Six Unusual Abraham Lincoln Facts and Rumors, Part I

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most studied individuals in human history and is ranked by most historians as the greatest American president.  He and James A. Garfield knew one another; in fact, President Lincoln may have encouraged Garfield to resign from the Union Army and take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in late 1863 when Garfield was trying to decide between staying in the Army or going to Congress.

President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.  (Library of Congress)

President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. (Library of Congress)

Here are some interesting, fun, and little-known tidbits about Abraham Lincoln.

  • Abraham Lincoln presented a pair of engraved Colt pistols to a revolutionary Algerian religious and military leader.

Abd el-Kader (1808-1883) was a religious and military leader who led the struggle against French colonialism in Algeria during the 1830s-1840s. He delivered a number of stunning defeats to the French Army, and forced them to commit a tremendous amount of manpower and material to suppress his revolution. After he was finally captured and imprisoned, he renounced the war and was later pardoned by Napoleon III. He was exiled to Damascus to live out the remainder of his life.

In July 1860, conflict erupted in Damascus between the Muslim and Christian populations. The Christian quarter was targeted and attacked, leading to the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. Abd el-Kader had previously warned the French consul of an imminent eruption of violence. When violence broke out, the Muslim former freedom fighter sheltered large numbers of Christians, including the heads of several foreign consulates, in his own home. He sent his eldest sons into the streets to offer any surviving Christians shelter. Many survivors testified that Abd el-Kader was instrumental in saving them from certain death.

Reports soon spread through the Christian world of the prominent role Abd el-Kader had played in sheltering the Christian refugees. The international community applauded his effort. The French government bestowed on him the Legion of Honor, and the Order of Pius IX was given to him from the Vatican. Two Colt pistols were delivered from Abraham Lincoln to Abd el-Kader in a box made of bird’s eye maple bearing the inscription, “From the President of the United States, to his Excellency, Lord Abdelkader.” They are currently on display in an Algerian museum.

These two Colt pistols were delivered to Algerian leader Abd el-Kader from Abraham Lincoln.  (Wikipedia)

These two Colt pistols were delivered to Algerian leader Abd el-Kader from Abraham Lincoln. (Wikipedia)

  • Abraham Lincoln offered the Texas governor and former general, Sam Houston, a commission as a major general and command of all the U.S. forces in Texas. 

The man that had fought so hard to bring Texas into the Union twenty-six years before appealed to his fellow Texans to not let it secede in 1861. The pro-union governor of Texas, Sam Houston, refused to swear allegiance to Confederacy and was subsequently unseated from his position. Before he was removed from office, Abraham Lincoln had attempted to win Sam Houston over to the Union cause. Abraham Lincoln sent a secret message to Houston offering military assistance, carried by George H. Giddings, a San Antonio merchant. The message revealed that President Lincoln was offering to appoint Houston a major general in the United States Army. He also authorized Houston to recruit 100,000 men, and if possible, hold Texas in the Union until naval and army support arrived. 

Houston summoned four of his closest friends together at his mansion and read them Lincoln’s offer. Only one of the men advised him to accept Lincoln’s commission and attempt to hold Texas in the Union. Following the advice of his other three friends, the 68-year old Houston tossed the letter into the fireplace. He then proclaimed, “Gentlemen, I have resolved to act in this manner on your advice, but if I was ten years younger I would not.” In an attempt to avoid bloody conflict on the subject of secession in Texas, Houston and his wife quietly left for Huntsville, Texas. Houston soon after died there on July 26, 1863.

In a speech on April 19, 1861, Houston had forewarned a crowd of the destruction that the war would bring to the South. “Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it.”

This image of Sam Houston was taken around 1859, just two years before the start of the Civil War.  (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

This image of Sam Houston was taken around 1859, just two years before the start of the Civil War. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

  • Abraham Lincoln nearly fought a broadsword duel! 

In 1842, Abraham Lincoln became engaged in a heated debate with James Shields over the defaulted state bank in Illinois. In one instance, Lincoln publically accused Shields of womanizing. Lincoln stated, “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.” Public slandering was viciously conducted between the two politicians.

This caused the hot-headed Shields to challenge Lincoln to a duel. The duel was scheduled to be held in Missouri, where dueling was still legal. Since Lincoln was challenged by Shields, he was allowed to choose the weapons used in the duel. Lincoln’s first choice was a cavalry broadsword! This choice did have some rational foundation. Lincoln was aware that he would be able to handle a broadsword better than a pistol. He stated, “I didn’t want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.” Lincoln,who stood 6’4″ tall, against Shields at 5’9″ tall, would hold the advantage with the cumbersome weapon.

On September 22, the combatants met at Bloody Island, Missouri. In a demonstration before the duel was scheduled to commence, Lincoln swung his sword high above his head and sliced a tree branch in two. This act was mean to display the immensity of Lincoln’s reach and strength to the smaller, but fearless, Shields. The men eventually surrendered to reason, and the two level-headed men called a truce.

James Shields, who nearly fought a broadsword duel with Abraham Lincoln.  (National Archives)

James Shields, who nearly fought a broadsword duel with Abraham Lincoln. (National Archives)

Shields would go on the serve as a general in the Mexican-American War, where he was severely wounded at the battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847. He also served as a general in the American Civil War (appointed by Lincoln), where he was also gravely wounded at the battle of Kernstown in 1862. When a naïve army officer questioned Lincoln about the incident in 1865, he was said to have replied, “If you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.” It would be interesting to wonder how history would have been altered if Lincoln would have killed Shields, or vice versa. Lincoln would not have been the only future president to have killed a man in a duel. That honor was bestowed on Andrew Jackson.

(Check back soon for Part II of this article!)

-Frank Jastrzembski, Volunteer

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