A Good Caning

The place, the Senate Chamber, Washington D.C., Date May 22nd 1856.

One day after Senator Sumner had finished his speech, he addressed himself to the absent Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, basically saying that Butler was a spokesman for slavery, which he called a crime against nature. And other comments such as, "He has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight, I mean the Harlot - Slavery".

There was quite a bit more of this, ranging from Senator Butler to Ancient Egyptians.

But back to May 22nd. The Chamber where the Senate met was nearly empty, a few Senators lounged near the doors or worked at desks.

Sumner scribbled away at his desk, then realised that someone was standing beside him.

"I have read your speech twice over, carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Senator Butler, who is a relative of mine."

Then the man raised a walking stick high and brought it down hard on Senator Sumner's head. The man with the cane was South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nephew to Senator Butler, a youthful six-footer of robust frame - sometime cavalryman in the Mexican War.

He struck again and again, a man who saw it said, "like a dragoon using his sabre".

Caught between the chair and the immovable desk, Sumner tried to get up. He was heard to gasp "Oh Lord!" Then with a great convulsive heave, he wrenched the desk loose from its fastenings and reeled to his feet. Brooks struck again, the cane broke, so he clubbed him with the splintered butt.

Sumner was now on the floor with blood on both head and clothing, while men ran down the aisle to him. Brooks stopped beating him and strolled away saying "I did not intend to kill him but I did intend to whip him!"

Sumner was helped to his feet and led to a sofa in the lobby. He lay half unconscious as a doctor was called and his wounds dressed. The doctor said afterwards that the wound did not seem very severe.

A carriage took him back to his rooms and his own doctor was sent for, who ordered Sumner to bed. He pronounced Sumner's condition most serious. There was much argument then and later. For three years he did not return to the Senate Chamber. He travelled to England and France for medical treatments. His spine had been affected the foreign specialists told him, and for a long time he walked and talked like a man who had had a partial stroke.

Many considered Sumner a tragic martyr and there is no doubt that his caning on the floor of the US Senate made some people reason in the North that the slave power (it would be said), could not be reasoned with.

Young Brooks would be a hero in the South. Innumerable gifts of canes, one which bore the plate 'Hit him again'.

Sadly he did not have long to live. Within a year he would die of a bronchial infection. In the days left to him, he grew heartily sick of the kind of fame he had won, for he did not like to be considered a bully. He was a friendly, warmhearted man of good family. He had grown up in a society in which a man might be held to render physical account for any words he had used (e.g. Duels). He would have challenged Sumner to a duel, he said, if he had had any notion that the man would accept, but since he knew he would not, he felt obliged to use either cane or a horsewhip.

Violence in Kansas, violence in the Senate Chamber. Men were making their choices. The time for talking was fast running out. The storm that was the Civil War was coming.

Pvt. A B Spencer, 1st Maryland Inf.

Extracts from This Hallowed Ground by Bruce Catton.

The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, June 2000