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  • The Cane of His ExistenceDepression, Damage, and the Brooks–Sumner Affair
  • Stephen Berry (bio) and James Hill Welborn III (bio)

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In ways that historians have utterly failed to appreciate, the caning of Charles Sumner was the work of two men. Certainly Brooks hatched the scheme and carried it out. But Keitt was a critical co-conspirator. For two days after Sumner’s speech, Brooks found reason after reason to delay. But always Brooks had Keitt at his elbow, fortifying his spirits and stiffening his resolve. Brooks had to act, Keitt said, and if he didn’t, Keitt would. Detail of the cover of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 7, 1856, depicting the caning of Charles Sumner.

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Looking out across the scorched strand from atop one of the few remaining horses, the regimental surgeon scanned the marching throng and noticed a “curious drag” in the left leg of Captain Preston S. Brooks. “It was so striking it occupied my attention some time,” the surgeon recalled, and he pulled alongside Brooks to ask if he was all right. None of the soldiers were doing well; all were thirsty; all were broiling; many were already succumbing to the diseases that would kill them during the Mexican campaign or shortly thereafter. Only two days in country, the regimental commander was on his back, being borne along on a litter. The surgeon himself would have his health so wrecked he would survive the war by only a few months. But Brooks looked worse than most—sweating profusely and grimacing with each labored step. “I was satisfied it was a serious matter,” the surgeon recalled, “& advised him to march no further & to borrow a horse, or to get into a wagon, for I apprehended if he continued to walk he might lose the use of his lower limb from paralysis. I then told him I feared he would not be able to continue in the service & that he certainly would not be able to march through it.”1 Despite this, Brooks refused any aid and continued his labored march. By God, he would make it to Alvarado.

Lurching toward Alvarado, Captain Brooks had ample time to consider what he had become. He had never been a promising young man. At eighteen, he had been suspended from college for menacing a fellow student with a gun. Two years later, he was expelled for menacing a local sheriff with a gun. Between these events, he had streaked home to fight a duel with Louis Wigfall, a man who had recently dueled and killed Brooks’s nephew, Thomas Bird. Away at school, Brooks had assumed his father would want revenge, but Whitfield Sr. considered the entire affair one “of trial, suffering & solicitude of a painful nature, beyond any thing that I have encountered in all my past life.” He granted that Wigfall was a thug and a miscreant. “That rash & misguided young man [has] caused me more grief, vexation and suffering than I have had to bear from all the other crosses losses or misfortunes of a life of fifty years,” he confided to his journal. Even so, his own son seemed hardly less of a hotspur. “In the presence of Heaven,” Whitfield scolded, “a quarrel with that young man [Wigfall] was not sought by me, nor was it acceptable to my wishes and purposes . . . I was willing to do every thing consistent with truth and honor to avoid any hostility with him. He was not in my way, he did not cross my path or that of my family; I had no unkind feeling toward him but on the contrary he had my best wishes for his success.”2

Such fatherly remonstrance stung, but, having thrown down the gauntlet, Preston felt he could not back out now. Thus “hurried into the fight without the necessary preparation,” he met Wigfall on a “small, sterile & bleak island in the [Savannah] River, called goat island . . . having no accommodations but its insulated situation which protected the party from interruption.” As his father later [End Page 6] narrated, “the first shot was ineffectual . . . at the second fire both were wounded and...