May 12, 1806 - June 1, 1879
A native of Ireland, James Shields was one of the first politically-appointed brigadier generals in the war with Mexico. An Illinois Democrat, Shields led a brigade under General Scott, and was widely regarded as one of the more respected volunteer generals of the war.
James Shields was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, on May 12, 1806. In 1822, Shields immigrated to the United States. En route, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland, being one of only three survivors. Finally reaching the United States, he found work as a purser on a merchant vessel, but broke both his legs in an accident, which terminated his seafaring career.
After serving in the Seminole War, Shields moved to Kaskaskia, Illinois to pursue a law career. Admitted to the bar in 1832, he won election to the Illinois State Legislature three years later. In 1839 Shields was elected State Auditor and ran unopposed for reelection in 1841. He replaced Stephen Douglas as Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1843, and two years later received an appointment as commissioner of the General Land Office by the incoming Polk administration. On July 1, 1846, he was appointed brigadier general of volunteers.
During the war Shields served under generals Wool, Taylor, and Scott. Stationed at Monclova, Shields missed the battle of Buena Vista, but was subsequently transferred to Scott’s command in preparation for the Vera Cruz campaign. He first saw combat leading a brigade at Cerro Gordo in April 1847, where he was assigned to seize the Jalapa road to cut off Santa Anna’s escape route. Severely wounded in the lungs by a grapeshot ball, he was not expected to survive. He was later brevetted major general for his action at Cero Gordo.
Despite his wound, Shields had recovered sufficiently to take part in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco on August 20. He arrived on the field after General Persifor F. Smith had made his preparations for his attack, and left his troops under Smith’s command although, as senior to Smith, Shields was entitled to command. At Churubusco, Shields’ troops seized the so-called "tete du point," or bridgehead of the Mexican defenses, which proved to be a decisive turning point in the battle. At Chapultepec on September 12, Shields’ brigade fought under General Quitman. He led his troops on foot when his horse was shot from underneath him. While part of his command stormed the heights, Shields led the remainder of his brigade on the Tacubaya causeway, where he was wounded in the arm.
Shields returned to Illinois when his brigade was disbanded in July 1848. Although appointed as the first governor of the Oregon Territory, Shields did not serve because he won election as senator from Illinois in 1849. Unsuccessful in his bid for reelection, Shields moved to Minnesota where he won election to the Senate in 1858 when Minnesota became a state. Shields moved to California in 1860.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Shields was managing a mine in Mexico when he received an appointment as a brigadier general of volunteers. Commanding a division at Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley in March 1862, he handed Stonewall Jackson his only tactical defeat of the war. During the battle Shields was again wounded in the arm by an exploding shell. Carried from the field, he continued to direct his troops from the rear. Rejected by the Senate for promotion, Shields resigned from the army in March 1863 and returned to California.
Shields moved to Carrollton, Missouri in 1866 and resumed his law practice. He served as a member of the Missouri House of Representatives from 1874 to 1879. He was elected to fill an unexpired Senate term 1879 but declined to run for reelection later that year. Shields died suddenly on June 1, 1879.
Bauer, Jack C. The Mexican War 1846-1848. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974
Castle, Henry A. “General James Shields: Soldier, Orator, Statesman.” Minnesota Historical Society Collections 15 (1915): 711-730.
Peterson, Charles. The Military Heroes of the War with Mexico. Philadelphia: Jas. B. Smith & Co., 1858.