The Fire-Eaters II: From Congress to Cold Harbor

In the current political climate, politicians are not men of action. They will stand on their soapbox, call for change and action, and expect others to do the dirty work while they hide in their gated communities. It is next to impossible to find a politician who puts their money where their mouth is. This wasn’t always the case; during the War of Northern Aggression, many of the men at the forefront of secession joined in the fight against the Union. One of the most notable men was a Fire-Eater, Laurence M. Keitt.

Born at Puritan Farm in what is present day Calhoun County, South Carolina, Keitt graduated from South Carolina College in 1843 where he studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1845 and practiced in Orangeburg, South Carolina. In 1848 to 1853, he was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and elected to the 33rd and 34th Congresses where he served from 1853 to 1856.

On May 22nd, 1856, Keitt aided Rep. Preston Brooks in his caning of Senator Sumner. Brooks had considered challenging Sumner to a duel after he gave his anti-slavery “The Crime Against Kansas” speech, which Brooks saw as an insult to his cousin, Senator Andrew Butler. Brooks and Keitt decided that Sumner was no gentleman and not worthy of a duel, so Brooks resolved to beat Sumner with a cane instead. With Keitt and Virginia Rep. Henry A. Edmundson there to assist him, Brooks entered the Senate chamber and began beating Sumner with his gold-headed cane, while Edmundson and Keitt prevented others from stepping in. Keitt drew a pistol from his belt and brandished his own cane, holding off anyone who tried to assist Sumner. In July, Keitt was censured for his part in the attack and resigned in order to create a vacancy that would be filled by special election, which gave his constituents the opportunity to ratify or condemn his conduct. They supported Keitt, returning him to Congress in the August special election.

On February 5, 1858, Keitt started a massive brawl on the House floor. Republican Congressman Galusha A. Grow stepped over to the Democratic side of the House chamber, Keitt dismissively demanded that he sit down and called him a “black Republican puppy.” Grow responded by telling him that “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me.” Enraged, Keitt went for Grow’s throat, shouting that he would “choke him for that.” This prompted a large brawl involving 50 representatives to erupt on the House floor.

Keitt was a delegate to the secession convention of South Carolina in November 1860 and, after secession, served as a member of the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy and was a signatory to the Constitution of the Confederate States. After the war began, Keitt raised the 20th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment and was commissioned as its colonel on January 11, 1862. He later went on to command Kershaw’s Brigade at the Battle of Cold Harbor, where he was wounded when leading the men forward to retake a vital position. Keitt succumbed to his wounds the following day, June 4, 1864. He is buried in the family cemetery near St. Matthews, South Carolina.

Whether it was on the House floor or the battlefield, Keitt was a man of action who fought and ultimately died for his beliefs. He did not have to join the Confederate Army, he could have easily remained a politician and lived out the rest of his life, but he chose to answer the call to fight for his homeland. There is not a single politician today that is even close to being cut from a similar cloth.