Jason Phillips | an excerpt adapted from The Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future | Oxford University Press | 19 minutes (5,208 words)

Bowie knives first appeared in the early republic after civilians stopped wearing swords. A sign of aristocracy, swords went out of fashion after the American and French Revolutions, and even British gentlemen stopped wearing them. Social pressures encouraged men to replace swords with concealed weapons, and changes in clothing accommodated this shift by introducing more pockets in men’s coats and pants. Sword canes and percussion pistols offered more discreet forms of self-defense, but sword canes took time to unsheathe and were brittle, while pistols were inaccurate and unreliable. After the sword became socially taboo, none of the period’s other weapons replaced its usefulness in a melee.

Such fracases flourished on the southwestern frontier. Slavery was predicated on violence, and white men resorted to physical brutality to assert their authority over blacks, women, children, and each other. A code of honor encouraged men to duel and feud over misunderstandings and insults. Unsettled territories like the Old Southwest fostered fighting because they lacked local law enforcement and efficient courts. If lawmen existed, they often belonged to feuding clans. No wonder people literally took matters into their own hands.

In 1827, brothers James and Rezin Bowie entered this world in Rapides, Louisiana, and made a knife to combat it. Rezin sharpened one side of an old iron file, called it a “hunting knife,” and presented it to his brother as a gift. Europeans wore similar knives when hunting but never in public. James was recovering from a gunshot wound he had received from Norris Wright and was preparing for an inevitable second encounter. When James recovered, he stuck the knife in his belt and carried it with him everywhere. Their second fight erupted after a duel on a Mississippi River sandbar. Wright and Bowie belonged to rival groups who watched their principals exchange harmless shots on September 19, 1827. Satisfied that their honor had been vindicated, the men prepared to return to town for a drink. But their parties consisted of armed men with scores to settle. As the gangs dispersed, gunfire erupted between them. Bowie discharged his pistols and unsheathed his knife. Wright shot Bowie through the lung and drew a sword cane, but the flimsy blade stuck in Bowie’s sternum. When Wright tried to extricate it, Bowie thrust his knife into Wright’s heart, killing him instantly. Bowie cut another assailant in the side before the scuffle ended. Things spun out of control because of the extreme potential for violence that each man carried in his pockets and belt.

Rezin Bowie sharpened one side of an old iron file, called it a ‘hunting knife,’ and presented it to his brother as a gift.

The sandbar fight made the bowie knife more famous than its owner because it fulfilled a material need in southern society. Masters of their worlds, southern white men kept or broke the peace at will. Duelists and filibusters disregarded law and order. Personal sovereignty trumped all other authorities, whether they emanated from social customs, courtroom justice, state power, or even international borders. When a southern man pulled out his bowie knife, it meant war. By 1859, John Bartlett’s dictionary of Americanisms insisted “they are worn as weapons by persons in the South and South-western States only.” Southern men raced to purchase their own bowie knives without knowing what one looked like. Bowies of all shapes and sizes appeared. Two elements made a knife a bowie: the garish thing stuck out of a belt against all social proprieties, and it was made for murder. Its coffin-shaped hilt proved prophetic. After James Bowie died defending the Alamo, his knife embodied southern politics.

In Kansas, southern men asserted popular sovereignty at the point of their bowie knives. People called them the “bowie-knife-and pistol gentry.” As the Atchison Squatter Sovereign, a proslavery Kansas newspaper, expressed it, settling Kansas required “war to the knife, and knife to the hilt.” With “Blood for Blood!” emblazoned across its front page, the newspaper urged, “Let us purge ourselves of all abolition emissaries … and give distinct notice that all who do not leave immediately for the East, will leave for eternity!” In 1854, South Carolinian William Henry Trescot explained, “The history of the world is the history of encroachment, of invasion, of wrong, if you so will.” God designed the future so that “you cannot bring into contact an earnest, living will, and a feeble, effete nature, without the absorption of the one into the other.” Weeks before the battle of Black Jack, George Frederick Holmes, chancellor of the University of Mississippi, echoed this sentiment. “Conquest, extension, appropriation, assimilation, and even extermination of inferior races has been and must be the course pursued in the development of civilization,” he explained. “Such is unquestionably the plan prescribed for the progressive amelioration of the world.” Like Samuel Baldwin, Holmes and Trescot believed that exterminating undesirable people improved the world. They predicted that violent conquest and destruction would elevate humanity. The point of the bowie knife was the vanguard of progress.

Members of the bowie-knife gentry served as the shock troops for southern conquest and extermination. One of the reasons Henry Clay Pate, a deputy U.S. Marshall who lost his bowie knife to John Brown during the first skirmish of the Civil War, left Old Virginia was a sense of frustration that it was too focused on the past. “My native State seems to be doomed to the rule of enemies of progress, who say daily—let us rest at our ease, and live upon the glory of departed ancestors.” His Virginia friends presented him with the bowie knife as a parting gift. Pate left Virginia and the past behind, named his Missouri newspaper “Star of the Empire,” and crossed the border in search of fame and adventure. Thomas Gladstone, a correspondent for the London Times, reported many “incidents of bowie-knife voting” in Kansas while staying in Kansas City. Gladstone quoted border ruffians who applied the same logic as George Frederick Holmes and Pate but with more colorful language. One southern adventurer who called himself “General” Stringfellow told Gladstone that southern men were to “mark every scoundrel that was the least tainted with free-soilism or abolitionism, and to exterminate him.” Stringfellow had no “qualms of conscience as to violating laws, state or national, the time had come when such impositions must be disregarded.” According to the border ruffian, it was time to “enter every election district in Kansas, in defiance of the Governor and his vile myrmidons, and vote at the point of the bowie-knife.”

Southern settlers conveyed their future with possessions as much as words and actions. A Presbyterian clergyman, Frederic Starr, passed wagonloads of Missouri border ruffians returning from “bowie-knife voting” in Kansas elections. A flagpole in the front of their wagon waved a homemade skull and crossbones flag. The men lashed a revolver, powder horn, and bowie knife to the pole and plugged an inverted, empty whiskey bottle on the tip. Such were “the piratical symbols of Missouri ruffians,” men hell-bent on claiming the future through intimidation and bloodshed. When their captain saluted Starr, he was stunned to recognize a prominent lawyer who had canvassed with him months earlier to promote local liquor laws. Even southern gentlemen condoned and participated in bowie-knife politics.

In Kansas, conductors of the Underground Railroad gave guns to runaways.

Bowie knives so epitomized southern politics that southern legislators used them to settle debates. Theodore Dwight Weld noted that southern congressmen were “in the habit of wearing bowie knives” to work. Weld recounted the murder of Joseph Anthony, a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives, by John Wilson, Speaker of the House. On December 14, 1837, Wilson took offense at something Anthony said during a debate, left the Speaker’s chair, drew a bowie knife with a ten-inch blade, and approached Anthony, who pulled out his own bowie. They exchanged thrusts until Wilson plunged his blade into Anthony’s heart. The Speaker of the House paused to wipe the blood off his blade with his thumb and finger before returning to his chair. Though the attack occurred in the statehouse before dozens of witnesses, authorities did nothing for several days. Only fervent demands from Anthony’s family led to Wilson’s arrest and eventual trial for murder. After the jury found him innocent, Wilson bought them drinks at a local grog shop. Weld recounted similar murders with bowie knives in Arkansas and noted that the white population was similar in size to that of Litchfield County, Connecticut. “And we venture the assertion, that a public affray, with deadly weapons, has not taken place in that county for fifty years, if in deed ever since its settlement, a century and a half ago.”


Northern expansionists displayed more ambivalence about their own arms. Massachusetts entrepreneur Eli Thayer, anticipating the need to finance the antislavery settlement of Kansas, founded the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company a month before the Kansas-Nebraska bill became law. His organization mushroomed into a joint-stock company known as the New England Emigrant Aid Company that equipped thousands of settlers devoted to a free Kansas. Amos Lawrence, a wealthy textile manufacturer, bankrolled the operation. Southerners exaggerated the size and reach of the company, but it did provision more than a thousand emigrants. Some things, like passage on steamboats, helped people travel to Kansas. Others, like a printing press and type for a newspaper, precipitated the establishment of town politics. Emigrants named their largest town in Kansas after Lawrence.

When a company agent in the territory, Charles Robinson, requested Sharps Rifles, the company quietly complied. Lawrence prophesied that “a revolution must take place in Kansas” and “when farmers turn soldiers they must have arms.” Amos Lawrence understood the looming conflict by framing it within the historical memory of the American Revolution, which hinged on a violent contest over sovereignty. Other New Englanders agreed. Above his mantel, Theodore Parker proudly displayed the musket his father fired at the battle of Lexington, a clash precipitated by stockpiles of arms. The company reimbursed settlers who purchased guns, ordered rifles at a bulk rate and shipped them west, and presented arms to settlers when they embarked for the territory. In this atmosphere, abolitionists traded nonviolence for bloodshed that promised to accelerate emancipation. In Kansas, conductors of the Underground Railroad gave guns to runaways. In 1856, James Birney confessed to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “I regret that a civil war should rage but if slavery cannot be exterminated without one—&I don’t see how it can be—I say let it come.” Thayer told New Yorkers, “It might be well for the Emigrant to be furnished with his Bible and his rifle; and if he were not protected in his rights according to the principles of the first, let him rely upon the execution of the latter.” Reverend Henry Ward Beecher conflated Bibles and rifles more directly. His congregation bought and shipped Sharps rifles to Kansas in crates labeled as Bibles. Before violence erupted on the prairie, northern settlement of Kansas contained key ingredients of a filibuster: financing men and arms to cross the border and claim territory for their form of government. One Illinois emigrant who headed to Kansas in an armed squad recalled, “It was a military company that could be changed to a colony or a colony ready for military service.” His description was the definition of a filibuster campaign.

If bowie-knife politics forwarded southern horizons of expectation, ‘crate politics’ promoted northern visions of the future. Northerners’ concealment of arms in crates labeled dry goods and Bibles reveals a desire to maintain, if in appearances only, restrained manhood on the frontier. Like restrained manhood, crate politics was self-contained. Northern filibustering cared about outward appearances, morality, and structural integrity. Supplying the frontier with boxes of Bibles and goods would convey civilization to the wilderness. Northern visions of the horizon evinced an unquestioned faith that their region’s superior capital, manufacturing, and benevolence would trump southern swashbuckling on the prairie. While northerners criticized bowie knife politics as barbaric, southerners accused crate politics of dishonesty.

Henry Ward Beecher’s…. congregation bought and shipped Sharps rifles to Kansas in crates labeled as Bibles.

In October 1856, a New York City rally to supply Kansas illustrated how northern filibustering concealed its weaponry behind religious and idyllic visions. Poet William Cullen Bryant and writer Charles Dana organized the meeting and asked the Reverend Joseph P. Thompson to speak. While introducing Thompson, Bryant framed northern emigration within the story of Exodus. While Moses lifted his rod, the Israelites slew the Amalekites, but when his arms tired and lowered, the Amalekites prevailed. Only by supporting Moses’s tired arms and keeping them aloft did Aaron and the Israelites triumph. Like the Hebrews’ battle against the oppressive powers of the Egyptians and the Amalekites, northerners were fighting “the battle for the rights of the many against the rights of the few” a battle of the chosen people against oligarchies. Victory in that war required the material support of true religion. That was as close as Bryant would come to asking for money to buy arms for Kansans. “My friends.” Bryant concluded, “let us accept this omen.”

When Thompson took the stage he contrasted northern and southern horizons of expectation. He prophesied that when Bryant went west he heard a prosperous and free future in the industrious hum of a bumblebee.

I listen long
To his domestic hum; and think I hear
The sound of that advancing multitude
Which soon shall fill these deserts. From the ground
Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice
Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn
Of Sabbath worshippers. The low of herds
Blends with the rustling of the heavy grain
Over the dark-brown furrows

“That picture.” Thompson said, “is a picture of freedom; the home of free men, the homes of Christian families; the dignity of labor; the freedom of knowledge; the inviolable sanctity of worship; the peace and smile of God.” Border ruffians threatened to “blot out that picture” by imposing a southern horizon of expectation, where “the clank of chains, the curse of the oppressor … the sigh of the needy” drown out the industrious hum of honest work. When that happened, when slavery contaminated Kansas, Oregon, Utah, “and Nicaragua to boot,” slaveholders would become the majority, New York harbor would become “a mart of slavers,” and leaders in Washington would become border ruffians who “bristle all over with bowie-knives and revolvers.” Thompson urged New Yorkers to avoid this future. “That vision of yours was not the mere dream of the prophet; it was a prophecy inspired of God, and my children shall yet read your prophecy fulfilled upon these teeming prairies.”

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

The material culture of both sections triggered events that neither side prophesied. The gathering of armed Yankee settlers and their early clashes with proslavery citizens alarmed southerners who responded with rival assemblies. The Kansas Emigration Society of Missouri rallied the slave states to action. “It requires no foresight to perceive that if the ‘higher law’ men succeed in this crusade, it will be but the beginning of a war upon the institutions of the South, which will continue until slavery shall cease to exist in any of the states, or the Union is dissolved.” Henry Titus was one of the first to answer the Missourians’ appeals for help. A proslavery northerner, Titus participated in two failed filibusters to Cuba before he arrived in Kansas and built Fort Titus, a fortified log cabin, nine miles west of Lawrence. Titus allied with Major Jefferson Buford, a veteran of the Creek Indian War from Alabama, who financed a southern filibuster to Kansas. A wealthy slaveowner, Buford sold forty slaves to equip an army of four hundred settlers. He promised “forty acres of first rate land, a free passage to Kansas and the means of support for one year” to “men capable of bearing arms.” Buford forecasted that a “great day of darkness” loomed before Kansas, and the rights of slave owners required men “crazy enough to peril even life in the deadly breach.” He organized his emigrants into military units and told them that the fate of the South was in their hands. They marched to Kansas under a silk banner that read “The Supremacy of the White Race.” When they arrived, Henry Clay Pate presented Buford with a horse, saddle, and bridle on behalf of “the cause of slavery for Kansas.”

That spring, Buford’s army patrolled the area surrounding Lawrence to prevent wagonloads of guns and sabers sent by northern aid companies from reaching the town. A squad of Buford’s men captured George Brown, antislavery editor of the newspaper Herald of Freedom, and imprisoned him at Lecompton, the proslavery capital. When these tactics failed to quell the antislavery threat, border ruffians from Missouri consolidated Buford’s men into a proslavery posse and raided the town. Buford openly objected to the Missourians’ plan to destroy Lawrence, but the filibuster he financed was running its course. Things were beyond his control. David Archison, former senator from Missouri, urged the southern army to violence. “Draw your revolvers & bowie knives, & cool them in the heart’s blood of all those damned dogs, that dare defend that damned breathing hole of hell.” The group surrounded Lawrence and demanded that citizens give up their weapons. After the town surrendered some arms, the Missourians destroyed things that signified free-state principles. Northern propaganda dubbed the event the “Sack of Lawrence,” but no citizens were physically assaulted. Instead, looters and arsonists descended upon the homes and personal effects of free-state leaders. They targeted the Free State Hotel, which served as an antislavery headquarters and fortress, bombarded it with four cannons, exploded kegs of gunpowder inside the building, and set it on fire.

Congressmen, senators, and spectators brought pistols, dirks, and sword canes into the Capitol.

Thomas Gladstone witnessed the Missourians’ triumphant return to a Kansas City hotel. Caked in dust and reeking of smoke, men overran the bar, “displaying with loud boasts the ‘plunder’ they had taken from the inhabitants.” Gladstone noticed that the posse wore a uniform of sorts: red flannel shirts, “immense boots worn outside their trousers,” and big beards. They were armed “to the teeth with rifles and revolvers, cutlasses and bowie-knives.” The British writer had found “the seat of Western war,” where “the strife of politics” affected personal character and “transmuted” Americans “into new forms.” The posse decorated their outfits with battle trophies taken from Lawrence. Some wore a Yankee’s satin vest or fine dress coat over their flannel shirts. Others “girded themselves with the cords and tassels which the day before had ornamented the curtains of the Free State Hotel.” Gladstone expressed revulsion at this “grotesque intermixture of dress,” but the ruffians followed an old ritual of wearing their victims’ clothing as battle trophies. Wearing someone’s clothing violated that person’s privacy and parodied the individual’s values. It harmed opponents without laying a hand on them.

Border ruffians who wore their victims’ clothes also articulated a key feature of crate politics in Kansas: outward appearances were deceiving. Hotels were forts. Crates labeled dry goods, books, and Bibles contained weapons. Charitable societies like the New England Emigrant Aid Company secretly fronted filibusters. To expose the genteel façade of Lawrence settlers, the posse burned books in the street and destroyed the printing press of the Herald of Freedom. Smashing and scattering its type in the streets sent a clear message to free-state settlers: violence, not words, would decide the future of Kansas. Antislavery settlers got the message. In the aftermath of the raid, women gathered the type and gave it to free state militia, who melted it into cannon balls. When they assaulted Fort Titus, the decisive turn in the battle occurred when militiamen fired the reconstituted type through the fortress walls. “This is the second edition of the ‘Herald of Freedom,’” the free-state militia jeered as they fired. “How do you like it?” Titus answered with a white flag.


The “second edition” of the Herald of Freedom illustrates how weapons assembled political movements that goaded men to commit violence. The material culture of Washington, DC, also revolved around arms and produced similar results. Washington social life exuded hypermasculinity and violence, and as sectional tensions mounted over Bleeding Kansas, congressmen, senators, and spectators brought pistols, dirks, and sword canes into the Capitol. The presence of concealed weapons increased confrontational language and behavior inside the chamber. The heightened potential for violence raised politicians’ aggression as men goaded each other to draw first. The day after border ruffians practiced bowie-knife politics in Lawrence, Congressman Preston Brooks broke the tension in Washington by using a cane to make his point against Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.

A model of restrained manhood, Sumner never carried weapons. For him, armed statesmen signified civilization’s decline toward barbarity and he blamed slavery. For months, Sumner crafted and memorized a long speech entitled “The Crime against Kansas” that contrasted the material cultures of slavery and freedom. The point of Sumner’s two-day speech was lost because he opened with prefatory remarks that insulted Stephen Douglas, James Mason, and Andrew Butler, three senators who had supported slavery in Kansas. His barbs at Butler were particularly vile. An elderly senator from South Carolina, Butler was absent recovering from a stroke that affected his speech. Sumner mocked Butler’s speech impediment. Worse, he implied that Butler had sex with his slaves. Sumner knew that he was insulting armed men. He provoked their response, because he expected victory from either outcome. If southern firebrands assaulted him, he would expose their barbarity. If they did not, he would reveal their vacant threats and cowardice. Stephen Douglas did not fully grasp Sumner’s strategy. While listening to the speech, Douglas asked, “Does he want somebody to kick him?” Whether somebody kicked him or not, Sumner thought he had already won the political debate. When John Bingham overheard Douglas’s remark, he thought it was designed to produce or encourage an assault” against Sumner and relayed his concern to friends who pleaded with Sumner to let them escort him safely home. When they could not convince Sumner to accept their help, they spread rumors that Sumner was armed, hoping to discourage an attack.

Their plan backfired. When Henry Edmundson heard the rumor from Sumner’s friends, he shared the news with Preston Brooks, a distant cousin of Andrew Butler, who was already considering how best to confront the physically imposing Sumner. He considered whipping Sumner with a cowhide, a weapon used against slaves that would demean the Yankee, but he feared that Sumner would wrestle the whip from him. Instead Brooks selected a cane, which signified class and was less likely to end up in Sumner’s hands. The rumors that Sumner was armed convinced Brooks to give the man no chance to defend himself.

In his speech, Sumner explained how things in Kansas foreshadowed civil war. “Even now, while I speak.” Sumner warned, “portents hang on all the arches of the horizon, threatening to darken the broad land, which already yawns with the mutterings of civil war.” The crossing of Missouri’s army into Kansas meant “the strife is no longer local, but national.” People who tried to dismiss the organized violence as a frontier feud missed the point; “the muster has begun,” civil war armies were already gathering. Sumner prophesied “war—fratricidal, parricidal war—with an accumulated wickedness beyond the wickedness of any war in human annals.” Americans were “justly provoking the avenging judgment of Providence and the avenging pen of history.”

The Senate committee asked as many questions about the cane as they did about Brooks.

The heart of Sumner’s address contrasted northern and southern horizons of expectation. Sumner imagined civilized, northern expansion, a process through which territorial governments provided security and guarded freedoms, so that pioneers could pursue “the sweet employment of undisturbed industry.” In Sumner’s northern ideal, the settler “is not aggressive”; he is “accustomed to produce, and not to destroy, he is essentially peaceful” and “contented in the returns of bounteous nature.” Governments based upon free labor progress toward civilization; governments founded on slavery regress into barbarism. Antislavery northerners believed human bondage was transforming the South into an immoral world stained by knife fighting, dueling, lynching, gambling, and drinking. The “sack of Lawrence” testified that America was sliding backward into an age of iron savagery. “The border incursions, which, in barbarous ages or barbarous lands, have fretted and ‘harried’ an exposed people, have been here renewed.” The agents of free governments rule by voice and consent; their citizens upheld the government with their votes. The agents of slave governments rule by weapons and violence; their citizens feared the government and consented to being subjugated like slaves.

Sumner defended the Emigrant Aid Company as a benevolent society. Railing against the “false testimony” that southern senators made against the society, Sumner swore that it was “an association of sincere benevolence, faithful to the Constitution and laws, whose only fortifications are hotels, school-houses, and churches; whose only weapons are saw-mills, tools, and books; whose mission is peace and good will.” Southerners accurately accused the company of trafficking in “cannon and rifles, in powder and lead, and implements of war,” which Sumner said was “absolutely false. The officers of the company authorize me to give to this whole pretension a point blank denial” he proclaimed. He directly replied to Senator Butler’s assertion that the association supplied Yankee settlers “with one uniform gun, Sharpe’s rifles.” by lying that “the company has supplied no arms of any kind to any body.” Instead, the company is planting “capital in advance of population” to accelerate emigration and “soften the hardships of pioneer life.”

Two days after the speech, Sumner sat at his desk attending to mail while the Senate adjourned. Absorbed by his work, Sumner did not notice a man standing beside him until he spoke, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” Sumner looked up to see a tall stranger. While he listened to the man’s words, trying to catch his meaning and identity, a heavy cane struck him over the head. Stunned blind, Sumner raised his arms to protect himself, but the cane kept finding its mark. Uncounted blows cracked against Sumner’s skull. He lost consciousness. When he awoke he found himself ten feet in front of his desk, his pounding head resting on someone’s knee. Voices and faces of northern friends hovered over him. Stephen Douglas stood at a distance with southerners and Sumner thought he spied his assailant among them. Some gentlemen carried him to a sofa in the lobby. Blood covered Sumner’s collar, waistcoat, and trousers. Blood soaked through the padded shoulders of his broadcloth coat. Blood splattered his back and sides.

After the assault, the cane represented the event more than Brooks did. During the episode Brooks lost self-control but the cane continued its work and seemed to have a life of its own. When the cane shattered during the attack, the remnant in Brooks’s hand continued to beat Sumner until someone intervened. No one could say how many times the cane “licked” Sumner. Some guessed ten times; others thought thirty. The testimony of witnesses is clear about the location of the cane after the event but unsure about the whereabouts of Brooks. People scrambled to collect fragments of the cane, relics soaked with a senator’s blood. Henry Edmundson saw “three pieces broken off the small end of the cane” and people racing to grab them. One lucky winner was a “Senate boy” who pocketed a piece about four inches in length.” Brooks absently surrendered the prized piece, the golden head of his walking stick, to John Crittenden, a Kentucky compromiser who aspired to Henry Clay’s legacy. Crittenden deplored “such violence in the Senate chamber” and spied the remaining piece of the stick in Brooks’s hand. “I took hold of it,” Crittenden explained, “and he very gently yielded and allowed me to take it out of his hand.” Crittenden wanted no memento from an event that savagely divided North and South. He gave the head away without a second thought.

When Brooks recovered his senses, he realized that he no longer owned a piece of the thing that now defined him and his future. Seeing his friend Edmundson nearby, Brooks implored him to recover the golden head, explaining that it was a cherished gift from a friend. When he found it, he did not give it to Brooks. Edmundson was one of the few people who knew that Brooks planned to assault Sumner. The last thing Edmundson wanted was to look like an accomplice, so he delivered the weapon to the Senate sergeant-at arms, Adam J. Glassbrenner, who was in his office and unaware of the attack.

When Edmundson told him that “an assault had been committed by Mr. Brooks upon Mr. Sumner,” Glassbrenner received the stick as evidence and put it in his safe. Then, instead of finding Brooks, Glassbrenner investigated the cane. “I have measured the stick carefully,” he told the Senate Investigating Committee. “The fragment I have is the head of the stick, the smaller end having been broken off. It is twenty-one and three quarter inches in length, one inch thick at the large end, and three-quarters of an inch thick at the small end. The cane is hollow, and the hollow being three-eights of an inch in diameter at the small end, and seeming to increase proportionally to the head.”

Glassbrenner’s focus on the cane proved prescient, because the Senate committee asked as many questions about the cane as they did about Brooks. The senators asked witnesses, “Do you know anything of the relative specific gravity of a gutta percha cane or of a hickory cane?” “How thick was the cane used by Mr. Brooks?” Witnesses who owned pieces of the cane brought them to the Senate investigation in their pockets. They asked the doctor who attended to Sumner if repeated blows to the head with a stick from one half to five-eights of an inch in diameter” could kill a man. “It would depend upon the character of the stick” the doctor replied, not the character of the assailant.

When John Brown learned about the caning, he vowed revenge. His military company arrived too late to defend Lawrence, and Brown flew into a rage when he discovered that its inhabitants did not fight against Buford’s filibusters and the Missourian hordes. Before he came to Kansas, Brown had collected money from New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith to arm his sons and other free-state militiamen. During his journey to the frontier, Brown stopped in Ohio and gathered swords from a filibuster who had planned to use them against Canada. The weapons were military surplus, artillerymen’s short swords that imitated arms from the Roman republic. After the news from Lawrence and Washington, Brown decided it was time to deploy these weapons to punish the wicked and liberate the territory. On May 24, under cover of darkness, Brown and his band dragged five southern men from their beds and hacked them to death. Using their new broadswords, the men split open their victims’ skulls, slashed their chests and sides, and severed their fingers, hands, and arms. None of their victims owned slaves. Their principal “crime” was associating with proslavery settlers including Buford’s filibusters. Brown left his enemies’ bodies where they fell and stole their horses. His actions ignited civil war in Kansas.

* * *

Jason Phillips is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War Studies in the Department of History at West Virginia University. He is the author of Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility and the editor of Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky