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The US Senate’s darkest moment

An excerpt from Stephen Puleo’s book, “The Caning,” about an infamous fight between two senators.

Early in the afternoon of May 22, 1856, ardent pro-slavery Congressman Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina strode into the US Senate Chamber in Washington, D.C., and began beating renowned anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a gutta-percha walking cane, until his cane splintered into pieces and the helpless Massachusetts senator lay unconscious, covered in blood.

It was a retaliatory attack. Forty-eight hours earlier, Sumner had concluded a speech on the Senate floor that had spanned two days, during which he vilified Southern slave owners for violence occurring in Kansas, insulted Brooks’s home state, and hurled personal slurs against Brooks’s second cousin, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler.

Brooks not only shattered his cane during the beating, but also destroyed any pretense of civility between North and South – almost overnight, a line had been crossed and there was no going back. One of the most shocking and provocative events in American history, the caning convinced each side that the gulf between them was unbridgeable, that they could no longer discuss their vast differences of opinion on slavery on any reasonable level. While Sumner eventually recovered after a lengthy convalescence, compromise had suffered a mortal blow. Moderate voices were drowned out completely; extremist views accelerated, became intractable, and locked both sides on a tragic collision course.

The caning had an enormous impact on the events that followed over the next four years: the increasing militancy of abolitionists; the meteoric rise of the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln; the Dred Scott decision; John Brown’s actions; the secession of the Southern states; and the founding of the Confederacy.

As a result of the caning, the country was pushed, inexorably and unstoppably, to civil war. Like turbulent, swift-flowing water through a narrow channel, America had nothing to slow it down and nowhere else to go. Many factors conspired to cause the Civil War, but it was the caning that made war unavoidable five years later.

The following is an excerpt from Stephen Puleo’s “The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War”:

Vanity prevented a nearsighted Charles Sumner from wearing glasses, so when he heard his name spoken, he looked up and squinted at the tall, blurred and indistinct figure standing before his desk. Sumner had never met Brooks and would not have recognized the South Carolinian even if he had been wearing spectacles.

“Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully,” Brooks began in a low voice. “It is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” Sumner moved as if to rise, and Brooks stopped speaking and struck him on the top of the head with the smaller end of the cane, a blow simply “intended to put him on his guard.” The force of the blow so shocked Sumner that he lost his sight immediately. “I no longer saw my assailant, nor any other person or object in the room,” he recalled. “What I did afterwards was done almost unconsciously, acting under the instincts of self-defense.”

Sumner threw up his hands to protect himself and Brooks struck him again and again on his head and face with the heavy end of the cane. For the first five or six blows, Sumner struggled to rise, but his legs were still pinned under his desk and he forgot to push back his chair, which was on rollers. After about a dozen blows to the head, his eyes blinded with blood, Sumner roared and made a valiant effort to rise and his trapped legs wrenched the desk — which was bolted to the floor by an iron plate and heavy screws — from its moorings.

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Sumner staggered forward down the aisle, arms outstretched in vain attempt at defense, now an even larger and easier target for Brooks, who continued to beat Sumner across the head with the cane “to the full extent of [my] power.” He rained down blows upon the Massachusetts senator. “Every lick went where I intended,” Brooks said later. “I plied him so rapidly that he did not touch me.”

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As he pounded Sumner, Brooks’s cane snapped, but he continued to strike the senator with the splintered piece. “Oh, Lord,” Sumner gasped, “Oh! Oh!” He stumbled and reeled convulsively around the seats in the Senate Chamber, tearing another desk from its screws as he began to fall to the floor. But Brooks showed no mercy and would not let Sumner escape that easily — he had discarded his initial plan to simply teach Sumner a lesson and now did seem intent on killing him. He grabbed the helpless Sumner by the lapel and held him up with one hand while he continued to strike with the other. Brooks would later state that he did not stop hitting Sumner until he had thrashed him with “about 30 first-rate stripes.” Witnesses later testified that they heard shouts of encouragement for Brooks, including, “Go, Brooks!” and “Give the damned Abolitionist hell!” Near the end of the beating, Sumner was “entirely insensible,” though before he succumbed, he “bellowed like a calf,” according to Brooks.

Finally, others in the chamber responded to the uproar. New York Times reporter James W. Simonton ran forward with a group of other men, seemingly determined to stop Brooks, but as they got near the action, Brooks’s friend Congressman Lawrence Keitt rushed in, his own cane raised high over his head, yelling, “Let them alone! Goddamn, let them alone.” With his other hand hovering near his holstered pistol, Keitt threatened anyone who interfered. His tactics worked. Brooks would later say in his account of the beating: “I repeated it till I was satisfied; no one interposed and I desisted simply because I had punished him to my satisfaction.”

New York congressmen Ambrose Murray and Edwin Morgan finally entered the fracas as it wound down. Murray seized Brooks by the arm and tried to draw him back, but Brooks’s arm slipped from Murray’s grasp. Later, conflicting reports emerged about this singular moment — some witnesses said Brooks’s brief escape from Murray allowed him to beat Sumner once or twice more as the senator lay motionless, lodged against a toppled desk; others, including Brooks, denied it vehemently. As Murray struggled again with Brooks, Whig Senator John Crittendon from Kentucky ran up the aisle and warned Brooks, “Don’t kill him,” and helped pull him away from Sumner. Brooks, perhaps realizing he had gone too far, muttered, “I did not intend to kill him, but I did intend to whip him.”

Robert Toombs of Georgia, standing close by, did not help subdue Brooks; indeed, he hoped that Brooks would renew his assault on Sumner. “I approved [of] it,” Toombs said later. Stephen Douglas, who had run from the anteroom when he heard signs of the struggle, also chose not to interfere. He thought about trying to end the attack, but reconsidered, believing “that my [strained] relations to Mr. Sumner were such that if I came into the Hall, my motives would be misconstrued, perhaps, and I sat down again.”

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Meanwhile, Morgan caught a dazed Sumner, whose torso had begun slipping from the desk toward the floor, “saving [him] from falling as heavily upon the floor as he otherwise would have done.” Morgan cradled the fallen Sumner, who, head and face covered in blood, “lay at the side of the center aisle, his feet in the aisle.” Morgan heard Sumner groan piteously at first and then go silent, “as senseless as a corpse for several minutes, his head bleeding copiously from the frightful wounds, and the blood saturating his clothes.” Morgan’s shirtsleeves were soaked with blood from Sumner’s head wounds.

With Sumner now unconscious, and several pieces of Brooks’s cane splintered across a floor slippery with Sumner’s blood, friends led Brooks toward a side room; along the way, Crittendon gently took the nub of the broken cane that the South Carolinian still clutched. Brooks surrendered the remnant of his weapon without resistance, but asked Crittendon to find and retrieve the cane’s gold head. Brooks later boasted to his brother John Hampden “Ham” Brooks, “I wore out my cane completely, but saved the head which is gold.” Other Southerners picked up pieces of the splintered cane; later, these scraps would be fashioned into rings that many Southern lawmakers would wear on neck-chains as a sign of solidarity with Brooks.

In the side room, Brooks’s colleagues helped him wash a small cut he had suffered above his eye, caused by the recoil of his cane during the savage beating. Minutes after his cut was bandaged, Brooks and Keitt had left the Capitol and were walking down Pennsylvania Avenue.

A witness to the attack, William Leader of Philadelphia, who was making his first visit to Washington and had ventured into the Senate Chamber just prior to the assault, later testified that the beating was “one of the most cold-blooded, high-handed outrages ever committed.” He did not know Sumner and belonged to a different political party, and thus had “no prejudice in his favor.” Leader believed that had Sumner “not been a very large and powerfully built man,” the caning would have killed him. “No ordinary man could possibly have withstood so many blows upon his bare head,” Leader said.

Excerpted with permission from “The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War,” copyright Stephen Puleo.