Missing the Show: Caning Charles Sumner, Part 5

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Henry Edmundson of Virginia had every reason to suspect that Preston Brooks might seek satisfaction from Charles Sumner through violence; the two men had discussed just that on prior occasions. He left Brooks in the same room as the Senator, stepping out to ask a different Senator if that worthy thought Brooks would offend the Senate as an institution should he attack Sumner on the floor, but not during a session.

Edmundson did nothing to stop Brooks, unless one counted advising him not to tire himself out before attacking a larger man. But he left the Senate chamber to ask Senator Johnson about proprieties, information he likely meant to share with Brooks afterwards. If he knew the South Carolinian intended to go then and there, he might have asked a more convenient senator or asked Brooks to wait until he had an answer. Even failing that, Brooks had committed to doing nothing while a lady remained present and she hadn’t left when Edmundson stepped out.

Outside, Edmundson turned from Senator Johnson of Arkansas and

heard a noise in the Senate chamber, with exclamations of “Oh! oh!” I went back as quickly as I could; but when I got into the Senate chamber the whole difficulty was over. I found Mr. Sumner in a reclining position, Mr. Morgan holding him by the arm, saying that he was very badly hurt, and that a physician must be procured. There was some conversation between Mr. Brooks and Mr. Crittenden. In a short time it was suggested that Mr. Sumner had better go into the ante-room, and he was carried out in a leaning position.

Henry Edmundson missed the most violent moment in the history of the Congress. He took the occasion of his testimony to express his implicit regret of the fact. Though he insisted he had no immediate knowledge that Brooks would act, he obviously expected something:

I did not remain at the Capitol with any definite view of witnessing an interview between Mr. Sumner and Mr. Brooks, yet my impression was that an interview would take place; and that, perhaps, influenced me in remaining longer in and near the Senate chamber than I otherwise should have done. But I felt no obligation to remain from anything that had passed between me and any other person, and should not have hesitated to leave there had there been any reason influencing me to do so.

In other words, Edmundson didn’t help Brooks plan anything or know anyone who had. He didn’t know for sure that Brooks would act or have any other information that might make him personally culpable. He made no promises to step in or act as a second should Brooks decide to conduct a proper affair of honor. But he hung around the Senate that day because he wanted to see the show. Edmundson doesn’t say how long he remained out with Senator Johnson, but their conversation seems to have been brief. As such, he probably missed the caning of Sumner by minutes.

The Virginian came back into the room only moments later, apparently near to where Brooks had struck as

I saw three pieces broken off the small end of the [Brooks’] cane. My attention was called to them, by Mr. Brooks requesting me to procure the head of his cane. My recollection is that he said it was presented to him by some one from Philadelphia. I got a portion of the stick and gave it to Mr. Glossbrenner, Sergeant-at-Arms of the House, and have not seen it since.

Even without the obvious context, Edmundson knew how the cane got broken. He and Brooks had discussed the possibility of Sumner pulling a gun on Brooks and the South Carolinian shared the fact that he had only his gutta-percha cane to use as a weapon.


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