading eighteenth-century British authors. Lincoln copied out and memorized sections of Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, especially those passages meant to improve reading and speaking skills. Murray’s popular English Reader, which Lincoln believed was the best schoolbook of its time, also offered for its various exercises poetry and prose selections from British authors of the same period. After Lincoln left the family farm and moved to New Salem, he embarked on a study of Kirkham’s English Grammar to further improve his writing skills, walking several miles to borrow the book from an acquaintance.
Lincoln’s ability to write the eloquent prose for which he became famous developed over time, gradually enhanced through strenuous practice and constantly reinforced through his active reading habits. After Lincoln’s death, his stepmother recalled Lincoln’s fascination with words and their meaning when he was young: “Abe read all the books he could lay his hands on — and when he came across a passage that Struck him he would write it down on boards if he had no paper & keep it there till he did get paper — then he would re-write it — look at it repeat it — He had a copy book — a kind of scrap book in which he would put down all things and this preserved them.”
Did Abraham Lincoln Order the Execution of 38 Dakota Fighters?
A few weeks later, the New York Times offered a harrowing and disturbing account of those executions:
Precisely at the time announced — 10 A.M. — a company, without arms, entered the prisoners’ quarters to escort them to their doom. Instead of any shrinking or resistance, all were ready, and even seemed eager to meet their fate. Rudely they jostled against each other, as they rushed from the doorway, ran the gauntlet of the troops, and clambered up the steps to the treacherous drop.
As they came up and reached the platform, they filed right and left, and each one took his position as though they had rehearsed the programme. Standing round the platform, they formed a square, and each one was directly under the fatal noose. Their caps were now drawn over their eyes, and the halter placed about their necks. Several of them feeling uncomfortable, made severe efforts to loosen the rope, and some, after the most dreadful contortions, partially succeeded.
The signal to cut the rope was three taps of the drum. All things being ready, the first tap was given, when the poor wretches made such frantic efforts to grasp each other’s hands, that it was agony to behold them. Each one shouted out his name, that his comrades might know he was there. The second tap resounded on the air. The vast multitude were breathless with the awful surroundings of this solemn occasion. Again the doleful tap breaks on the stillness of the scene.
Click! goes the sharp ax, and the descending platform leaves the bodies of thirty-eight human beings dangling in the air. The greater part died instantly some few struggled violently, and one of the ropes broke, and sent its burden with a heavy, dull crash, to the platform beneath. A new rope was procured, and the body again swung up to its place. It was an awful sight to behold. Thirty-eight human beings suspended in the air, on the bank of the beautiful Minnesota above, the smiling, clear, blue sky beneath and around, the silent thousands, hushed to a deathly silence by the chilling scene before them, while the bayonets bristling in the sunlight added to the importance of the occasion.
It is accurate to say that Lincoln approved the executions of 39 Dakota fighters, and that despite their convictions for participating in war-time massacres, the condemned men were not afforded the conventional rights of due process (such as trial by jury) and did not have attorneys present to plead on their behalf. It is also true that Lincoln, as President of the United States, did have the legal authority to commute all 303 death sentences presented to him for his approval.
However, in the very act of approving 39 executions, Lincoln was at the same time ordering the commutation of 264 death sentences. Despite intense political and popular pressure, Lincoln spared the lives of many more Dakota fighters than he condemned, albeit not as many as he could have. The popular meme displayed above leaves out this very important context, and it therefore gives an incomplete and misleading account of Lincoln’s December 1862 decision.
Fact or Fiction?
While this seems like an interesting story, Lamon didn’t recall the dreams until around 20 years after the assassination. His wife, nor Lamon, mentioned the dreams to anyone else, before or after the presidents death, which does seem strange. Despite this, Lamon claimed he had published his account of the dream from notes he made in 1865. Maybe it didn’t seem significant at the time.
Ward Hill Lamon wrote that the president spoke of the dream “with some show of playful humor.”
FACT CHECK: Did Abraham Lincoln Say, ‘The Best Way To Predict The Future Is To Create It’?
The first known instance of the saying appeared roughly a century after Lincoln&rsquos death.
This expression has multiple variations. In a 2009 book, the management consultant Peter Drucker was quoted as saying, &ldquoYou cannot predict the future, but you can create it.&rdquo
Ilya Prigogine, recipient of the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry, apparently said, &ldquoThe way to cope with the future is to create it.&rdquo
The website Quote Investigator has tracked down these and other variations of the phrase, none of which credibly belong to the nation&rsquos 16th president.
The statement appears nowhere in his collected writings, according to Daniel Worthington, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. &ldquoI am not familiar with the quote, and I could not find it in any of our documents, so I have my doubts Lincoln said it,&rdquo he told The Daily Caller in an email.
The saying may have originated with Dennis Gabor, the physicist who won the 1971 Nobel Prize for inventing holography. &ldquoThe future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented,&rdquo he wrote in a 1963 book. &ldquoIt was man&rsquos ability to invent which has made human society what it is.&rdquo
Alan Kay, the former chief scientist of Atari, is credited with the particular wording found in the Facebook post.
10. ‘The Ultimate Warrior’ James Hellwig
This amazing WWE star was also one of these 10 to predict his own death. Just hours before he passed away he said something along the lines of ‘Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat’ and well, his soon did exactly that. This he said during his first time on Monday Night Raw in 18 whole years as he had finally been inducted into the ‘hall of fame.’ Hours after speaking those words, he lost his life as he collapsed while walking with his wife to their car at a hotel. He was said to have been the victim of a heart attack and no foul play was suspected.
Frank Pastore was a successful pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, Minnesota Twins, and Texas Rangers from 1979 to 1986. He later went on to host his own radio talk show very creatively titled The Frank Pastore Show. On Nov. 19, 2012, he asked his listeners, &ldquoYou know I like motorcycles, right?&rdquo Are you sensing the impending doom for Pastore?
Photo by Owen C. Shaw via Getty Images
&ldquoAt any moment,&rdquo he explained. &ldquoEspecially with the idiot people who cross the diamond lane into my lane, without any blinkers &ndash not that I&rsquom angry about it &ndash at any minute, I could be spread all over [Interstate] 210.&rdquo Just hours after he made this comment he was riding his motorcycle on Interstate 210, when a Hyundai Sonata drifted into his lane. He later died from his injuries.
Did Abraham Lincoln predict his own death? - HISTORY
April 1865 was an extraordinary month in the history of the Civil War. On the 9th, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the war. Just days later, the nation was rocked by the news that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated in Washington, DC.
The news of Lincoln’s death reverberated around the world and led to an extraordinary publication by the Department of State in 1866. In addition to the usual diplomatic correspondence published in Foreign Relations of the United States ( FRUS ) volumes, a separate volume consisting entirely of condolences was published. The volume, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Late President of the United States of America, and the Attempted Assassination of William H. Seward, Secretary of State, and Frederick W. Seward, Assistant Secretary, on the Evening of the 14th of April, 1865, collected correspondence from every corner of the globe.
Lincoln was the first U.S. president to be assassinated. Thus, his death was a test for the country and the strength of its constitutional plan of succession. Some countries noted this fact, and their acknowledgement of Andrew Johnson’s presidency demonstrated that his government was viewed as legitimate in the eyes of the world community. The response from China, for example, embodied both regret and reassurance that the transfer of power was perceived as smooth. Prince Kung, Chief Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, wrote on July 8, 1865, that the announcement of Lincoln’s death “inexpressibly shocked and startled me.” Nevertheless, the news that “on the same day the Vice-President succeeded to the position without any disturbance, and the assassin had been arrested, so that the affairs of government were going on quietly as usual” seemed to satisfy the Prince’s worry, and he hoped that these facts would also “alleviate your grief at the event.”
Other governments sent their official expressions of regret and condolence. Frederick Hassaurek, U.S. Minister to Ecuador, reported on May 29 that the Ecuadorian government had ordered “that all the officers and employés of the republic of Ecuador shall wear mourning for three days, during which time the Ecuadorian flag shall be displayed at half-mast from all the public buildings.” Additionally, Ecuadorian President Gabriel Garcia Moreno wrote to Hassaurek on May 22 that “The fatal news which arrived by yesterday’s mail has produced a profound and painful impression on me. Never should I have through that the noble country of Washington would be humiliated by such a black and horrible crime nor should I ever have though that Mr. Lincoln would come to such a horrible end, after having served his country which such wisdom and glory under so critical circumstances.”
In the United Kingdom, British Foreign Minister Earl Russell wrote to U.S. Minister Charles Francis Adams on May 1 that Lincoln’s death was a “sad calamity” and recalled that he had already “conveyed to you by letter and in person the deep impression of horror and indignation which so atrocious a crime on the President of the United States had made upon me.” Russell went on to write that “by the command of the Queen, I have directed her Majesty’s minister at Washington to convey to the government of the United States” the condolences of the British government and British people. From Egypt, Agent and Consul General Charles Hale reported on May 5 that “the Pacha of Egypt, has seized the earliest opportunity to express to me the pain with which he has heard the sad tidings of the assassination of the President of the United States, his detestation of the abominable crime, and his sympathy for our country in the grievous loss we have sustained.”
In the first volume of FRUS (and here), Lincoln had urged the United States to recognize Haiti and Liberia, two countries with unique relationships to slavery. The Haitian Revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century terminated slavery in that country, and soon after Liberia was settled by liberated slaves from the United States. In 1862, the United States recognized both countries, and in 1865 both countries reacted to Lincoln’s death. The Liberian proclamation mourned a man who “was not only the ruler of his own people, but a father to millions of a race stricken and oppressed.” Arguing that Lincoln had “died to redeem a nation, a race,” the Liberians predicted that “generations yet unborn shall call him the mighty ruler, the great emancipator, the noble philanthropist.” The Secretary of the Haitian Legation in the United States denounced the assassination as a “horrid crime,” and noted that the death of Lincoln and the attempt on the life of both Sewards “have thrown the whole United States into consternation and mourning, [and] will everywhere excite the same wail of sorrow and condemnation.”
Perhaps one of the most remarkable parts of the volume comes not from the official expressions of sorrow but the messages sent spontaneously from other groups of citizens all over the globe. FRUS does not usually publish “unofficial,” non-governmental correspondence, but this volume includes a healthy selection of just that type of correspondence. A group of Freemasons in France wrote to President Johnson that they “wish[ed] to express to you their sentiments of admiration, gratitude, and regret for Lincoln, and their profound sympathy for the government of which you are the head. The blood of your martyred magistrate becomes a fecundating dew to give to liberty a new baptism throughout the entire universe.” The residents of Lahaina, in the Hawaiian Islands, passed resolutions in which they “weep together with the republic of America for the murder, the assassination of the great, the good, the liberator Abraham Lincoln, the victim of hell-born treason—himself martyred, yet live his mighty deeds, victory, peace, and the emancipation of those despised, like all of us of the colored races.” A group of workingmen in the Prussian capital of Berlin noted that Lincoln was a laborer’s son and “himself a laborer, he took up the fight for the rights of free labor and carried it to a triumphant termination.” While mourning his death, the laborers noted that “the freedom which has thus been sealed with the blood of one of the noblest men” will ultimately be victorious, and that the U.S. flag will represent “the cause of freedom and civilization” wherever it flies.
This special volume of FRUS documents a remarkable outpouring of grief at the news of Lincoln’s death. Official expressions of sympathy from governments were printed side-by-side with resolutions and proclamations from groups of citizens. A century and a half after his time in office, Lincoln still looms large as one of our most significant presidents. The documents in this volume confirm that his stature around the world was already in place at the time of his death.
Editor's note: Throughout November, IrishCentral is commemorating Kennedy month, in honor of the famed Irish American political dynasty and their legacy. In the countdown to the anniversary of JFK's assassination on November 22, 1963, we look at the events surrounding his death. including the investigation into the crime.
Here we look at claims Kennedy predicted he would be assassinated. For more on JFK and the Kennedy family, you can visit our special topic page.
President John F. Kennedy’s secret interviews with his wife claim he warned his assassination would safeguard his legacy around a year before his death.
JFK made the prediction about his reputation privately to his wife Jackie Kennedy.
Previously unheard conversations involving the First Lady in the months after JFK’s assassination reveal the president’s theory.
The conversations date back to 1964 when Jacqueline Kennedy had in-depth conversations with historian Arthur M Schlesinger Jnr.
Professor Robert Dallek, a popular Kennedy historian made the discovery after closely examining pages of “Jacqueline Kennedy’s Oral History.”
“(JFK) said to Mrs. Kennedy after his success in the Cuban Missile Crisis: ’If anyone’s going to kill me, it should happen now,”’ Professor Dallek said.
Dallek said JFK had been told by a historian that Abraham Lincoln’s legacy may not have been as great if he had lived longer.
“He had heard a lecture at the White House by distinguished historian David Herbert Donald, a Lincoln, Civil War expert,” Prof. Dallek said.
“At that lecture, Kennedy asked Professor Donald if Lincoln had lived, would his reputation be as great as it currently is in the United States? And predictably, Donald said probably not because he would have had to have wrestled with the problems of reconstruction, the post-Civil War era.
“And Kennedy remembering that said to Mrs. Kennedy after his success in the Cuban Missile Crisis, if anyone’s going to kill me, it should happen now."
The democratic president JFK was shot on November 22, 1963, as his open-top motorcade traveled through Dallas, Texas.
After his death, his wife gave seven undisclosed interviews during which she spoke about her husband’s involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis her role as First Lady the president's plan for a second term and family and married life in the White House.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy administration, the family released both the interview transcripts and the original audio recordings.
Abraham Lincoln's Duel
Abraham Lincoln c. 1846 Library of Congress
In 1842, a young Abraham Lincoln publicly chastised James Shields in the course of a debate about banking in Illinois. The ridicule pushed Shields to challenge Lincoln to a duel in which the victor took both the life and the pride of his opponent.
In August of 1842, the Illinois State Bank went bankrupt and announced that it would no longer accept its own paper currency from private citizens looking to pay off debts. Gold and silver, which most citizens did not have, became the only acceptable currency. Shields, the State Auditor, sided with his Democratic party and supported the decision to close the bank. Shields became a target for Whig opposition to the financial plan and Lincoln, then a self-described “prairie lawyer,” added fuel to the fire with a sizzling editorial written in early September.
Lincoln was friendly with the editor of the Sangamo Journal, Simeon Francis, and Francis allowed him to write the letter under the penname “Rebecca.” As “Rebecca,” Lincoln attacked Shields for his politics and for his personal foibles. Assuming the character of an Illinois farmer, 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 went on to taunt Shields’ pursuit of women:
"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.'"
Lincoln showed the letter to Mary Todd--the couple had only recently gotten back together after Lincoln had called off their earlier engagement--and she found it delightful. A few days later, without Lincoln's knowledge, Mary Todd submitted her own critique to the Journal under the pen name "Cathleen."
James Shields c. 1855 Library of Congress
Shields did not take kindly to the letters and demanded that Francis reveal Rebecca's true identity – to which Francis obliged.
Upon receiving this information, Shields demanded a retraction from Lincoln. On September 19 at the Tremont County Courthouse, Shields had a handwritten note delivered to Lincoln which read: “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 refused to retract his remarks. He returned Shields's letter with the request that Shields rewrite it in a more "gentlemanly" fashion.
Instead, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. It would be held in Missouri, where dueling was still legal.
Since Lincoln was challenged by Shields he had the privilege of choosing the weapon of the duel. He chose cavalry broadswords "of the largest size." "I didn't want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols," he later explained. For his own part, he did not want to kill Shields, but "felt sure [he] could disarm him" with a blade. At six feet, four inches tall, Lincoln planned to use his height to his advantage against Shields, who stood at a mere five feet, nine inches tall.
The day of the duel, September 22, arrived and the combatants met at Bloody Island, Missouri to face death or victory. As the two men faced each other, with a plank between them that neither was allowed to cross, 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 show Shields that he was at a fatal disadvantage. With the encouragement of bystanders, the two men called a truce.
Bloody Island, adjacent to St. Louis in the Mississippi River, was a popular dueling ground. Wikimedia Commons
Two decades later, the Civil War brought the two men together once more. Shields was now a Brigadier General in the Army of the Potomac and Lincoln was President, with the ability to promote and demote military officers. Fighting in the Shenandoah Valley in March 1862, Shields delivered Stonewall Jackson's only defeat at the Battle of Kernstown and was gravely wounded in the process. Lincoln nominated him for promotion to Major General, symbolically burying all ill-feelings between the two men.
The Battle of Kernstown as sketched by A.R. Waud. Library of Congress
Lincoln did not like to talk about the duel. An officer once asked him, in the Oval Office, if it was "true…that you once went out, to fight a duel and all for the sake of the lady by your side?" Lincoln replied, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.”