By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011-2012, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the March 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, feelings of hostility were high on both sides. But on May 22, 1856 this hostility surpassed the level of feelings. Nearly four years before the outbreak of hostilities at Fort Sumter, hostilities erupted in the halls of Congress when Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, beat Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the chamber of the U.S. Senate. Brooks was incensed at Sumner because of a speech that Sumner had given two days earlier, which Brooks found insulting to both his home state and to one of his relatives. One thing that may be puzzling about the Sumner caning is why no one who watched Brooks hammer Sumner did anything to put an end to it. That question can be answered in two words: Laurence Keitt.
Keitt, a fellow South Carolina congressman, accompanied Brooks to the Senate chamber when Brooks went to meet with Sumner for a tete-a-tete (or cane-a-tete, as it turned out to be). As Brooks began pounding Sumner with his cane and other senators rushed to Sumner’s aid, Keitt brandished his own cane and a pistol. This threat alone was sufficient to dissuade those who were trying to intervene, but to further reinforce his point, Keitt said simply but firmly, “Let them alone!” For these actions Keitt was censured by the House of Representatives. The House also wanted to discipline Brooks, but a vote to expel him failed. However, both Brooks and Keitt resigned in protest, and then both were overwhelmingly re-elected to fill their own vacancies. Evidently Brooks’ and Keitt’s constituents approved of the behavior of their congressional representatives.
Keitt’s re-election was fortuitous, because it gave him another opportunity to ignite congressional mayhem. In a late session of the House of Representatives on the night of February 5-6, 1858, Keitt and Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow exchanged insults and then blows. According to some accounts, during a very heated exchange Keitt provoked Grow by calling him a “black Republican puppy.” Grow snapped at Keitt, “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over my head!” Then Keitt reputedly threatened to choke Grow and went for the Pennsylvania congressman’s throat. Eventually 50 members of the House became involved in the brawl, which the sergeant-at-arms tried unsuccessfully to bring to an end. The melee ended only when the hairpiece of Mississippi congressman William Barksdale was knocked off, and Barksdale, in his frantic rush to replace his hairpiece, put it on with the back facing forward. This comical sight caused both sides to break into laughter and terminate their fisticuffs. Perhaps this was the only time in history that a fight was brought to a close by a receding hairline. The deficiently hirsute congressman whose dislodged hairpiece ended the congressional brawl is the same William Barksdale who led a Mississippi brigade in the Civil War and fell at Gettysburg.
Laurence Keitt, the congressman who played a major role in both of the above breaches of congressional decorum, was born in South Carolina on October 4, 1824. Two decades later he pursued classical studies and graduated from what is now the University of South Carolina. Then he studied law and became a practicing attorney in 1845. After serving in the South Carolina House of Representatives, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he used his interest in classical studies to instill a gladiatorial mindset into settling congressional disagreements. In a speech to the House in January 1860, Keitt revealed his views on both slavery and secession when he stated, “The anti-slavery party contends that slavery is wrong in itself, and the government is a consolidated national democracy. We of the South contend that slavery is right, and that this is a confederate republic of sovereign states.” In light of those comments, it is not surprising that Keitt was a delegate to the South Carolina secession convention.
At that convention, Keitt asserted that the entire question of secession revolved around slavery. Keitt proclaimed, “Our people have come to this on the question of slavery. I am willing, in that address to rest it upon that question. I think it is the great central point from which we are now proceeding, and I am not willing to divert the public attention from it.” This point of view differed from that of several other South Carolina delegates and also conflicts with those who insisted after the war, and still insist today, that the war was not about the issue of slavery. Early in the Civil War Keitt was a member of the Confederate Congress. Later in the war he raised a regiment, the 20th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and was elected its colonel, even though he had no training or experience in the military or in combat. Eventually Keitt rose to the command of Kershaw’s brigade when Joseph Kershaw was promoted to division command. Keitt was mortally wounded at Cold Harbor and died the day after the battle, June 4, 1864, four months to the day prior to his 40th birthday, thus extinguishing a very volatile life.
One tradition of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable is to hold a debate at the January meeting, and the annual debates have always been civil. However, if this should ever change, Laurence Keitt’s antics during his time in Congress provide an example of how to deal with a rival if a debate participant wants to forcefully emphasize a particular point. Maybe future debaters should be wary if a rival brings a cane to the debate and is accompanied by an accomplice with a pistol to deter any audience members who try to intervene. But if the proceedings at the annual debate ever go beyond just verbal wrangling and progress to sparring of a more physical nature, hopefully there will be a Roundtable member in attendance who wears a hairpiece that can be undone to bring the fracas to an end.