“Uttering groans of distress” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 12

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate, slumped down and covered with his own blood. Ambrose Murray literally pulled Preston Brooks off him, but Sumner’s assailant kept trying for another go at the Senator despite his broken cane and the congressman holding him back. He finally stopped after John Crittenden insisted he not kill Sumner. Until that point, Brooks may not have realized his assault had gone so far as to imperil a healthy man’s life. In the moment, he may also not have cared. Transported by rage and panic, people often do things they would later regret.

The caning cost exacted a minor physical toll on Brooks, beyond the simple exertion of it. Senator Alfred Iverson (D-GA), stood near to Toombs and Keitt by the Vice-President’s chair in the Senate chamber when everything took place. He saw much of what everyone else did, but also testified

I also saw Mr. Brooks standing near; that he was hurt over his eye, and asked him how it happened? He said it was from the recoil of his stick.

This points further to Brooks losing control in the moment; he can’t have meant to lay into his own skull. Given that he used a cane of some length, probably Brooks’ forehead caught a flying piece when it shattered rather than bounced it off Sumner’s head and onto his own.

While they discussed Brooks’ head, Sumner

was lying down, and uttering groans of distress, but was soon taken up and carried through the area into the ante-room of the Senate

Ambrose Murray found Sumner

reeling around against the seats, backwards and forwards, and after I pulled Mr. Brooks back, Mr. Sumner fell over. […] He was not standing erect at any time after I saw him. He seemed to be reeling around against the desk.

In other words, Sumner stood hunched over and near to collapse. He finally did so after Murray stepped in.

Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan, who had come in with Murray,

caught Mr. Sumner in the act of falling, so that my being there at the moment saved him from falling as heavily upon the floor as he would otherwise have done.

Sumner stood over six feet tall; it would take some doing to catch him in a fall.

The committee asked after Sumner’s consciousness at the moment:

I have no idea from his appearance, as I recollect it, that he was conscious, and I thought of it immediately afterwards, and do not think he was at all conscious of anything. I judged so, among other things, from the fact that he made no effort to defend himself in any way-not even to defend his head from the blows which were being laid on, and which he naturally would have done had he been conscious

That matches Sumner’s own account exactly. From the first blow, he couldn’t see and didn’t understand what had happened. Sumner’s memory ends with its landing and begins again as he

found myself ten feet forward, in front of my desk, lying on the floor of the Senate, with my bleeding head supported on the knee 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 there were 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.

Stephen Douglas

Gentle Readers, I have lost consciousness myself. It didn’t happen under circumstances as dire as Sumner’s, but I must tell you that it doesn’t feel at all like going to sleep and waking back up. Instead you come back and have nothing in your mind to account for your changed situation. It feels from the inside like the world skipped a few moments, though in fact your brain did.

Clarity can return quickly and we can say with some confidence that Toombs at least stood in the general area at the time. Douglas had left the Senate for a nearby room, but came back at the sound of the caning. He later claimed that he almost stepped in, then realized that his charging forward at Sumner would look like an ally coming to Brooks’ aid and stayed back. That would likewise put him in the right general area to feature in Sumner’s apt portrait.

Thoughts on Charlottesville

Gentle Readers, you all know the news by now. Over the past weekend, a group of Nazis (and to whatever degree it makes sense to separate them anymore, Klansmen) carrying tiki torches marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. They chanted their usual slogans, “blood and soil,” “the Jews will not replace us,”  you can get the full list from any documentary. They came armed for war. The police now believe they had weapons cached around the city; the governor of the state believes they packed more heat than the local department did. They came, as fascist groups usually do, hoping for a fight. When the counter marchers, including remarkably brave students from the University of Virginia who faced an armed mob who literally believe their lives expendable, did not offer a fight, the fascists invented one.

One of those Nazis, James Fields, drove a car into the counter protesters, injured several, and murdered Heather Heyer. You know her story. Others may yet share her fate. I’m sure the thought of it makes many of them happy indeed. They win for showing up, win for seeing each other in numbers, and win again for the murder. We must remember them. I offer also this story I saw reported less in the media over these awful days:

Deandre Harris, works at a local high school. He has the hard, draining job of an instructional assistant in a special education program. If you know nothing else about special education, understand that the people who work in those classrooms with those kids are heroes. Harris marched; the Nazis found him. He explains what happened next:

“Me and about five of my friends were out protesting. We thought [the racists] left, but at one point they came back. Everyone was exchanging words with the group, but then the KKK and white supremacists just rushed us,” Harris told The Root in an interview.

“They were beating me with poles. I have eight staples in my head, a broken wrist and a chipped tooth,” Harris said.

Harris had friends who saw him beneath their pile of limbs, poles, and hatred. They stepped in, so he lived to tell his story. This all took place in a building adjacent to the Charlottesville police department. Harris’ case might not fit technical definitions built on nineteenth and early twentieth century crimes, but white supremacists tried to murder him for political activism. Deandre Harris was lynched last weekend. This happened in the United States of America in 2017, decades after the civil rights movement and not one year after our first black president left office.

The horrors continued. Nazis marching openly in numbers should chill us all to the bone and conjure memories of absent grandparents and great-grandparents who fought what we have long called the Good War. We decided as a nation that we would have Nazis as our ultimate villain. The ultimate in American virtue these past eight years fit into a red glove colliding with Hitler’s face. Everything the Nazis were, we were not. The United States existed to destroy Nazism. We kill Nazis in video games. We watch them die in movies. We cheer their failures in comic books. We have no more efficient shorthand for evil.

That was then. The choice to focus on someone else’s sins relieves us of our own burdens. Doing that doesn’t make Americans uniquely evil; everyone would rather talk about the faults of others than their own. But we do have a unique and horrifying history that doesn’t go away for our ignoring it. Rather, by ignoring it we continue that history. According to fascism scholar Robert Paxton, the first Ku Klux Klan might count as the first proto-fascist movement in world history. As in developing proslavery theory to its fullest flower, Americans got ahead of the curve. A nation built on genocide and slavery had advantages in these things. A nation that pretends to a different founding has still more.

The potential for authoritarianism of every stripe exists in every culture. In the United States, it has found its fullest flower through white supremacy. That has been with us from the seventeenth century onward. We have declared victory over it many times and always it has returned. Here we go again.

You have doubtless heard the many denunciations. Politicians must say that this is not us and we have no room in America for it. We all know otherwise, but to we say these things in aspiration; the America we want does not permit such horrors. We are not, we know, better than this. We want to be. When our leaders give the ritual condemnations they remind us of our aspirations and, at least rhetorically, declare that they will not have the American state endorse such actions on their watch. The actual follow-through on such things rarely, with the notable exception of a brief period in the 1960s, inspires confidence but the statements have meaning all the same. They articulate a national creed which disassociates us from the perpetrators and does not work to encourage further acts of white supremacist terror.

If speaking the ritual phrases asks almost nothing of politicians, it at least does that. The occasion warrants at least a briefly lifted finger, sincere or otherwise. The perpetrators know that as well as anyone and watch these responses with care. They also note when attention dies down and the more sophisticated tools of white supremacy march on. That sends a message: We disagree with your methods but share your goals. I wish it said more, but neither the nation’s history nor its current events admit any other conclusion that I can see.

Then the loser of the 2016 election got to become president. Said white supremacist opted to fill our White House and head our Justice Department with more of his kind. They know Donald Trump as one of their own, more so than the usually extensive cast of friends that the white power movement has in Washington. Unlike the polished hands at double talk and dog whistles, the strategy the Republican party embarked upon in earnest in 1968 and hasn’t wavered from since, he says the quiet parts out loud. The immediate response of a man with no filter and a remarkable ability to remember the names of people who displease him for Twitter rants, involved blaming both sides. The Nazis and the Klan knew they had a big green light from Trump and a wave of violence spread immediately after his election. Via Twitter, he gave them a much bigger and more explicit one. The president, at least of the Electoral College, essentially told people he knew capable of murder that they should get right to it.

In the months since November, this has become a cliche. It remains true all the same: If you ever wondered what you would do during slavery or the rise of the Nazi party, you are doing it right now. I don’t know where this is going any more than you do; historians have no particular gift for seeing the future. But I do not believe and we cannot believe that this will all just work out. More likely that not, we will see more assaults and more victims, faster and faster. Maybe we can stop it, maybe not. I can’t tell you what will or will not work. I don’t expect the tactics of the past to necessarily work again. The Civil Rights Movement required a degree of acceptance and support from the federal government that anti-Trump and anti-racist groups obviously now lack. It also cut across partisan lines by undermining white Democratic hegemony in the South in a way that made it appealing to some members of both parties rather than a strictly partisan issue. That is likewise no longer true. If you don’t believe me, consider that states controlled by the Republican party have introduced bills to essentially legalize running over protesters in the street. Consider also this photograph of the majority leader of the United States Senate:

Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

This is the nation Americans live in, more than we have in a long time. It has taken decades of work to bring us to this point. The movement did not need a Trump to get this far, though he may have accelerated their timeline. It will survive him. It stands poised to radically transform the country. We may not survive it. Or it may not survive us.

“Very much stunned, and covered with blood” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 11

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10

The House report on the caning

Preston Brooks shattered his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and kept hitting him with what remained of it. Sumner slumped down on the floor. Brooks kept on until a Congressman Ambrose Murray “seized” him. According to Murray, no one had moved forward to interfere, except John Crittenden (Whig-KY), who called out for the attack to cease. Murray


immediately stepped up behind Mr. Brooks and caught him by the body and the right arm, drew him back, and turned him around from Mr. Sumner.

Brooks used his right arm in the striking, so Murray sold himself a bit short. He stepped in and grabbed Sumner’s assailant almost by the cane, then dragged him away and spun him around from the Senator. He put Brook’s left hand around Sumner’s coat collar, holding him up for further strikes, until that moment.

With Brooks no longer pounding on his skull, Sumner lay down against one of the desks “very much stunned, and covered with blood.” About then, as matters concluded, John Crittenden reached the scene. He told the House committee that he merely expressed his “disapprobation of such violence in the Senate chamber.” Brooks recalled more:

Mr. Crittenden took hold of me and said something like “don’t kill him,” I replied that I had no wish to injure him seriously, but only to flogg him.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Brooks may have meant it. His claim that he intended only a pro forma strike doesn’t read as credible. He probably meant to hit Sumner solidly, but perhaps only once or twice. Then Sumner began to move and Brooks lost control of himself. In the red haze of the moment, it might not have occurred to him that beating a man over the head so hard and often could end in death. Brooks had the temper enough to cane Sumner in the first place, but also enough control to put it off for days, check over the printed copy of Sumner’s speech, and wait for a woman to vacate the gallery. He didn’t charge into the Senate chamber that day foaming at the mouth.

Around the time that Crittenden spoke to Brooks, who seems to have still been struggling against Murray, Lawrence Keitt arrived. He circled about, demanding that Brooks be released. Senator Toombs, who had been with Keitt before the first blow fell, shouted to him not to strike. He said nothing to Brooks and later admitting to approving of the affair.

John Crittenden

Crittenden proved as good as his disapprobation. He took the piece of cane that remained from Brooks’ hand and the South Carolinian “very gently yielded” it. His words seem to have prompted the end of Brooks’ struggle against Murray as well as surrender of the cane. That Crittenden put his hand on the cane before Brooks agreed to give it up suggests a moment of decision and, perhaps, realization.

“Broke the stick” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 10

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9

The House report on the caning

Preston Brooks took Charles Sumner’s insults against slavery, South Carolina, and his relation Andrew Butler hard. He would no longer stand for abolitionists or antislavery men, not that Brooks cared for the difference, throwing around slanders as Sumner did. The South Carolinian determined that he must confront Sumner for the sake of honor, demanding an apology that would shame Sumner. Expecting that Sumner would refuse, and refuse a duel, Brooks would then have full justification to strike him as one did a slave and have satisfaction that way. He cared enough about the proprieties to discuss them at least with Lawrence Keitt (D-SC), Henry Edmundson (D-VA), and James Orr (D-SC). None of these congressmen tried to dissuade Brooks. Edmundson even gave him practical advice on how to best attack Sumner by pointing out that chasing him through the Capitol would leave Brooks winded and tired in front of a man considerably larger than himself.

Instead, Brooks sat and rested up within the Senate chamber two days after Sumner concluded his speech. Once the last woman left the gallery, he sprang into action. He caught Sumner seated at his desk, franking copies of the offending speech. Brooks made a brief statement, no more than two sentences, and either finished with his first blow or landed it immediately after. Twenty-nine more strikes of the gutta-percha cane with the golden head. Brooks held it by that end.

Lawrence Keitt came to the Senate that day, expecting to see the fireworks. Henry Edmundson did too, though he seems to have lost interest when Brooks did not immediately lay on and believed Brooks would not act in the immediate future. He departed to chat up a Senator about the proprieties of an attack within the Senate chamber. He remained to that point because Keitt refused his invitation to go off together. Whether Brooks and Keitt arranged it before hand and had an understanding, or Keitt took it on himself, it seems that the other South Carolinian fancied himself Brooks’ backup. As soon as the blows began, Keitt rose his own cane above his head and charged forward, warning off any who came near as he circled the fray.

Robert Toombs

Brooks kept up, possibly panicking when Sumner tried to rise. The larger man tried to block the cane as he did so, but became trapped beneath his desk until he pulled it from the floor and staggered forward. Senator Robert Toombs saw the conclusion of the caning, from about when the desk came out of the floor onward. The furniture put more distance between Brooks and Sumner

and seemed to give Mr. Brooks better play with his stick, and the next lick after that occurrence was a more effective one, broke the stick, and lessened the resistance of Mr. Sumner

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

One might expect things to stop there. Sumner, pained, confused, staggering, ceased to put up much of a fight at all. Brooks literally broke his cane across the Senator’s skull. What more did it take?

Mr. Brooks continued his blows rapidly with the part of the stick he held in his hand, until Mr. Sumner sank to the floor in rather a sitting posture. He then ceased, and some of the bystanders, having by this time reached the parties, took Mr. Brooks by the arm and led him a few paces away from Mr. Sumner.

“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.

“Every lick went where I intended.” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 8

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The House report on the caning

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.”

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

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.


“He commenced a succession of blows with a heavy cane on my bare head” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 7

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

We left Lawrence Keitt likely with foreknowledge that something serious would go down between Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner on the Senate floor. The Senate adjourned for the day and Sumner remained at his desk, which could only improve the odds. Brooks came and waited. His friend Henry Edmundson stepped outside and talked proprieties of attacking a senator with another senator. Keitt must have stood somewhere in easy reach, but my materials don’t say where.

Brooks sets the scene in his statement to the House,

I went to the senate and stood without the bar until it did adjourn. Mr. Sumner continued within the Hall, though he did not all the time retain his Seat. He had upon his desk a large number off his speeches and was, when not interrupted, employed in franking them. Several ladies continued in the Hall some on the floor and some in the gallery.

Members of Congress use the franking privilege to send free mail to their constituents. Sumner would have essentially used his name in lieu of a stamp. On that Thursday afternoon, he set to working his way down a pile of The Crime Against Kansas. History sometimes hits things so closely on the nose.

Sumner agreed that he had done just that. He busied himself with the franking, “in order to be in season for the mail, which was soon to close.” Others did not appreciate the post office’s deadlines and came up to talk to him. Sumner brushed them off “promptly and briefly”. Finally free from socializing, he

drew my arm-chair close to my desk, and with my legs under the desk continued writing. My attention at this time was so entirely withdrawn from all other objects, that, though there must have been many persons on the floor of the Senate, I saw nobody.

The Senate fell away and he and his pen continued on; Charles Sumner entered the franking zone.

While thus intent, with my head bent over my writing, I was addressed by a person who had approached from the front of my desk, so entirely unobserved that I was not aware of his presence until I heard my name pronounced. As I looked up, with pen in hand, I saw a tall man, whose countenance was not familiar, standing directly over me, and at the same moment, caught these words: “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine-” While these words were still passing from his lips, he commenced a succession of blows with a heavy cane on my bare head, by the first of which I was stunned so as to lose sight.

What did Lawrence Keitt Know? Caning Charles Sumner, Part 6

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Henry Edmundson hung around the Capitol in barely-concealed hopes of seeing Preston Brooks take his resentments out on Charles Sumner. Other witnesses, even men in the room, almost missed the start of things. It didn’t do to announce surprise violence in advance. Brooks himself may not have known that he would go as far as he did until the moment the cane swung down. Edmundson had reason to suspect violence, but only the suspicion.

Lawrence Keitt of South Carolina may have known more, and would play a supporting role in the event. Edmundson came upon him on his way into the Senate and suggested, before seeing Brooks within, that the two might go off somewhere “down the street”. Keitt answered, per Edmundson, “No, I cannot leave till Brooks does.”

That drew the interest of the investigating committee, which pressed Edmundson on the matter. Where exactly did he talk to Keitt? “[T]he small rotundo behind the main rotundo and the vestibule of the Senate.” How long before the attack did they speak? Between the Senate’s adjournment and the caning, but Edmundson didn’t recall exactly. Did they speak in the Senate chamber thereafter? No. Did Keitt ask Edmundson to hold up? He did not. Nor did Edmundson speak with Keitt at all about Brooks’ resentment of Sumner.

Obviously, the committee suspected that Keitt knew something.  At the end of almost sixty pages of testimony on the attack, they include the note

The chairman informed the committee that, under their directions he had this morning called upon Mr. Keitt, and informed him in person that the committee had directed him (the chairman) to say that he (Mr. K.) should have the privilege of reading the testimony, of testifying himself, and, if he saw fit to do so, of calling any witnesses he might see fit to have subpoenaed.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Keitt did not opt to testify, which seems an odd choice if he believed he could defend himself against probing questions. He couldn’t, as Brooks himself would reveal in a statement to the House of Representatives. The aggrieved South Carolinian told the House, in a statement I found in the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, volume 61, “As soon as I had read the speech I felt it to be my duty to inflict some return for the insult to my State and my relative.” He recounted his encounter with Edmundson on Wednesday, the day after Sumner finished and places both Keitt and Senator Johnson, who Edmundson asked for an opinion on the etiquette of attacking a Senator on the floor, with him at the time. That night,

at about 10 o’clock I informed my colleagues Mr. Keitt and Mr. Orr of my purpose.

Keitt and James Orr, both South Carolinians, thus knew and probably understood Brooks’ intentions more explicitly than Edmundson. It seems that Edmundson strongly suspected violence -to the point of giving advice on how to best accomplish it- but Brooks may have told Keitt and Orr in as many words that he would assault Sumner, rather than just hinted or vented his anger. The evidence available to me doesn’t allow for a firm conviction that Brooks intended for Keitt to play a part in the affair or that Keitt went into the Senate on May 22nd with that intention on his own account. Edmundson clearly knew, at least in general terms, that violence might occur and had no problem speaking to the committee and revealing details. That Keitt refused doesn’t prove premeditation on his own or that he coordinated with Brooks beforehand, but it does suggest a greater degree of culpability than Edmundson had.

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.


“He said nothing in the world about what his purpose was” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 4

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left Henry Edmundson near to the Senate chamber, where he had just left Preston Brooks. He came upon Senator Johnson, of Arkansas, and Edmundson asked him a simple question: If something should happen between Brooks and Sumner, “an altercation” if you will, would he mind too much? Johnson could probably read between the lines well enough to know exactly what Edmundson meant: Did Johnson understand it as an assault upon the Senate for Brooks to physically attack Sumner? Edmundson told the committee investigating later that he

suggested, in the said conversation, there seemed to me no impropriety in calling on Mr. Sumner in the Senate, it having adjourned some time before, and there being few persons present; the insult was given here, and that might be looked upon as the proper place to resent it; and further, that should a collision follow, both parties might prefer it to take place where it wold be more private than it would probably be outside the Capitol.

You had to do these things the proper way. Edmundson clearly understands himself as asking for approval. Johnson didn’t have to involve himself personally, but a man’s honor hung on the esteem of his peers. If he got an answer from Johnson that he had it all wrong and Brooks needed to wait, Edmundson probably would have rushed to tell Brooks the news. A lone lady sitting in the gallery had held things up this far, but she could leave at any time.

Still, Edmundson told the committee

I did not anticipate an immediate assault, because when I left the chamber there was a lady in the chamber, and Mr. Brooks had said that he would have nothing to do with the matter in the presence of ladies. He had expressed a desire to see Mr. Sumner outside the Hall.

He might have been covering for himself after the fact, but Edmundson sounds fairly genuine here. Given his involvement to date, he seems to have thought himself as a possible facilitator for Brooks. The South Carolinian probably didn’t mean to challenge Sumner to a proper duel, which the Senator would surely refuse, but if it came to that Edmundson already acted the part of a second in advising Brooks on the affair. Furthermore, while Brooks did wait on the lady to vacate the Senate he had also tried to meet Sumner elsewhere. A reasonable person could surmise that he came to the Senate chamber in a mind to stare daggers and eventually demand an apology, without immediate escalation.

Brooks probably thought somewhat differently of Edmundson’s involvement. The committee asked the Virginian if Brooks expected him to remain for the full event, as a second or potential second would. Edmundson said he had no hint of such a thing from Brooks, save on Wednesday morning. Brooks likewise gave Edmundson no sign that he went to the Senate that day to see things to a conclusion:

He said nothing in the world about what his purpose was in going to the Senate. I do not think-if there was, I do not recollect it-that there was any reference made to the matter in walking from the gate-house to the Capitol. We were in conversation about some other matter when we arrived at the rotundo.

The committee pressed. Did things remain casual when Edmundson went to the Senate to hear eulogies for the deceased Missourian congressman? They had. If Edmundson told the truth, he came to the Senate on Thursday innocent of Brooks’ purpose and unconnected with him.