Surprised, blinded and stunned by the blows, Sumner’s first instinct was to grapple with his assailant. This effort, however, was futile; the desk was between them, and being by his sitting posture partially under it, Sumner was prevented from rising fully to his feet until he had by main strength, in his struggles, wrenched it from its fastenings on the floor. In his attempt to follow Brooks they became turned, and from between the desks moved out into the main aisle. By this time, through the repetition of the heavy blows and loss of blood, Sumner became unconscious. Brooks, seizing him by the coat-collar, continued his murderous attack till Sumner, reeling in utter helplessness, sank upon the floor beside the desk nearest the aisle, one row nearer the center of the chamber than his own. The witnesses variously estimated the number of blows given at from ten to thirty. Two principal wounds, two inches long and an inch deep, had been cut on the back of Sumner’s head; and near the end of the attack, Brooks’s cane was shivered to splinters.
There were perhaps ten or fifteen persons in the chamber, and after the first momentary pause of astonishment half a dozen started to interfere. Before they reached the spot, however, Lawrence M. Keitt, another South Carolina Representative, came rushing down the main aisle, brandishing his cane, and with imprecations warning lookers-on to “let them alone.” Among those hastening to the rescue, Mr. Morgan arrived first, just in time to catch and sustain the Senator as he fell. Another bystander, who had run round outside the railing, seized Brooks by the arm about the same instant; and the wounded man was borne to an adjoining room, where he was cared for by a hastily summoned physician.
Among Mr. Sumner’s friends the event created a certain degree of consternation. The language which provoked the assault, whatever might be thought of its offensive character, was strictly parliamentary, uninterrupted either by the chair or by any member. The assault itself was so desperate and brutal that it implied a vindictiveness deeper than mere personal revenge. This spirit of bullying, this resort to violence, had recently become alarmingly frequent among members of Congress, especially as it all came from the pro-slavery party. Since the beginning of the current session, a pro-slavery member from Virginia had assaulted the editor of a Washington newspaper; another pro-slavery member, from Arkansas, had violently attacked Horace Greeley on the street; a third pro-slavery member, from California, had shot an unoffending waiter at Willard’s Hotel. Was this fourth instance the prelude of an intention to curb or stifle free Congressional debate? It is probable that this question was seriously considered at the little caucus of Republican Senators held that night at the house of Mr. Seward. The Republicans had only a slender minority in the Senate, and a plurality in the House; they could do nothing but resolve on a course of parliamentary inquiry, and agree on an attitude of defense.