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Historical Violence: Shifting 19th Century Ideas about Defending One’s Honor

U.S. Political Divisiveness: Now vs. Then

When discussing politics, especially during election season, newscasters and journalists have a tendency to remark that politics have never been as polarizing as they are now. In the course of doing research to write a review of a marker about a Civil War general and politician, I discovered that this expression is not as true as it seems.

In 1864, two Indiana politicians faced off in a state congressional election that eventually became physical. Brigadier General Solomon Meredith, former colonel of the 19th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment and commander of the famed western Iron Brigade, challenged long-time rival Representative George W. Julian, a radical Republican who believed in equal rights for blacks, women, and immigrants and land reform, for his seat in Congress. Their conflict recalls that between Representative Preston Brooks and Senator Charles Sumner in 1856. A discussion of both physical confrontations before and during the Civil War grants us insight into shifting period ideas about how men should defend their honor.

Southern Chivalry – Argument Versus Clubs; Boston Athenaeum Digital Collections;

The Antebellum Caning of Charles Sumner

In 1854, Congress passed a bill creating Nebraska Territory, which included the land that would become the states of Nebraska and Kansas. Stephen Douglas, Democratic Senator from Illinois, asked that the states created from the territory be allowed to decide if they would be slave or free states based on popular sovereignty, or a vote by the people of the territory. The decision caused an uproar and Kansas (Bleeding Kansas) became a battleground. Abolitionist settlers from New England and pro-slavery supporters from the nearby slave state of Missouri poured into Kansas to sway the vote, and violence soon erupted. The question of Kansas’s admission to the Union was only settled after southern states began to secede in 1861.

In 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an antislavery Republican, made a speech in the Senate entitled ‘The Crime Against Kansas,’ where he discussed the issue of Kansas’s admission as either a free or slave state. In his remarks, Sumner named two senators the principle causes of this ‘crime’: Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Douglas was present for the speech, and Sumner characterized him as a poor example of a senator. Butler was not present, and Sumner was much more fulsome in his derision of the man, mocking his pretensions to chivalry by claiming he had taken ‘Slavery’ as his mistress. Representative Preston Brooks, a Democrat from South Carolina and Butler’s relative, was present for Sumner’s comments. In order to repair his relative’s besmirched reputation, Brooks had several options. In the south, dueling was still an acceptable method of demanding retribution for a slight, real or imagined. Many would have applauded Brooks for choosing that route in order to defend Butler’s name. Because he did not believe Sumner to be a gentleman, Brooks instead entered the Senate chamber two days after the speech and beat Sumner over the head with a cane. Brooks then exited the chamber unmolested while stunned onlookers took Sumner to a doctor.

Overnight, both Brooks and Sumner became champions in their home states. Immediately following the attack, the House voted to censure Brooks (they could not gather enough votes to remove him from his position outright) and fined him $300. In response, Brooks resigned; his district immediately reelected him to his post. He died a few years later at the age of 37. Sumner spent a great deal of time recuperating; the people of Massachusetts reelected him and his seat sat empty while he recovered. Sumner continued to serve in the Senate for the next eighteen years.

The Meredith-Julian Feud

Gen. Solomon Meredith, ca. 1860-ca. 1865; Matthew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities, National Archives and Records Administration;

In 1864, General Meredith decided to run against long-time rival George W. Julian for his seat in the House. The campaign soon became ugly; Julian and his supporters claimed that the war department had removed Meredith from command of the Iron Brigade because he was a traitor to the Union and an unfit leader. While these accusations about his military career probably cost him a few votes, Meredith’s stance on slavery and his status as a lapsed Quaker, both of which went against the sensibilities of the Quaker voters in his district, were more likely the cause of his defeat in the election. Instead of according Julian the respect he was due as a leading political figure in Indiana and a long-time advocate for equal rights for all those living in the U.S., Meredith chose to treat Julian as someone of this time would a disobedient child. In retaliation for the loss and the apparent slander, Meredith sought Julian out in the Richmond, Indiana train station. He punched Julian in the face, knocking him to the ground, and then whipped him with a cowhide. The attack was brief, and Meredith never faced any formal charges for it, likely because of his prominent political friends. Julian recovered from the beating and continued to serve in the House until 1871 and champion his various political causes.

Hon. George W. Julian, Ind, ca. 1860-ca. 1865; Matthew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, National Archives and Records Administration;

Dueling in the U.S.

While dueling was less socially acceptable in the north at this time (making Meredith unlikely to consider challenging Julian to one), he decided to confront Julian in a manner similar to that chosen by Brooks eight years earlier. Opinions on duels were changing in the U.S. The widespread combat experience of men during the Civil War made the practice of challenging a rival seem trivial and wasteful. After a duel between two congressmen took place in the nation’s capital in 1839, Congress passed a bill banning dueling in Washington D.C. Other states followed suit over the ensuing decades, though a federal, nation-wide ban was never legislated.