Charles Sumner: faking it?

May 22 is the anniversary of the attack on Sen. Charles Sumner (Massachusetts) on the Senate floor in 1856 by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina.

Sumner was a popular and famous anti-slavery senator who made a speech to the Senate denouncing the pro-slavery people who were causing violence and bloodshed in the Kansas territory in an attempt to swing the territorial vote toward entering the union as a slave state. Seeing the recent Kansas-Nebraska Act (allowing the population of territories to vote whether they would come in free or slave) as the source of the problem, Sumner attacked the senators who had written it, Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler. As was usual in the 19th century, Sumner attacked both men personally, and accused southerner Butler of taking a mistress “who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean, the harlot, Slavery.” He also made fun of Butler’s speech impediment.

Two days later, on May 22, 1856, Butler’s nephew Preston Brooks came up to Sumner at his desk on the Senate floor, told Sumner he had insulted his uncle and all of South Carolina, and proceeded to hit Sumner over and over on the head with a heavy gold-topped cane, until Sumner lost consciousness. Other senators who moved to help Sumner were held back by a gun-toting fellow senator from South Carolina, Laurence Keitt.

The attack on Sumner outraged the north and cheered the south. Many southerners sent Brooks a new cane to replace his old one, which may have been damaged during the assault. Sumner was out of action for three years recovering from his wounds. He seemed never to fully recover from them, and to this day writers will state that Sumner never recovered. Southerners at the time claimed Sumner was faking to get attention and publicity.

Ever since that day, historians have debated how serious his wounds actually were. Was Sumner nearly beaten to death? or was he faking it to get publicity for his cause?

An interesting–and logical–idea that has come up in recent years is that Sumner suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. While the physical wounds he received were not life-threatening, and did heal fairly quickly, Sumner’s lingering “weakness” and other symptoms were from PTSD. Whenever he entered the Senate chamber, he seemed worse. This would make sense–the scene of the assault would be overwhelmingly upsetting to him. His nightmares and headaches would be all-too familiar to a person today who is familiar with PTSD.

So Sumner was neither permanently physically wounded nor a faker. He was most likely a person suffering with PTSD, as would many thousands of men and women after him who lived through the events of the Civil War.