Senator Elizabeth Warren had to “sit down” last night in the middle of her speech about Attorney General candidate Jeff Sessions. She broke rule XIX of Senate protocol which forbids any U.S. Senator from making disparaging remarks about a fellow Senator.
I write not to examine Warren’s words, the Republican response, or even the current toxic climate of the U.S. Senate in these tumultuous times. Rather, I write only to set up what follows – a fictionalized version of the true story of U.S. Congressman Preston Brooks’s (SC) assault on U.S. Senator Charles Sumner (MA) on May 22nd, 1856.
The following is an excerpt from an upcoming novel that John Jenkins and I will be publishing in the near future. It is titled Horsemen in the Sky.
You think the Senate is toxic now? Ha! You ain’t seen nothin’.
In chapter 8, Bloodshed in the Capitol, our fictional character, Sam MacDonald, a reporter for the Charleston Observer, tells the true story of the beating of Sumner on the Senate floor.
Date: 31 May, 1856
Time: 8:15 P.M.
Source: Personal Journal of Sam MacDonald
Location: Sheppard’s Boardinghouse, Washington City
Madness has seized the hearts and minds of my countrymen!
So my Lord, grant I pray, the grace to write upon the pages of this journal, the thoughts and feelings that so engulf my soul. Let the words and phrases flow from my heart even as the ink flows from my pen on this warm, late spring evening. And now, seated here at my window, pen in hand, ink well nestled against the windowsill, I attempt for a third time to capture the unutterable groanings within my soul over the events my eyes have witnessed and my ears have heard.
Two aborted pages lay on the floor by my boots. For three days running I have not been able to finish a full page, and I fear I have entered again into another bitter season of writer’s block.
O Lord let it not be so, let not my heart become so filled with grief and fear that Your Spirit cannot accomplish His work through this pen! So, O my soul, we will start once again to record the account of that bloody week in May.
Bloodshed in the Capitol
In the beginning I did not recognize the madness as such, but it was there all the while. I ignored The New York Herald’s report that our Senators and Congressmen had begun carrying knives and guns on their persons in the halls of Congress, considering it both slanderous and preposterous, something that the outrageous James Gordon Bennett and his muckraking journalists had contrived in a smoky back room to sell editions.
So I had continued to hope for a peaceful resolution to our national differences. It was here, in this same window seat, late in the afternoon on May 22nd, that I sat and attempted to pen an article urging our leaders to moderation and compromise when I heard a commotion out in the street below my window.
Leaning out, I saw several men on horseback and a carriage pull up in front of our boardinghouse. The passenger in the carriage sat back into the corner, his shirt and coat front doused with blood. As the others leapt from their horses and helped this gentleman from the carriage, I heard Mrs. Sheppard call from the doorway.
“I feared this would happen. Hurry him in—the room is ready.”
At that moment, I recognized the bleeding man, but someone spoke his name even as it formed on my disbelieving lips.
“Senator Sumner—you must sit down and let the doctor fully examine your head wound.”
I remembered stepping back from the window and planting one hand against the wall for support, my head spinning wildly with fear. Had The Herald’s report proven true? Had someone shot the Senator from Massachusetts?
Though I had yet discovered the perpetrator’s name or the means of his crime, I had already deduced his motives for the injurious assault on the Senator–for at that time I, too, cherished similar motives in my heart.
‘Murderous robbers and hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization,’ Sumner had bellowed just two days ago from behind his desk on the Senate floor, heaping condemnation upon the absent, Senator Butler from South Carolina. Sumner suggested that the whole history of South Carolina be blotted out, for its ‘shameful imbecility toward slavery confessed throughout the Revolution.’ He scurrilously compared Butler to a whoremonger whose whore was slavery, and that Butler, like the Egyptians, ‘worshiped divinities in brutish forms.’
How well I recall those and many other words from May 19th as I sat and took notes of the Senator’s speech from the gallery above the Senate floor. How scandalized I felt by each and every word, how red my cheeks burned as I listened to his slanderous barrage against Senator Butler, South Carolina and all of the South.
I had been used! I was possessed with anger as strong and wild as the day I walked into Seth Beaumont’s office with a pistol following Victoria’s murder!
How justified I had felt as I watched from my boardinghouse window as Sumner was helped down from the carriage, his head and clothing matted thickly with blood!
Less than two weeks earlier, Senator Sumner had granted me an extensive interview, playing me for a tool, convincing me that his attitudes had changed, now desiring moderation and positive dialogue between the sections. He urged me to have the article published in The Observer!
Full of naïve hope, I had pushed Mr. Pitkins as hard as my conscience allowed, and the article ran without delay. My story detailing Sumner’s changing views had hit the streets of Charleston on May 17, just forty-eight hours before his outrageous speech.
And standing by that window, I knew the cup of my heart overflowed with the same bitterness and resentment as the man who had injured Sumner. O my Soul, how quickly I had forgotten the lesson of the nails!
My Soul, do you remember how I dropped to my knees on the wooden floor and repented of my sin? Do you remember the sublime sweetness of that moment when I surrendered my anger to the Lord? And will the lesson of forgiving one’s enemies finally be learned?
As the aides moved the wounded Senator into the boardinghouse, I proceeded downstairs, compelled I suppose by a curiosity stimulated by my two years of medical training, and perhaps from a new-felt concern for the Senator’s health and safety.
I watched them bathe and suture his wounds. The cuts did not appear to be life-threatening, although I must admit I was somewhat shocked at the sight of his scalp laid back all the way down to the skull. Nevertheless, he was quite coherent after the stitching. Both of the doctors agreed, and I as well, that he should recover quite nicely and soon return to his desk in the Senate.
As the Senator was helped back to his carriage, I took one of his aides by the arm and learned of the Senator’s brutal encounter with Preston Brooks, the distinguished Congressman from South Carolina and nephew of the slandered Mr. Butler.
It had not been by a gun or knife that the Senator’s scalp was split, but a stout walking stick. Brooks had entered the Senate chambers and beat the Senator until he was nearly unconscious, pinning him helplessly between his desk and chair.
O the power of words, how they can destroy and tear down! How they divide and separate, breeding violence and bloodshed!
By supper time, all physical evidence of Sumner’s visit had been removed. His divisive spirit, however, remained behind and became the source of conflict at Mrs. Sheppard’s dinner table. Clarence, the young stonemason who hailed from North Carolina, and Toby, the free Negro and wagoner, had to be separated, having come to the point of raising fists during dinner over the propriety of Brook’s assault on Senator Sumner.
Mrs. Sheppard, in an angry, unexpected show of her political inclinations, informed Toby that he was terribly wrong to support Senator Sumner and that he would have to find another boardinghouse. He was gone within the hour. I shall miss Toby, he was a good conversationalist and a true friend.
As the week progressed, I did some investigative work into the circumstances surrounding this bloody affair. One thing I learned to my surprise was that Congress had prearranged with several boardinghouses, Mrs. Sheppard’s being one of the closest to the Capitol, to have a spare room maintained for emergency medical treatment required by some violent incident. A second discovery came as the result of speaking with several of my friends and colleagues in Congress .The attack on Senator Sumner had not been spontaneous; Brooks had planned his retaliation for two days.
The final incident unearthed by my investigation began after a brief conversation with Dr. Timothy Whitefield, the Senate Chaplain. He claimed to have seen a tall, goateed man with a long scar across his left cheek speak privately to Preston Brooks in the doorway to the Senate chambers just prior to his attack on Sumner.
No other Senator or any of their aides remembered having seen a man of this description, even those who were in the Senate chamber at the time Brooks entered the room.