“Soaked with blood” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 13

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12

The House report on the caning

Everything vanished into a haze of pain and confusion for Charles Sumner when Preston Brooks started raining down blows from his gutta-percha cane. The Senator had no memory from the first blow until “several minutes” later, when he found himself on the floor. Edmund Morgan kept him from falling hard on it, but couldn’t stop his descent entirely. Ambrose Murray held Preston Brooks back. John Crittenden, Robert Toombs, and Stephen Douglas stood nearby. Crittenden took Brooks’ cane from him.

They stood over a Sumner

lying down, resting partly upon one of the desks that had been turned over, seeming very much stunned, and covered with blood.

That blood soaked into Morgan’s “coat and shirt-sleeves” to saturation. A week later, Morgan informed an outraged crowd of five thousand in New York City that when he caught Sumner, he beheld a man

laid senseless as a corpse for several minutes his head bleeding copiously from the frightful wounds and the blood saturating his clothes.

Sumner himself reported being “unaware of the blood on my clothes” until he returned to his room. There he discovered

The shirt around the neck and collar was soaked with blood. The waistcoat had many marks of blood upon it; also the trowsers. The broadcloth coat was covered with blood on the shoulders so thickly that the blood had soaked through the cloth even through the padding, and appeared on the inside; there was a great deal of blood on the back of the coat and its sides.

Morgan further told the New York meeting of bystander senators, “complacently looking on, without the least intention of assisting.” The crowd demanded naming and shaming, so Morgan obliged with Toombs, to groans, and Douglas, to cries of “Shame.” By this point Morgan must have known Sumner’s testimony and we can’t take his account of Toombs and Douglas standing by as entirely independent, but he likely had a closer vantage to Sumner’s than anybody in the chamber and both Senators place themselves in the room at the time.

John Slidell

When those several minutes passed and Sumner regained consciousness. He asked for his hat, which set off a brief search, and that someone see to the documents on his desk. Then, with Morgan’s help, Sumner staggered into the anteroom of the Senate. Douglas and others occupied that room just before the caning began, including Louisiana Senator John Slidell, who Sumner noticed. Sumner said that Slidell “retreated.”

Sumner doesn’t give a clue to his state of mind with regard to Slidell in his terse reference, but Slidell could read between the lines. Faced with a fellow senator just brutalized and bloodied, erect only with the support of another man, the Louisianan gave the whole affair a big shrug and went on with his day. That kind of indifference looks like approval. Morgan and company may have had Sumner physically in hand, but Slidell could have said something. It would have cost him nothing to express sympathy or inquire after Sumner’s health. Simple human decency might prompt at least formulaic phrases for anyone so clearly hurt. Slidell stood silent.



George Washington and Robert Lee: Some Thoughts

George Washington and William Lee, whom he enslaved

Gentle Readers, here we go again. The President employs a lawyer, as most officeholders do, to see to his affairs. This president requires one more than most. He has chosen John Dowd. I know nothing about Dowd except for his most famous client and what this New York Times story reports. Many lawyers study history as undergraduates and the skills one picks up in law school have substantial overlap with those of historians. That doesn’t make lawyers into historians, but one would hope they help to some degree. Dowd got an email which purported to vindicate Trump’s late claims about the removal of Confederate statues and forwarded it among his circle of journalists, officials, and friends. The email claims


Both owned slaves.

Both rebelled against the ruling government.

Both men’s battle tactics are still taught at West point.

Both saved America.

Both were great men, great Americans, and great commanders.

Neither man is any different than Napolean [sic], Shaka Zulu, Alexander the Great, Ramses II, etc.

You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there is literally no difference between the two men.

Where to start? I will pass over Lee’s and Washington’s military virtues as irrelevant. Good generalship accrues to causes infamous and praiseworthy just as easily and so says nothing about the overall worth of the people and causes involved.

Both men rebelled against the ruling government. I don’t feel a great urge to defend the American Revolution, which had at best mixed blessings for anyone who had the wrong skin color, but Washington and the rest fought for more than the simple, bloody-minded desire to preserve slavery against all hazards. Lee can claim no such thing. Nor should we endorse anyone who rebels against a ruling government, unless we endorse Lee, Washington, Lenin, Gandhi, and Hitler as essentially the same. People rebel for causes good and bad, against governments good and bad, with such regularity that smiling on the lot of them requires staggering ignorance or staggering recklessness.

The notion that Lee, who fought for four years to destroy the United States, somehow saved it barely deserves an answer. He fought against everything Washington fought for. He Lee won, the nation Washington helped build would have ended at the point of Lee’s bayonets. If fighting to destroy the United States in the name of slavery makes you a great American, only white supremacists could cheerfully claim the title and the rest of us owe it to ourselves and their victims to be the worst of Americans.

Robert E. Lee

Lee and Washington both owned people, fair enough. Neither treated those people they enslaved well, though both might flatter themselves by thinking so. Both zealously pursued runaways and ordered violent punishments for those who defied them. Both sundered families, though Washington eventually stopped. He also freed those who he enslaved of his own free will, albeit only in his last will and testament. Lee kept the slaves he had as part of his father-in-law’s estate until the last possible minute, and went to court to get that time extended. Washington, for all his numerous faults, kept more slaves at Mount Vernon than he could profitably use in order to preserve families. Lee spent his time as executor of the estate hiring slaves out in Richmond and elsewhere, so shattering family bonds, specifically to increase his profits. None of this makes Washington a good man, despite owning people. He far more than Lee ever did and did so for longer, but it surely counts as a difference.

In myth, Lee refused to bear arms against Virginia and so almost accidentally fell into the Confederacy. In reality, he chose to fight on behalf of slavery and expressed his support for the institution regardless of Virginia’s other political circumstances. Washington thought this about the Union:

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

Neither Virginia nor any other Southern state sought a constitutional amendment, or even ordinary legislation, to part from the United states. By Washington’s logic they had a duty to obey the government, whoever the president and whatever the policy toward slavery. The first president lived up to that principle through his public career. All the way back to the Revolutionary War, he complained about petty state jealousies and national impotence which left his army short of funds and supplies.

One might argue that Washington did not face the question as Lee did, poised between Virginia and Slavery on one side and the United States on the other. We can’t argue that he actually did, as no secession crisis took place in Washington’s lifetime. However, Washington Edmund Randolph that he had thought about the issue and came to a decision. Randolph later told Thomas Jefferson, who noted the fact in his papers:

the P. speaking with R. on the hypothesis of a separation of the Union into Northern and Southern said he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern

Washington might have chosen differently when the occasion came. Few of us demur from bold talk when not expected to deliver at once. But we have the evidence we have and what Washington said to Randolph matches the consistent tenor of his public life and other declared principles.

John Dowd might not know of the Randolph conversation. It took me more than the usual amount of effort to chase the quote down to a source, so I can’t fault him for that. But given the other howlers in his forward, facts clearly don’t enter into it. Like many of us, Donald Trump likes to surround himself with people he finds easy to relate to.


“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.

“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.