We left Preston Brooks’ gutta-percha cane just as it came down on Charles Sumner’s skull. Outside the Senate chamber, Henry Edmundson had just parted company with Senator Johnson. They learned their discussion of violence on the floor had turned from theoretical to practical when they “heard a noise in the Senate chamber, with exclamations of “Oh! oh!” Edmundson didn’t see the first blow land; I’ve yet to find a witness aside Sumner and Brooks who did.
Victim and perpetrator agree that Brooks struck while still speaking. According to Brooks,
As I uttered the word punish Mr. Sumner offered to rise and when about half erect I struck him a slight blow with the smaller end of my cane. He then rose fully erect and endeavoured to make a battle. I was then compelled to strike him harder than I had intended. About the fifth blow he ceased to resist and I moderated my blows. I continued to strike Mr. S. until he fell when I ceased. I did not strike Mr. Sumner after he had fallen.
Brooks also informed the House that he struck with a light, hollow cane. It “had a thin gold head and was not loaded or even heavy. Mr. Sumner was never struck with the larger end of the Cane.” To hear Brooks tell the story, he meant to deliver a humiliating strike but not a dangerous one. He aimed to shame Sumner in public, not do any lasting damage to his person. When Sumner rose up plans changed, probably conscious of the fact that he related to his brother in a later letter that “Sumner is a very powerful man and weighs 30 pounds more than myself.”
Since Brooks wrote his letter in private, if also with the benefit of hindsight, he confessed then that
I struck him with my cane and gave him about 30 first rate stripes with a gutta percha cane which had been given me a few months before by a friend from N. Carolina named Vick. Every lick went where I intended. For about the first five of six licks he offered to make fight but I plied him so rapidly that he did not touch me. Towards the last he bellowed like a calf.
Brooks may have dressed up a panic in the moment. When Sumner, a large man, looked set to fight back that had to change his calculations. A quick strike may have turned in his mind into a desperate battle. But Brooks had resented Sumner’s speech for the whole week and his rage and frustration show through in Henry Edmundson’s testimony. He most probably told his brother closer to the truth of his intentions than he did the House of Representatives, which he could hardly miss had a hostile majority. From them, he might want leniency. The “affectionate brother” writing to his “dear Ham” had no reason to seek pardon.
Sumner, who felt the first blow, did not consider it a love tap, a gesture, or anything but a serious attack. He can’t have known Brooks’ mind any more than we can, but the cane collided with his skull for those thirty “first rate stripes.” He knew better than anybody how hard they landed. The first struck him blind:
I no longer saw my assailant nor any person or object in the room.