Sunday, June 21, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Laurence M. Keitt

Brawls in the halls of Congress were not uncommon in the late 1850s, and the spark that in variably ignited each of these fires was the discussion of slavery. In a post a few days ago I recalled Massachusetts Senator Sumner's caning by South Carolinian Representative Preston Brooks. During that altercation a colleague of Brooks assisted in keeping bystanders from assisting the struck Sumner. He was Laurence Massillon Keitt. The Sumner/Brooks affair would not be the only time Keitt would appear in the Congressional Record for his hot temper.

Laurence Keitt was born near St. Matthews in Orangburg District, South Carolina, in 1824. His early education was at Asbury Academy before entering Mt. Zion College in Winnsboro. He then graduated from South Carolina College in 1843, third in his class. After passing the bar exam in 1845, he practiced law in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He was only twenty four when was elected to the state legislature in 1848.

Keitt was a fire-eater (emphatic secessionist) of the first order. His ultimate goal in politics was the creation of an independent Southern nation. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, and then reelected in 1854. He resigned his seat after he was formally censured for his role in the Sumner caning in 1856. Strangely, or not so strangely with South Carolina politics in this era, he was re-elected to fill the vacancy caused by his own resignation and he was back in Congress three weeks after his resignation.

To all observers Keitt outwardly was the essential antebellum Southern politician; touchy in regard to his honor, quick to act, and a marvelous orator, but privately he loved poetry and was in a conflicted romance that tore at his hidden heartstrings.

Susanna Sparks was her name. And by most every account she was a classic Southern beauty. In 1855 Keitt proposed, but Sparks put him off. Sparks had formally studied music and art and dreamed of relocating to Europe to pursue these passions. Keitt would not be put off though and started into a determined courtship of long love letters. After several months Keitt received word that Susanna would accept, but, then she postponed the wedding and didn't write back for long periods of time.

Finally, Sparks said that she would wed Keitt if he would give up politics and move with her to Europe for as long as she wanted. Keitt had finally met his match in stubbornness, and in passion. He could only give in, and accepted forgoing politics -although he loved it- as a small sacrifice to call her his forever. Keitt the stalwart "hotspur" of congress was no match for the love of his life. She had him wrapped around her little finger, and he didn't care that she did. Then, in the summer of 1856, Sparks said that she wanted to discontinue the relationship, this time indefinitely. Keitt answered back that if they should meet again, " must be as strangers."

In winter of 1858, Keitt once again found himself involved in a tangle, but this time, not as a lover. This time he was battling the enemy Republicans in Congress. As the House debated the acceptance of Kansas under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, congressional nerves wore thin. During a late night/early morning session on February 5-6, 1858, Galusa Grow, a representative from Pennsylvania, who was described as "saucy in bravado toward his opponents," and Keitt, who was said to be "addicted to swaggering bravado," came to fisticuffs. As discussions were dragging, Grow, a Republican, crossed over to the Democrat side to confer with a opposition member. A frustrated Keitt said, "if you are going to object, go back to your side of the House." Grow testily answered that, "this is a free hall." The relaxed Keitt, who had previously kicked his shoes off, then responded, "wait until I put my shoe on you black Republican puppy." Calling a man a puppy was of course the height of insult. Grow retorted that he "won't allow any nigger driver to crack a whip about my ears." At this comment Keitt jumped up and grabbed Grow by the throat, but was restrained by Reuben Davis of Mississippi. Keitt broke loose and grabbed Grow again. Grow supporters said that Grow then hit Keitt in the face with a right....Keitt supporters said the Grow missed and Keitt tripped.

Whatever the truth, now more members became involved. John Fox Potter of Wisconsin hit William Barksdale of Mississippi in the face. Barksdale thinking it was Elihu Washburn of Illinois then hit Washburn. Washburn tried to grab Barksdale by the hair, but Barksdale wore a toupee, so Washburn came up only with a hand full of hair. This naturally closed the tension as disputants broke out in laughter. The next day Keitt apologized and accepted blame for starting the melee.

Keitt eventually did marry Susanna Sparks, it is believed in 1859. True to his word they went to Europe and made plans for Susanna to follow her dreams, but as disunion appeared on the horizon back in American, Keitt could not stay away. In December of 1860 he was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina secession convention, and then he participated in a low-key role in the Montgomery convention that established the Confederate government. Then joined in the fight.

Keitt helped raise the 20th South Carolina Infantry, and on January 11, 1862 was elected it's colonel. He wrote his Susanna regularly during the war. The letters reflect his patriotic feelings and his eloquent abilities as a writer. One is struck in reading the letters today, especially the last ones, with the love for his wife and children.

After prolonged duty around Charleston, South Carolina, Keitt requested that the 2oth South Carolina be transferred to Virginia for a more active role in the war. His wishes were granted. On June 1, 1864, Keitt, while riding along the lines at the Battle of Cold Harbor, was hit in the chest with a bullet. When initially attended to he replied, "Such is the fate of war." Keitt was taken to a residence behind the lines, and there he died the next day. Loving Susanna to the end, his last words were, "Oh wife, wife."

To find out more about Laurence M. Keitt, check out All That Make A Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South, by Stephen W. Berry.


  1. Dr. J. Holt Merchant of Washington & Lee University has worked his 1976 dissertation into a book on Keitt to be published in the Spring of 2011.

  2. Super! I look forward to reading it. Those South Carolinians are fascinating individuals.