“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.

“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.