General James Shields: Immigrant, Soldier, Senator from Three States

Military officer, b. in Dungannon County Tyrone, Ireland, 12 Dec., 1810; d. at Ottumwa, Iowa, 1 June, 1879. He emigrated to the United States in 1826 where he at one proceeded to study law and began practicing at Kaskaskia, Ill., in 1832. He was elected to the state Legislature in 1836; became state auditor in 1839 and judge of the state supreme court in 1843. He was fulfilling his duties  as commissioner of the general land-office when war with Mexico was declared, and he was commissioned brigadier general by President Polk, 1 July 1846. General Shields served with distinction under Taylor, Wool, and Scott, and gained the brevet of major-general at Cerro Gordo, where he was shot through the lung. He was again severely wounded at Chapultepec, and was mustered out in 1848. The same year he was appointed Governor of the Territory of Oregon, which office he soon resigned to represent Illinois in the United States Senate as a democrat. After the expiration of his term he removed to Minnesota and was United States senator from that state from 1858 to 1860, when he removed to California. On the breaking out of the Civil War, he was appointed brigadier-general of volunteers, 19 August, 1861. He fought gallantly in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, opening hostilities at Winchester, though severely wounded the preceding day in a preliminary engagement. While in command at Port Republic he was decisively beaten by General Jackson and resigned his commission, 28 March, 1863. He returned to California whence he removed to Carrollton, Mo., where he continued the practice of law. He subsequently served his state as a railroad commissioner and was a member of the Legislature from 1874-79. He was United States senator from Missouri at the time of his death. A monument was erected to him in St. Mary’s Cemetery at Carrollton, which was unveiled by Archbishop Glennon on 12 Nov., 1910.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1911)

About Pat McNamara
  • Dale

    I think it is fascinating that an immigrant to the US can hold so many influential, and varied, government positions. Although, the first time he was elected to the US Senate, he was refused a seat on the grounds that he had not been a citizen for the required number of years. So a new election had to be scheduled, which he won again and he was allowed to serve.

    One of the current senators from Minnesota has an interesting fact about Shields posted on her website:

    “On September 22, 1842, Senator Shields almost fought a duel with Abraham Lincoln, who had written several letters to a newspaper poking fun at
    Shields. Lincoln essentially blamed Shields, the Illinois State Auditor,
    for the financial debt of their state. Recognizing that Lincoln would
    easily defeat him in a duel, he had his negotiator come to a compromise
    truce with Lincoln’s negotiator at the last minute.”

    As an off-topic aside, thank you Dr. McNamara for writing this article as it sheds light on what was a small mystery to me: why is a county in Iowa (of all places) named Cerro Gordo? Apparently, it was named after the Battle of Cerro Gordo, which occurred shortly after Iowa became a US state.

  • Elaine S.

    Yes, the Shields-Lincoln duel is well known among Lincoln history buffs. The letters in question were actually written by Lincoln’s then-fiancee, Mary Todd, and one of her friends, but Lincoln took responsibility for them. By the “rules” of duelling at the time, since Shields issued the challenge Lincoln got to pick the weapons — he chose cavalry broadswords, which gave him a huge advantage due to his height and lanky build. Also, the duel was scheduled to take place on an island in the Mississippi River north of St. Louis because at the time, Illinois had outlawed duelling but Missouri had not yet done so. Many historians believe the episode taught Lincoln to be more careful in his criticisms of others and may have been an important learning experience, so to speak, on his way to becoming president.