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South Carolina Fire-Eater

The Life of Laurence Massillion Keitt, 1824-1864

Holt Merchant

Publication Year: 2014

South Carolina Fire-Eater is the first book-length biography of Laurence Massillon Keitt, one of South Carolina’s most notorious advocates of secession and apologists for African American slavery. A politician who wanted to be a statesman, a Hotspur who wanted to be a distinguished military leader, Keitt was a U. S. congressman in the 1850s, signed the Ordinance of Secession, and represented his rebellious state in the Confederate Congress in 1861. Through this thoroughly researched volume, Holt Merchant offers a comprehensive history of an important South Carolina figure. As a congressman, Keitt was responsible for no legislation of any significance, but he was in the midst of every southern crusade to assert its “rights”: to make Kansas a slave state, to annex Cuba, and to enact a territorial slave code. In a generation of politicians famous for fiery rhetoric, Keitt was among the most provocative southerners. His speeches in Congress and on the stump vituperated “Black Republicans” and were filled with references to medieval knight errantry, “lance couched, helmet on, visor down,” and threats to “split the Federal temple from turret to foundation stone.” His conception of personal honor and his hot temper frequently landed him in trouble in and out of public view. He acted as “fender off” in May 1855 when his fellow representative Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner on the Senate floor. In 1858 he instigated a brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives that involved some three dozen congressmen. Amid the chaos of his personal brand of politics, Keitt found time to woo and wed a beautiful, intelligent, and politically astute plantation belle who after his death restored the family fortune and worked to embellish her late husband’s place in history. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Keitt and the rest of the South Carolina delegation resigned their seats in Congress. He then negotiated unsuccessfully the surrender of Fort Sumter with lame-duck president James Buchanan, played a major role in the December 1860 Secession Convention that led his state out of the Union, and a lesser role in the convention that formed the Confederacy. Bored with his position as a member of the Confederate Congress, Keitt resigned his seat and raised the 20th South Carolina Infantry. Keitt spent most of the war defending Charleston Harbor, sometime commanding Battery Wagner, the site of the July 18, 1863, assault by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of African American troops, made famous by the movie Glory. Keitt took command the day after that battle and was the last man out of the battery when his troops abandoned it in September 1863. In May 1864, his regiment joined the Army of Northern Virginia and Keitt took command of Kershaw’s Brigade. Inexperienced in leading troops on the battlefield he launched a head-long attack on entrenched Federal cavalry in the June 1, 1864, Battle of Cold Harbor. Keitt was mortally wounded advancing in the vanguard of his brigade. With that last act of bravado, Keitt distinguished himself. He was among the few fire-eater politicians to serve in the military and was likely the only one to perish in combat defending the Confederacy.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press

Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright

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p. vi-vi

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pp. vii-viii

A project that consumes forty years from start to finish accumulates a significant number of obligations along the way. I returned to my alma mater in 1970 before I had completed work on my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Allen Moger, one of my undergraduate professors, then chairman of the Department of History proposed that I write a biography of Laurence Keitt. He explained...

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pp. 1-5

In September 1860, the New York Leader published a description of Congressman Laurence M. Keitt of South Carolina that would have agitated the enemies and surprised the friends who read it. It was not the physical description of the man that would have attracted their attention. He was, as the anonymous author wrote, tall, “broad shouldered, deep-chested, and powerful.” He had dark brown...

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One: “See that you rear a new Union”

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pp. 6-18

According to stories still repeated in Calhoun County, the first Keitt came to South Carolina from Bermuda shortly before the Revolutionary War. Around 1760, George Kitts settled on Big Bull Swamp just west of Orangeburg, married Dorothy Whetstone, and began to acquire land and slaves. The marriage produced five children, a daughter and four sons. In 1812 three of the sons changed...

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Two: “Trample upon your hosannas to the Union”

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pp. 19-38

Keitt’s career in the House of Representatives coincided almost exactly with the struggle between North and South for control of Kansas. He arrived in Washington late in 1853, in time to throw himself into the fight over the organization of the territory. Seven years later, when he resigned his seat and led South Carolina out of the Union, the English Compromise was only eighteen months...

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Three: “He who dallies is a dastard”

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pp. 39-58

At least as early as the fall of 1855, South Carolina politicians began to look ahead to the presidential elections of the following year. Speaking for the state’s moderate minority, James L. Orr proposed that it take the novel step of sending delegates to the Democratic nominating convention. During the nullification controversy more than twenty years earlier, South Carolina had cut its ties to...

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Four: “Shake the Federal temple from turret to foundation stone”

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pp. 59-75

When the members of the Thirty-fourth Congress returned to Washington late in 1856, few observers could have disagreed with Keitt’s assessment that the political climate was “gloomy and ominous.” The Democratic victory had changed nothing. At the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Franklin Pierce still occupied the White House. The last of his annual messages, an embittered attack on the...

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Five: “Like mildew and blast, like pestilence and famine”

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pp. 76-86

Even before the Thirty-fifth Congress adjourned in June 1858, Keitt realized that his actions during the session had displeased constituents at one end of South Carolina’s narrow political spectrum—conservatives like William Henry Trescott, who criticized his readiness to indulge in exaggerated rhetoric and even to provoke riots on the floor of the House. He knew, however, that his defiance of...

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Six: “Lance couched, helmet on, visor down”

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pp. 87-105

Long before Keitt took his seat in the House of Representatives for the first time, southerners had drawn the outlines of the pro-slavery argument and filled in most of the details. Reacting in part to internal pressures, in part to the first feeble attacks of the abolitionists, they had discarded the defense employed by the founding fathers who admitted that the institution was a blot on southern...

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Seven: “Take the fetters from your heart”

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pp. 106-118

When Congressman Keitt arrived in Washington for the first time late in 1853, he found himself in a city with a distinctly southern flavor. Life there was slow paced, provincial, often lacking in creature comforts. The weather was frequently foul: hot and humid in summer, the season when the fortunate few fled to the mountains, and cold and wet in winter. Many of the public buildings were still...

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Eight: “Style, beauty, and high training”

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pp. 119-132

The Keitts arrived in Washington on December 3, two days before Congress was scheduled to convene, and took up temporary lodgings at Brown’s Hotel. In a letter to her mother, Sue described the trip north from “Mandeville” and at the same time revealed the fears of a young bride facing life in an unfamiliar city. The weather during the trip was “oppressively hot,” she complained; the dust from...

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Nine: “Fidelity to the Union is treason to the South”

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pp. 133-151

With the struggle for the speakership finally over, congressmen turned their attention to long-neglected business, none of it immediately related to slavery or secession. The Congress enacted a homestead bill, and Buchanan vetoed it. The House approved a slight upward revision of the tariff, but the Senate killed it. Neither house could agree on a route for a railroad to the Pacific...

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Ten: “True liberty is won by the blood of the brave”

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pp. 152-177

The South Carolina delegation, minus Chesnut and Withers, reached Montgomery by rail on February 2, two days before the convention was scheduled to meet for the first time. Heavy rains had flooded rivers, washed out long sections of track, and made the trip even more treacherous than usual. In Atlanta the train carrying the South Carolinians was already twelve hours behind...

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Eleven: “Proudly the Southern Cross still floats to the breeze”

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pp. 178-192

With the fall of Battery Wagner, Keitt’s active role in the defense of Charleston harbor had almost come to an end. In mid-September, he moved the Twentieth South Carolina from Sullivan’s Island, now within easy range of the Union guns, to a safer location on the mainland. For the next nine months, the regiment camped near Mount Pleasant on the grounds of the Moultrie House, a resort...

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Epilogue: “I will not lose my land”

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pp. 193-198

After Keitt’s death at Cold Harbor in June 1864, records reveal all too little about Sue and her two daughters. Shortly after the close of the war, the editor of the Boston Atlas noted that she was living in poverty. Before the war, Keitt had boasted that he had married the daughter of a wealthy planter, not a merchant or industrialist or speculator whose assets could vanish overnight during a...


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pp. 199-234


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pp. 235-254


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pp. 255-263

E-ISBN-13: 9781611173505
E-ISBN-10: 1611173507
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611173499

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2014

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Subject Headings

  • Keitt, Lawrence M. (Lawrence Massillon), 1824-1864.
  • Legislators -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States. Congress. House -- Biography.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1849-1861.
  • Secession -- South Carolina.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Biography.
  • Generals -- Confederate States of America -- Biography.
  • Orangeburg County (S.C.) -- Biography.
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