U.S. Brigadier General James Shields (Soldier Profile series)

James Shields, Brigadier General U.S. Volunteers

Birth Date: May 6, 1806
Birth Place: County of Tyrone, Ireland

Date of Death: June 1, 1879
Location of Death: Ottumwa, Iowa

Education: Studied Law in Illinois

Military Experience: Mexican War, Civil War

Major Battles: Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 18, 1847), Battle of Chapultepec (September 12-13, 1847), Battle of Kernstown (March 22, 1862), Battle of Port Republic (June 9, 1862)

Awards/Medals/Promotions: Appointed brigadier general of Illinois regiments (July 1, 1846), received promotion to brevet major general after his wounding at Cerro Gordo, appointed brigadier general volunteers on August 19, 1861


James Shields was born on May 6, 1806 in Altmore, County Tyrone, Ireland.(i) He was born to Charles and Ann (nee McDonnell) Shields and raised in the Catholic faith. The family left their native Ireland in 1823 and headed to Quebec, Canada. Little is known of his early life in North America. He would move west, settling in Kaskaskia, Illinois where he would study law and teach school. He was attracted to the Democrat party and would be elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1835. While serving as a legislator he would meet many men who would be conspicuous in the Secession Crisis and Civil War: Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, John A. McClernand and John J. Hardin.(ii)

After his term as a state legislator, he served for two terms as state auditor. He is widely credited with saving the state of Illinois from the ravages of the Panic of 1837 by insisting that state taxes be paid in gold or silver.(iii) This action set the Whigs against him and impelled Abraham Lincoln to send an anonymous letter to the Springfield Journal in August 1842 decrying Shields’ actions as auditor and insulting him. Shields would become furious. Upon finding Lincoln was the source of the letters, he would demand a retraction. Lincoln did not oblige and it would ultimately lead to one of the most astonishing events in Lincoln’s life – the request for a duel. The parties would meet on Sunflower Island, opposite Alton, Illinois in Missouri, on September 22, 1842. The participants had chosen to use swords, but were able to avoid the duel when Shields learned that Lincoln had not penned all of the letters. In a later letter, Lincoln was to state, “…your conduct toward me, so far as I know, had always been gentlemanly. I had no personal grudge against you and no cause for any.”(iv)

Shields would remain popular in Illinois as demonstrated by his appointment to the Illinois Supreme Court on August 16, 1843 – a position he would hold until he resigned to accept the position of Commissioner of the General Land Office, in Washington City, in 1845.(v)

On July 1, 1846, Shields would be appointed brigadier general of the Illinois regiments mustered into service to fight the Mexican War. He would serve bravely while leading his men in action. He was wounded at the Battle of Cerra Gordo. The one inch grapeshot ball entered Shields’ right chest, piercing his lung and exiting near his spine.(vi) The wound was believed to be fatal, but he would recover and receive brevet promotion to major general. He would see further action at the battles of Contreras, Churubusco and Chapultepec. His presence on the battlefield was inspiring and he would receive accolades from General Winfield Scott for his bravery.

After the Mexican War, on August 14, 1848, Shields would be appointed governor of the Oregon Territory – a position he declined in order to run for one of the Illinois U.S. Senate seats. He was elected in the fall of 1848 but was unable to be seated after an investigation proved he had not been a naturalized citizen for the required nine years – his date of citizenship was October 21, 1840. Returning to Illinois he ran in a special election for the senate seat, having passed his ninth year of citizenship, and won election. He would be seated and would fight for land improvements during his term. Shields was not reelected and would move to Minnesota after his defeat. He would subsequently be elected in 1858 to a two year term as one of the first U.S. Senators from Minnesota. Again, he was not reelected.

After his defeat in Minnesota, Shields would move to California. He was involved in mining in Mexico when the Civil War erupted and would be appointed brigadier general volunteers on August 19, 1861.(vii) Shields would be sent east to serve with the Army of the Potomac. He would be given command of Brigadier General Frederick W. Lander’s brigade, after Lander’s death on March 2, 1862. With CSA Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s actions in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, Shields would be sent to the Shenandoah Valley with his brigade. There, in temporary command of a division, he would successfully bring Jackson to battle at Kernstown, on March 23, 1862. In command of the forces at Kernstown, he would successfully attack Jackson, eventually forcing his retreat south. His command of the forces at the First Battle of Kernstown was all the more impressive as he had suffered a broken arm, the previous day, in a skirmish with CSA Colonel Turner Ashby’s Cavalry.

After his successful battle against Jackson, Shields would be given permanent command of a division in Major General Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Shenandoah on March 29, 1862.(viii) He would push south, along the eastern face of the Shenandoah Mountains, in effort to keep Jackson’s forces in the valley. In this move he cooperated with US Major General John Fremont’s forces which were operating in the valley. Jackson, who had rightfully earned a reputation as a hard fighter, knew opportunity when it presented itself. Believing he could annihilate the separate commands of Shields and Fremont, he attacked Fremont at Cross Keys on June 8, quickly defeating him. On June 9, working rapidly to consolidate his command, he attacked one brigade of Shields’ Division, commanded by Brigadier General Erastus B. Tyler, at Port Republic. With Shields’ command spread out, Jackson attacked Tyler north of Port Republic. The battle would have been a quick, one-sided affair had Tyler not had artillery and infantry posted on a prominent coaling which commanded the field of battle. Unfortunately, for Shields’ reputation, Jackson’s numbers were irresistible and would eventually force Shields to retreat up the Luray Valley. Shields would see no additional field command after the Battle of Port Republic. He would resign his volunteer commission in 1863 believing a great injustice had been done to him by the Lincoln administration and Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. After being brevetted major general in the Mexican War, Shields believed Stanton had worked to prevent him from receiving promotion to major general of volunteers during the Civil War – a promotion which Abraham Lincoln had sent to the U.S. Senate for confirmation. In Condon’s biography of Shields, he makes a case for Shields being denied his promotion for political reasons of expediency. After resigning his commission, Shields would become a quasi martyr for the Irishmen serving in the U.S. Army. Condon suggests that Shields, by quietly resigning, took the best course of action available to him, “He left posterity to vindicate him, when party strifes had ceased and political necessities did not demand martial victims, and in this he proved wise.”(ix) Looking through the prism of nearly fifteen decades, this author is left to wonder if Shields became the scapegoat for other setbacks the United States suffered during 1862, specifically: The Seven Days and the Second Battle of Bull Run. Shields had proven himself a competent tactician in his defeat of Jackson at First Kernstown. Many other officers of less capacity would be promoted to major general – some inevitably for political gain with certain groups, such as the German population with Major General Franz Sigel’s appointment to command the Department of West Virginia in 1864. Perhaps he was the victim of political necessity?

After the Civil War, Shields would move to Missouri where he would serve in the Missouri House of Representatives and as a railroad commissioner. In 1879, he would be elected to fill the remaining term of U.S. Senator Lewis V. Bogey who died on September 20, 1877. He would not seek reelection after serving the remaining two months of Bogey’s term. James Shields is the only person to have served as a U.S. Senator from three different states. General Shields died of an apparent heart attack on June 1, 1879 in Ottumwa, Iowa. He had been there to deliver a lecture on the Wednesday before his death. His earthly remains were removed to Carrollton, Missouri where a Catholic funeral service was performed on June 4. The Reverend Father Walsh, of Saint Bridget’s Church in Saint Louis, delivered this poem during the eulogy:

How sleep the brave who sink to rest
By all their country’s wishes blessed.
When spring, with dewy fingers cold,
Returns to deck their hallowed mold,
She there shall dress a sweeter sod
Than fancy’s feet have ever trod.

By fairy hands their knell is rung;
By forms unseen their dirge is sung;
There honor comes a pilgrim gray,
To bless the turf that wraps their clay;
And freedom shall awhile repair,
To dwell a weeping hermit there!(x)

James Shields had immigrated to the United States to seek a better life. He served his adopted country as a state representative, U.S. Senator and a general in two separate wars. He is a true American HERO.

i. There is some discrepancy with Shields’ date of birth. Most sources list him as being born on May 10, 1810, but his biography by William Henry Condon, Life of Major-General James Shields, lists his birth as May 6, 1806. This is more likely as he had a brother, Patrick, who was born on March 17, 1810. See: Condon, William Henry, Life of Major-General James Shields: Hero of Three Wars and Senator From Three States, published by Press of the Blakely Printing Company in 1900, Pg. 10.
ii. Condon, William Henry, Life of Major-General James Shields: Hero of Three Wars and Senator From Three States, published by Press of the Blakely Printing Company in 1900, Pg. 29.
iii. Ibid, Pg. 44.
iv. Ibid, Pg. 49.
v. Ibid, Pg. 52.
vi. Ibid, Pg. 69.
vii. See American Civil War General Officers on Ancestry.com.
viii. Ibid.
ix. Condon, William Henry, Life of Major-General James Shields: Hero of Three Wars and Senator From Three States, published by Press of the Blakely Printing Company in 1900, Pg. 261.
x. Ibid, Pg. 331.


About Michael Noirot

I grew up in the Central Illinois farming community, of Dunlap. Growing up, I played sports, tinkered with cars and enjoyed photography. While I did well in school, I did not become passionate about history until my early 30's. I have built a large library, of books on early America, politics and the Civil War. I am an avid reader. Fortunately, I have had plenty of opportunities to travel, over the years, and have been to most of the Civil War battlefields. I work while I travel, so more often than not, I am up, in the middle of the night, to get sunrise pictures, or I will be out until well after dark, exploring Civil War battlefields. I have other hobbies, and passions, that I really enjoy. Number one on the list would be guitar. I play my guitars on a regular basis, and enjoy the Bluegrass, and Contemporary Christian (CCM) genres. I play a style of guitar, called FLATPICKING, where using a flat pick, you play lead solos, similar to the way a fiddle would have been played during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Laura, my wife, and I also enjoy scuba diving, travel and spending time at our property, in the country. Lastly, we spend as much time with our families, as possible. Thanks for stopping by.
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5 Responses to U.S. Brigadier General James Shields (Soldier Profile series)

  1. Damian,
    Good to hear from you.

  2. joe eaton says:

    Very interesting article. The article states that the family moved to the US in 1823. The fact is that James Shields moved to the US on his own. The rest of his family remained in Ireland. You are correct in stating that he was born in 1806. His brother Patrick as stated was born in 1810. Patrick is my great great grandfather and lived in Altmore here in Ireland until his death. His son, also Patrick, was the father of my grandfather, Joseph Shields of Altmore Lodge.
    Congrats. and best Regards,

  3. Joe,
    Thank you for the comment and correction. There is surprisingly little information about Shields’ early life. He was, however, very interesting to learn about. Shields led the life of a patriot in his adopted country. You must be proud.

  4. Enjoyed your article. Shields was a law partner with Gustave Koerner for 4 years in Belleville in the late 1830′s. I am writing an article for the non-profit St Clair County Historical Society and would like to know if I can use the top photo of Shields in uniform in my article. Shields has been overlooked and is deserving of our attention. Thanks, Jack

  5. Jack,
    Thank you for your comment. You are welcome to use the picture. It can be downloaded by following this link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/battlefieldportraits/5708100294/

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