“Let them alone! let them alone!” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 9

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678

We left Charles Sumner struck momentarily blind by Preston Brooks’ cane. Until that point the nearsighted Sumner had his face buried in copies of The Crime Against Kansas. What Brooks intended, or claimed to intent, as a light blow or two turned into a frenzy as Sumner raised his arms and tried to defend himself. According to Sumner, he acted on instinct

With head already bent down, I rose from my seat, wrenching up my desk, which was screwed to the floor, and then pressed forward, while my assailant continued his blows. I have no other consciousness until I found myself ten feet forward, in front of my desk, lying on the floor of the Senate, with my bleeding head supported on the knees of a gentleman, whom I soon recognized by voice and countenance, as Mr. Morgan, of New York. Other persons there were about me offering me friendly assistance; but I did not recognize any of them. Others were there at a distance, looking on and offering no assistance, of whom I recognized only Mr. Douglas, of Illinois, Mr. Toombs, of Georgia, and I thought also my assailant, standing between them.

Brooks’ entire assault lasted only a minute or two, long enough that people in the room didn’t realize it had happened until it had almost finished. Howell Cobb of the committee pressed Sumner on precise details: Did Brooks strike while speaking, or immediately after? Sumner quoted his statement back to them. Cobb pressed further, repeating himself. As a hostile interrogator, he might have intended to catch Sumner in a contradiction. Sumner may also have shown some confusion in the moment. He had just suffered trauma to his brain a few days before and Cobb asked him to closely revisit the event. Sumner stuck to his story: Brooks spoke a sentence or so. It sounded like he had another lined up, but then the caning started and Sumner recalled nothing else.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

When the blows fell, Lawrence Keitt stood in the Senate chamber. Willis Gorman put him by the Vice-President’s chair. According to Gorman, Keitt moved on the affray when he and Robert Toombs did, a cane of his own in hand and lifted above his head. Gorman thought Keitt meant to strike someone. The committee naturally asked who Keitt intended his cane for. Gorman demurred:

I do not know, nor could I tell; evidently no one could tell, unless he had known the circumstances. Mr. Toombs said, “Don’t strike!” and addressed himself to Mr. Keitt. Mr Keitt then put down his cane and did not advance any further.

Gorman, who estimated Sumner suffered only a few blows, didn’t know with confidence that Keitt had any designs on Sumner. He moved toward the fight, fair enough, but may have held his cane up to keep it clear of the desks. Apparently Gorman didn’t think anything of it until Toombs told Keitt to keep his cane to himself.

Toombs told it this way:

I saw Mr. Keitt when I got up near the combatants with Governor Gorman; I went up immediately. By the time Mr. Keitt had got to the aisle the blows had ceased. Mr. Keitt was there with, I think, a stick in his hands. He made some observation; I do not recollect what it was. He was standing in the aisle, and some words passed from him; I think they were addressed to Mr. Crittenden.

Toombs left out talking Keitt down until the committee asked about it. Then he noted that Keitt “seemed to be excited.” With regard to Keitt’s cane:

I do not know whether it was raised or not. I had the impression that he was going to use it, or rather I was afraid that he might use it.

James Simonton, a reporter for the New York Times had the full story of Keitt’s approach and involvement:

Mr. Keitt rushed in, running around Mr. Sumner and Mr. Brooks with his cane raised, crying “Let them alone! let them alone!” threatening myself and others who rushed in to interfere.

Whatever Toombs and Gorman thought, Keitt waved his cane over his head and circled the fight to warn off anyone who came to Sumner’s rescue. If it came to that, Lawrence Keitt would make sure that Preston Brooks murdered a sitting United States Senator on the floor of the Senate.

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