James Shields (politician, born 1806)

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James Shields
James Shields - Brady-Handy.jpg
United States Senator
from Missouri
In office
January 27, 1879 – March 3, 1879
Preceded by David H. Armstrong
Succeeded by George Graham Vest
United States Senator
from Minnesota
In office
May 11, 1858 – March 3, 1859
Preceded by None
Succeeded by Morton S. Wilkinson
United States Senator
from Illinois
In office
October 27, 1849 – March 3, 1855
Preceded by Sidney Breese
Succeeded by Lyman Trumbull
Member of Illinois House of Representatives
In office
Justice on the Illinois Supreme Court
In office
Preceded by Stephen A. Douglas
Commissioner of the General Land Office
In office
April 16, 1845 – January 5, 1847
Preceded by Thomas H. Blake
Succeeded by Richard M. Young
Personal details
Born (1806-05-10)May 10, 1806
Altmore, County Tyrone, Ireland
Died June 1, 1879(1879-06-01) (aged 73)
Ottumwa, Iowa
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Union Army
Years of service 1832 1835-1842 1846–1848; 1861–1862
Rank Union Army brigadier general rank insignia.svg Brigadier General

Black Hawk War
Second Seminole War
Mexican–American War

American Civil War

James Shields (May 10, 1806[a] – June 1, 1879) was an Irish American Democratic politician and United States Army officer, who is the only person in United States history to serve as a U.S. Senator for three different states. Shields represented Illinois from 1849 to 1855, in the 31st, 32nd, and 33rd Congresses, Minnesota from 1858 to 1859, in the 35th Congress, and Missouri in 1879, in the 45th Congress. He also served as Illinois Auditor of Public Accounts from 1841 to 1843 and as Commissioner of the General Land Office from 1845 to 1847.


Early life and career[edit]

A descendant of the Ó Siadhail clan, Shields was born in Altmore, County Tyrone, in what is now Northern Ireland, to parents Charles Shields and Anne McDonnell, the first of three children. As his father died when Shields was six, his uncle, also named James Shields and also born in Ireland, played a large role in his life. The elder Shields would later serve as a Congressman from Ohio. The younger Shields obtained early schooling at a hedge school near his home, and later at a school run by a local bishop, and subsequently his uncle. He was educated in military science by a retired army veteran.[5]

The younger Shields attempted to immigrate to the United States in 1822, but failed when his ship was driven aground, leaving Shields one of only three survivors. He eventually made it to America around 1826, and found his uncle (a professor of Greek and Latin, whom he had sailed to meet) dead. Shields took a job as a sailor, becoming a purser on a merchant ship. James became such an expert sailor that he was later placed in command of a ship and sailed it safely into port with all the officers disabled.[6] However, after a time, an accident left Shields disabled, and in the hospital for three months. After the accident, he fought in the Second Seminole War, reaching lieutenant. He spent some time in Quebec, founding a fencing school. Eventually, Shields settled in Kaskaskia, Randolph County, Illinois where he studied and later practiced law, supplementing his income by teaching French, which he was fluent in. [7] He served as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, beginning to serve in 1836, and in 1839 as the state auditor. (He was elected when not yet a citizen; Illinois then required only that a legislator have been resident in the state for six months.)[6]

Duel with Abraham Lincoln[edit]

As auditor, Shields helped deal with the Panic of 1837. He was involved in correcting the states finances after the panic. Shields almost fought a duel with Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1842. Lincoln had published an inflammatory letter in a Springfield, Illinois, newspaper, the Sangamon Journal that poked fun at Shields, the State Auditor. Lincoln's future wife, Mary Todd, and her close friend continued writing letters about Shields without Lincoln's knowledge. Taking offense to the articles, Shields demanded "satisfaction" and the incident escalated to the two men picking seconds (Shields would pick Samuel Whiteside) and meeting on an island located between Missouri and Illinois called Bloody Island to participate in a duel (as dueling was illegal in Illinois and the island was under Missouri jurisdiction).[8] Lincoln took responsibility for the articles and accepted the duel. Lincoln had the opportunity to choose the weapon for the duel and he selected the cavalry broadsword, as Shields was an excellent marksman. Just prior to engaging in combat, Lincoln made it a point to demonstrate his advantage (because of his long arm reach) by easily cutting a branch just above Shields' head. The two participants' seconds intervened and were able to convince the two men to cease hostilities, on the grounds that Lincoln had not written the letters.[9][10]

Shields as brigadier general during the Mexican–American War

Subsequent career[edit]

Shields was appointed as an Illinois Supreme Court justice, to take the seat vacated by Stephen A. Douglas. His term was relatively unremarkable, and he soon resigned in order to become Commissioner of the U.S. General Land Office. While at the General Land Office, Shields spent much effort boring, testing, surveying and examining land in Iowa, as he planned to establish a colony for Irish immigrants. He resigned from the position to take a job as a brigadier general.[11]

James Shields, photograph by Mathew Brady

Mexican–American War[edit]

On July 1, 1846, he was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers to fight in the Mexican–American War. He served under Zachary Taylor, and later John E. Wool and Winfield Scott. In 1846, Shields left for war with the command of two regiments. In February of 1847, when Tampico was abandoned, his brigade assumed control of the city. He commanded the 3rd Brigade, Volunteer Division, at the battles of Vera Cruz and Cerro Gordo, where he was wounded. He returned to fight at the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, his brigade now part of the 4th Division; at the battles, he was criticized for clumsy actions. At the Battle of Portales, his brigade took over 800 prisoners.[12] Shields was again wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, and subsequently returned to America, where his brigade disbanded on July 28, 1848. Shields later returned to his law practice. He was Brevetted to Major General, and received two honorary swords.[6]

Senator from Illinois[edit]

Following the war, on August 14, 1848, he was nominated by President Polk, and confirmed by the United States Senate to serve as governor of Oregon Territory that was created that same day.[13] However, he declined the position and Joseph Lane was nominated and became the first governor of the new territory.[14] He resigned to run for the Senate from Illinois. His election was voided by the Senate on the grounds that he had not been a United States citizen for the nine years required by the United States Constitution; having been naturalized October 21, 1840. He returned to Illinois and campaigned for re-election, and won the special election to replace himself, and was then seated. As senator, he opposed slavery, and supported land grants to agricultural colleges, to railroads, to soldiers, and to settlers under a homestead act.[6]

He was the editor of the 1854 book, A History of Illinois, from its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847.[15] In 1854, a military company in Chicago was named "The Shields Guards" in his honor. The Guards would come to make up companies I and K in the 23rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment.[16]

A bronze statue of Shields, in the uniform of a Major General, was given by the State of Illinois in 1893 to the U.S Capitol. The statue is the work of artist Leonard W. Volk, and is displayed the Hall of Columns.[17]

Senator from Minnesota[edit]

In 1855, he was defeated for re-election so he moved to Minnesota to inspect some lands he had been awarded there in return for his military service. He arranged for Irish immigrants to move from the east coast to Minnesota, settling in Rice and Le Sueur counties. Shields himself founded Shieldsville, Minnesota and was also involved in the early settlement of Faribault, Minnesota. In 1857, a massacre occurred in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Shields led a group of about 100 people from Minnesota to fight the Native American tribes; however, by the time he arrived, the tribes had been beaten by troops under the control of Judson Bishop.[6]

When Minnesota achieved statehood in 1858, Shields was put forward as a compromise candidate for US Senator along with Henry Mower Rice. The two drew straws to determine who would serve out the longer and shorter terms. Shields drew the short straw and thus served only a year from 1858 to 1859, losing his re-election bid to Morton S. Wilkinson.[6]

American Civil War[edit]

Statue of Shields at the Minnesota State Capital

Shields then moved to California, and married Mary Carr. He was engaged in a mining venture in Mexico, and it was there that Shields was when he was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers from that state during the American Civil War, succeeding Frederick W. Lander. He commanded the 2nd Division of the V Corps, Army of the Potomac (subsequently part of the Army of the Shenandoah), during the Valley Campaign of 1862. He was wounded at the Battle of Kernstown on March 22, 1862, but his troops inflicted the only tactical defeat of General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson during the campaign (or the war). The day after Kernstown, he was promoted to major general, but the promotion was withdrawn, reconsidered, and then finally rejected. His overall performance in the rest of the Valley Campaign was poor enough that he resigned his commission, and his departure was not resisted by the War Department.[18] It has been suggested that Lincoln was considering Shields as the next commander Army of the Potomac.[5]

Senator from Missouri[edit]

In 1863, he moved to San Francisco, subsequently to the Mississippi Valley, and then to Wisconsin. In 1866 he moved to Carrollton, Missouri. He ran for Congress unwillingly, and, in a contested election, lost. The result was disputed, and Congress awarded a years salary to Shields. A member of Congress proposed him as Doorkeeper of the United States House of Representatives, but Shields, viewing it as an indignity, declined. Shields was involved in providing aid to yellow fever stricken Atlanta. He served as member of the Missouri State House of Representatives, and as railroad commissioner was involved in establishing the State Railroad Commission. In 1879, he was elected to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Senator Lewis V. Bogy. He served only three months and declined to run for re-election. He is the only man to serve as Senator from three different states.[5][6]


Shields died in Ottumwa, Iowa on June 1, 1879, while on a lecture tour. He is buried in St. Mary's Cemetery, Carrollton, Missouri, where a monument now stands. He represents Illinois in the National Statuary Hall. The statue was sculpted by Leonard Volk, and dedicated in December, 1893. Other statues of Shields stand in front of the Carrollton County Courthouse and on the grounds of the capitol in Saint Paul, Minnesota.[5]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ there are conflicting reports about James Shields' date of birth. Some list it as May 6, 1806,[1] May 12, 1806[2][3] and others in 1810[4]



  1. ^ Spencer C. Tucker (30 September 2013). American Civil War: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection [6 volumes]: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection. ABC-CLIO. p. 1777. ISBN 978-1-85109-682-4. 
  2. ^ "James Shields - Previous Illinois Supreme Court Justice". Illinois courts. Retrieved 2017-04-05. 
  3. ^ "James Shields". Architect of the Capitol | United States Capitol. Retrieved 2017-04-05. 
  4. ^ "James Shields, 1810-1879, bust portrait, facing left". Library of Congress. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Illinois in the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol in Washington". The Wyoming Post Herald. October 4, 1933. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Castle, Henry Anson (1915). General James Shields: Soldier, Orator, Statesman. Minnesota Historical Society. 
  7. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "James Shields". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 
  8. ^ "Abraham Lincoln's Duel: Broadswords and Banks"
  9. ^ "Abraham Lincoln Prepares to Fight a Saber Duel", originally published by Civil War Times magazine
  10. ^ Ronald C. White, Jr. (2009). A. Lincoln: A Biography. Random House Digital, Inc. pp. 115–. ISBN 9781588367754. 
  11. ^ Condon, William Henry (1900). Life of Major-General James Shields: Hero of Three Wars and Senator from Three States. Press of the Blakely Printing Company. 
  12. ^ Tucker, Spencer; Arnold, James R.; Wiener, Roberta; (Jr.), Paul G. Pierpaoli; Cutrer, Thomas W.; Santoni, Pedro (2013). The Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War: A Political, Social, and Military History. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781851098538. 
  13. ^ Senate Executive Journal: Monday, August 14, 1848. Library of Congress, retrieved September 13, 2007.
  14. ^ Senate Executive Journal: Tuesday, December 12, 1848. Library of Congress, retrieved September 13, 2007.
  15. ^ Ford, Thomas; Shields, James (1854). A history of Illinois : from its commencement as a state in 1818 to 1847. Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection. Chicago : S.C. Griggs & Co. ; New York : Ivison & Phinney. 
  16. ^ Shiels, Damian (2013-02-13). Irish in the American Civil War. The History Press. ISBN 9780752491974. 
  17. ^ "James Shields", Architect of the Capitol.
  18. ^ Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the Year . By authority of the Board of Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library. 1916. 


External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Levi Davis
Illinois Auditor of Public Accounts
Succeeded by
William Lee D. Ewing
Government offices
Preceded by
Thomas H. Blake
Commissioner of the General Land Office
April 16, 1845 – January 6, 1847
Succeeded by
Richard M. Young
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Sidney Breese
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Illinois
October 27, 1849 – March 3, 1855
Served alongside: Stephen A. Douglas
Succeeded by
Lyman Trumbull
Preceded by
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Minnesota
May 11, 1858 – March 3, 1859
Served alongside: Henry Mower Rice
Succeeded by
Morton S. Wilkinson
Preceded by
David H. Armstrong
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Missouri
January 22, 1879 – March 3, 1879
Served alongside: Francis M. Cockrell
Succeeded by
George G. Vest