Shields, James (c.1806–79), soldier and politician in the USA, the only person elected to represent three states in the US senate, was born probably on 6 May 1806 in Altmore, near Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone, eldest of three sons of Charles Sheals (d. 1812), a linen draper, and Katherine Sheals (née MacDonald) (d. 1842). Information about his early life in Ireland and America is fragmentary, speculative, and contradictory, owing in part to misleading or hyperbolic renditions produced by Shields himself later in life. Reared in a middle-class catholic landholding family, he received a sound classical education, presumably in a hedge school kept by a priest, and in an academy at Carrickmore managed by the local protestant rector; in adulthood he was fluent in Latin and French, and competent in Spanish and classical Greek.
Emigrating to America (c.1827), he made his way to Kaskaskia, Illinois, where he taught in a subscription school while reading law (1828–32). Admitted to the Illinois bar (1832), he moved to Belleville, where he prospered in a newly developed region with abundant legal work in land conveyance. Throughout a long and colourful career in politics, he retained the essential creed of a Jacksonian Democrat, asserting popular sovereignty, states’ rights, and the inviolability of the federal union. Not yet a US citizen, he was elected to a term in the Illinois general assembly (the state legislature) (1836–8), under the liberal policies of the fledgling state, which allowed non-citizens to vote and hold office after only six-months’ residency. He formed a lasting political alliance and personal friendship with another rookie legislator, Stephen A. Douglas (1813–61), the ambitious ‘Little Giant’ of the Illinois Democracy; twenty years later Shields was best man at Douglas's marriage to the catholic heiress Adèle Cutts (1856).
Shields served as secretary to Illinois's board of public works (1838–41), the agency established to oversee the many costly ‘internal improvements’, such as railways, roads, and canals, authorised by the previous legislature, and to award the letting of contracts. As state auditor of public accounts (1841–3), he confronted a precarious fiscal situation by adopting radical measures intended to rescue the state bank of Illinois from impending bankruptcy. In the ensuing political storm, Shields challenged whig politician Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) to a duel over several pseudonymous letters published in a whig newspaper which he deemed defamatory. When the adversaries met on Bloody Island in the Mississippi River (22 September 1842) – Lincoln having exploited his considerable advantage in height and reach by choosing as weapons cavalry broadswords – the seconds arranged a reconciliation, Shields accepting as an apology Lincoln's denial of authorship of the offending documents.
After sitting on the Illinois supreme court (1843–5), Shields went to Washington, DC, as federal commissioner of public lands (1845–6) under the incoming Democratic Polk administration. His proposal of a new government policy of selling, rather than leasing, mineral lands to private mining interests on a depreciating graduated price scale, was incorporated into the mineral land act of 1846, and thus became the template for future legislation. On the declaration of war against Mexico he resigned from the land office, raised a regiment of Illinois volunteers, and was commissioned a brigadier general (1 July 1846). Despite lacking military experience, he proved a brave and able commander. Shot through the lung during the battle of Cerro Gordo (18 April 1847), he attributed his remarkably rapid recovery to unorthodox treatment by a captured Irish-born surgeon in the Mexican service, who supposedly cleaned the wound with a silk handkerchief wrapped round a ramrod. Brevetted a major general, Shields led his brigade with distinction at Churubusco (20 August) and Chapultepec (13 September), suffering a fractured arm in the latter engagement when his horse was shot from under him; his command was among the first to breach the walls of Mexico city. These deeds received considerable publicity in Ireland as well as the USA and Shields was lauded as a war hero in both countries. In fact, during the excitement that followed the French revolution in February 1848 many Irish nationalists hoped that he might return to Ireland to lead a revolt against British rule.
On 12 January 1849 Shields was elected by the Illinois general assembly to the US senate, only to be declared ineligible because, having been naturalised a US citizen on 21 October 1840, he failed to satisfy the constitutional requirement that a senator be a US citizen for a minimum of nine years. Re-elected at a special session of the general assembly (27 October), he became the first Irish-born member of the US senate, and the first catholic to represent the state of Illinois. His term (1849–55) was notable only for his loyal support on all major issues for Douglas, then emerging among the most powerful and controversial political leaders nationally. On the overriding issue of slavery, he joined Douglas in applying the fundamental Jacksonian principles of popular sovereignty and local prerogative, thereby opposing interference by the federal government with the ‘domestic institutions’ of the several states, and contending that the citizens of each newly formed territory should themselves decide whether to be slave or free. Shields's support for Douglas's Kansas–Nebraska act of 1854 cost him his seat, as six anti-slavery members of the Democratic majority in the Illinois general assembly combined with the whigs to deadlock the senatorial election between him and Lincoln, the assembly finally choosing a compromise candidate.
Chagrined by the defeat, Shields left Illinois for the Minnesota territory (April 1855), where he speculated in land and railway development. Involved in a scheme to relocate Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans from eastern cities to western lands, he had limited success settling such homesteaders on property that he owned near Faribault, but colonised several townships, including the eponymous Shieldsville. Elected in 1857 by the Minnesota legislature as one of the new state's first two US senators, he assumed his seat on the formal admission of Minnesota to the federal union (11 May 1858), but his term expired the following March. When the newly launched Republican party swept the state elections, he was defeated in the legislature for re-election. Moving to California (April 1860), he opened a law office in San Francisco. Commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers in the union army during the American civil war, early in 1862 he was active in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia against the confederate army of Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Skilfully concealing the overwhelming numerical superiority of his command, Shields lured Jackson into making a concerted attack on his advance line at Kernstown (23 March); though wounded early in the battle, and directing operations from his cot, he inflicted heavy losses and drove the confederates up the valley in full retreat, thereby claiming the distinction of being the only union commander in the war to defeat Stonewall Jackson in a pitched battle. As a three-pronged union offensive attempted to trap the confederate army in the upper valley, two of Shields's brigades, dispatched by him to seize a vital bridgehead, were defeated by Jackson at Port Republic (9 June), the last engagement of the 1862 valley campaign.
President Lincoln's recommendation that Shields be promoted to major general was rejected by the US senate. Resigning his commission (28 March 1863), Shields returned to San Francisco (1863–6), where he resumed his law practice and served as a state railroad commissioner. Moving to a small farm near Carrollton, Missouri (May 1866), he engaged in law, politics, and extensive lecturing, often on behalf of religious, Irish, or charitable causes. In 1868 he ran for the US congress from a district that included Kansas City, campaigning against the illiberal excesses of the reconstruction period, and for reconciliation between north and south. His apparent victory was overturned when a canvassing board dominated by radical Republicans rejected as fraudulent the returns from two counties. He served two terms in the Missouri legislature (1874–6), was appointed to the state railroad commission (1876), and served as state auditor general (1877). Elected by the Missouri legislature to the US senate to serve the brief remainder of a term vacated by the death of an incumbent (22 January–3 March 1879), he thus became the first person elected a US senator by three states. Declining to run for re-election, he died suddenly in Ottumwa, Iowa, while on a lecture tour on 1 June 1879, and was buried in St Mary's cemetery, Carrollton.
Shields married (15 August 1861) in San Francisco Mary Ann Carr, an immigrant lady's maid thirty years his junior from Co. Armagh; they had three sons and two daughters, of whom the elder daughter and a son died in childhood. In 1893 a statue of Shields was placed by the state of Illinois as one of its two representatives in the national statuary hall in the US capitol, Washington, DC. He is also memorialised by statues over his grave and before the county court house in Carrollton, Missouri, and in the state capitol, St Paul, Minnesota, and by Shields Avenue in Chicago.