Celtic Junction Arts Review

James Shields: County Tyrone’s Gift to America

Jane Kennedy

Downtown Faribault by Unknown author, Public Domain, Link

An hour-long trip down Interstate 35 from St. Paul takes you into the rich farming country of Faribault and the nearby Irish towns including one called Shieldsville. To the savvy traveler, this community that lies at the confluence of the Cannon and Straight Rivers, is also a history mecca. One of its earlier proprietors and founders was James Shields, an Irishman from Co. Tyrone, whose colorful life was spent on a merchant ship and in multiple wars, courtrooms, and the U.S. Capitol. But it’s not where he’s been as much as how he lived his adventurous life that makes him a noble American figure.

James Shields in military uniform.
James Shields by Castle, Henry A., Public Domain, Link

“Among the countless sons of Erin who, fleeing from tyranny, left the Emerald Isle to seek their fortunes in this land of freedom, none achieved greater distinction than James Shields,”1 noted Ralph Lozier at the 1910 unveiling of Shields’ monument in Carrollton, MO.

James Shields was born in 1806, the eldest of three sons. His father, Charles, died when James was six years old, so his large extended family, which owned land and a drapery business, assisted with the boys’ upbringing. His family was better off than most Irish Catholics at that time.  Young Shields’ mother enrolled him in a Protestant grammar school about four miles from his home; there he learned Greek and Latin, knowledge that greatly benefited him throughout his lifetime. In addition to academics, Shields spent hours with a military veteran who had served at Waterloo as well as an uncle who served in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Both war veterans played a role in Shields’ eventual military prowess.  “James decidedly sprung from a family in which fear of the battlefield was an unknown,”2 noted the Irish Standard following Shields death.

Danger along the way

Historians believe it was the famine conditions and an alluring offer from his uncle who was teaching in So. Carolina that prompted Shields to sail to America in 1826. If a cat has nine lives, Shields most assuredly had at least four. His sailing vessel was to leave Liverpool for the U.S., but it became shipwrecked on a shore in Scotland and Shields was one of only three survivors. He remained there for a few months and took a job as a tutor for a wealthy family. This allowed him to cross the Atlantic months later in a bit more comfort and brought him to New York. When he went in search of his uncle only to learn the man had died, Shields opted for life as a sailor and took a position as purser on a commercial vessel. The job didn’t end well. Shields was involved in an accident that resulted in both legs broken and a three-month hospitalization in New York.

Kaskaskia, IL by David Wilson, CC by 2.0
James Shields, Brigadier General
Brigadier General James Shields. Image provided by Library of Congress, Washington, DC

From the East Coast, Shields moved to South Carolina and then on to Kaskasia, IL around 1829. Historians can only guess why Shields ended up in Kaskasia but prior to the War of Independence, it had been the largest city in Illinois and there was an Irish settlement near the town. Shields began teaching then decided on a career in law. He finished law school in two years and was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1832, already making strides in his new country. 

The adventures of Shields continued with his election to the Illinois House of Representatives just four years later. By 1841 he was named State Auditor of Public Accounts and two years later appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court to fill a vacancy. Shields’ rapid ascension in Illinois politics surprised few people. 

“No judge ever felt his responsibility so deeply, and that it was his duty to weigh all his decisions calmly and deliberately, as they were not only to determine the cause before him, but to form a rule for the future,”3 declared the Boston Pilot.  But his term as a judge lasted only two years. Shields was appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office by President Polk in 1845, moving the rising political star to Washington.

He was eager to address the important matters coming before this federal department, such as western migration. But like other political appointments, Shields’ time in this post was short-lived, interrupted by the Mexican War that broke out in May 1846. He resigned his federal post and was commissioned brigadier general of the Illinois Volunteers.

From politics to the battlefield

James Shields on horseback
James Shields on Horseback, National Portrait Gallery, Public domain

Shields’s heroics on the battlefield are legendary. During the Mexican War, Shields fought under Generals Zachary Taylor, John Wool, and Winfield Scott. It was during the battle of Cerro Gordo that Shields, after leading his troops into battle through dangerous mountain terrain, came under open fire in close range and took a shot to the lungs. When his men attempted to remove him from the field, he told them, “’I am no further use to my country. You are. Lay me down and let me die; I might as well die here as be taken off to die. You are all strong and able-bodied men – able to do your country some service. For God’s sake, lay me down and go to your duty.’”4 But a Mexican battalion surgeon, born in Ireland and being held as a prisoner of war, conducted a delicate procedure to congeal the blood in Shields’ wound and saved the General’s life.

Four months later he was back in battle, this time at Chapultepec. “His horse having been shot out from under him, General Shields fought on foot, bareheaded and in his shirt sleeves, leading his brigade, sword in hand, with a bravery that has made his name imperishable in American history,”5 noted The Irish World.

When the Mexican War ended, Shields was hailed throughout the country as a war hero. This led to his appointment in 1848 as Territorial Governor of Oregon by President Polk. He remained only briefly in this office, instead opting to return to Illinois to run for the U.S. Senate. Shields won the election, but it was declared void on the grounds he had not been a U.S. citizen long enough to qualify for a Senate seat. Shields bided his time and in October 1849 was elected U.S. Senator from Illinois, but he was a one-termer due to the political climate of the time.

Among the reasons attributed to Shields’ loss was his Irish birth. At the time, the Know-Nothings, an organization that denounced foreign influences and promoted traditional American ways, ignited anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment. Yet Shields admitted that some immigrants gave themselves a bad name. “I never got any support from my own countrymen here. They are proud of me but, if I depended on them, they would drop me immediately,”6 he complained.

The Chicago Tribune in December 1853 described the feelings many Illinoisans felt toward the Irish at the time: “Why do our police reports always average two representatives from ‘Erin, the soft green isle of the ocean,’ to one from almost any other inhabitable land of the earth?… Why are the instigators and ringleaders of our riots and tumults, in nine cases out of ten, Irishmen?”

On to Minnesota

Alexander Faribault, Encyclopedia of Biography of Minnesota, Century Publishing and Engraving Company, Public Domain, Link

The Illinois election defeat upset Shields who was used to winning; it prompted him to do some soul searching which resulted in him making two significant life changes. He had learned of the quality farming land in Minnesota when he served as Commissioner of the General Land Office. Recognizing the potential for “peace and prosperity,”7 Shields teamed up with Alexander Faribault who arrived in Minnesota in 1826 and established the Faribault Townsite Company with the intent of developing the area. In a short time, Faribault and Shields became acquainted and Faribault offered Shields a partnership in the company. His background in law made Shields well qualified as a land agent and lawyer.

He also purchased a fair amount of land, using money from his Mexican war bounty and money from a loan repayment. “…Shields knew that if his land was to prosper, it needed people, lots of them. For that, Shields thought the area could be a Godsend for the Irish, who were still immigrating to America at a rate of nearly 100,000 a year and being shoehorned into eastern coastal cities,”8 observed J. Sean Callan.

His colonization efforts paid off and ultimately Irish from the east coast and Chicago ventured westward and settled in and around Faribault. The settlement of Shields was incorporated into a town in May 1858 and residents chose the name Shieldsville to honor its founder. Other townships near this area where Irish immigrants settled included Erin, Kilkenny, and Montgomery.

The Illinois defeat brought about another change in Shields, this one spiritual. Whereas he previously avoided church attendance, once in Minnesota he re-established his ties to the Catholic Church and remained an ardent Catholic until his death.

More political pursuits

James Shields portrait
James Shields by L. Wieser, National Portrait Gallery

In many instances, timing played an important part in Shields’ accomplished life; his years in Minnesota prove the point. Shields arrived in Minnesota in 1855 and three years later, the state entered the Union. While he attended the state Democratic convention in late 1857 supposedly to protect his land and railroad interests, the result was that Shields, along with Henry M. Rice, was elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. One term was to end in 1859 while the other assumed the full six-year term. The newly minted senators drew straws and Shields picked the short one.

Shields’ tenure as a U.S. senator from Minnesota, which lasted less than two years, was dismaying. He battled fellow Democrats, Republicans, health issues, and financial woes. “By May 1859, he pulled up stakes, boarded a steamer and headed down the mighty Mississippi for St. Louis and the far West,”9 according to Callan.

James Shields statue.
Statue in the United States Capital

Shields remained restless for the remainder of his life. He reached San Francisco in August 1860 where a year later he married Mary Ann Carr, an Irish-born woman who had been raised in the U.S. She was 30 years younger than Shields.

Shields’ military service would not end there, however. In 1861, when the Civil War began, he again was appointed a brigadier general – this time by President Lincoln – where he was instrumental in stopping Major General “Stonewall” Jackson at the Battle of Kernstown, W. Virginia, Jackson’s only defeat.

In his later years, Shields, his wife Mary, and their daughter Mary moved to Missouri. With the call to politics still strong, Shields won a Congressional seat but when the election was contested (he was accused of being a carpetbagger), Shields was on the losing end. He went on to serve in the Missouri Assembly for two years and was seated a third time in the U.S. Senate in 1878 when he was selected to fill the term of the deceased Senator Lewis V. Bogy. Shields’ term ended 14 months after he was sworn in, and he chose not to seek re-election.

By this time, Shields was in declining health although he was enjoying giving lectures throughout the country. His favorite was about the many renowned statesmen he had the pleasure of working with throughout his lifetime. It was while he was on the lecture circuit in Ottumwa, Iowa that Shields took sick and died in June 1879.

Historians leave out much of Shields’ personal life, including his later married years. Maybe the forever politician, or maybe a true romantic, when asked to define his greatest victory in life – and there had been many – Shields responded, “My greatest victory was won on the day when my sweetheart, Mary Carr, said, ‘yes.’”10

Tributes to Shields poured in following his death and in succeeding years when monuments were erected to honor his distinguished life. Richard J. Purcell, Ph.D., professor of history at Catholic University of America, described Shields as, “A good Irishman, a loyal Catholic, a regular Democrat, an honest judge, a distinguished soldier in three wars, a representative of three different states in the United States Senate, a patriot, a colonizer, and a courageous liberal.”11

Signature of James Shields

(Monuments to James Shields can be found in at least three places in the U.S. Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. features a statue of Shields erected in 1893 by the State of Illinois as one of its two representatives in this esteemed collection of U.S. dignitaries. Another statue, this one a life-sized bronze statue, stands adjacent to the courthouse in Carrollton, MO. It was erected in 1910. Four years later, Minnesota dedicated a large statue to honor Shields in the hall of the State Capital on the building’s second floor.)



1“Monument of General James Shields Unveiled at St. Mary’s Cemetery, Carrollton Democrat, Nov. 18, 1910, p. 1.
2 “Statue to General Shields Unveiled at Capitol,” The Irish Standard, October 24, 1914, p. 1.
3 Boston Pilot, (Boston, MA), “Biography,” June 12, 1847, p. 4.
4 The Irish World, “General Shields,” Vol. IX, no. 42, June 14, 1879, p. 1.
5 Ibid, p. 1.
6 Shields’ letter to Patrick Shields, January 29, 1858, as quoted in Callon
7 The Catholic Bulletin, “General James Shields,” October 31, 1914, p. 1
8 Callan, p, 216
9 Callan, p. 240
10 Casson, p. 103.
11 Purcell, Richard J., “James Shields: Soldier and Statesman,” An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 21, no. 81, March 1932, p. 73.

Works Cited:

Callan, J. Sean, Courage and Country, J. Sean Callan, Bloomington: 2004.

Casson, Herbert N., The Irish in America, Munsey’s Magazine, Vol. 35, p. 103.

Castle, Henry A., and MN Historical Society, General James Shields, Soldier, Orator, Statesman, St. Paul: Published by the Society, 1915. PDF retrieved from the Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/item/18022775/.

Eisle, Al, “Shields – and Broadswords with Abe,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 5, 1974.

Lass, William E., Minnesota: A History, 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York: 1998.

Purcell, Richard J., “James Shields: Soldier and Statesman,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 21, no. 81, Irish Province of the Society of Jesus, 1932. www.jstor.org/stable/30094871.

“Biography,” Boston Pilot (Boston, MA), June 12, 1847.

“General James Shields,” The Catholic Bulletin, Oct. 31, 1914.

General Shields,” The Irish World, Vol. IX, no. 42, June 14, 1879.

“General James Shields, Unveiling of His Statue in Washington,” The Minneapolis Tribune,      Dec. 7, 1893.

“General James Shields is Remembered,” St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press, March 27, 1910.

“Monument of General James Shields Unveiled at St. Mary’s Cemetery,” Carrollton Democrat, Nov. 18, 1910.

“The Battle of Churubusco,” Southern Quarterly Review, July 1852, Vol. VII, no 11.

“Statue to General Shields Unveiled at Capitol,” The Irish Standard, Oct. 24, 1914.

Letter from James Shields published in unknown newspaper, April 15, 1857.