Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

"The Sly Mendacity of Hints": Preston Brooks and the War with Mexico

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

"The Sly Mendacity of Hints": Preston Brooks and the War with Mexico

Article excerpt

THE SOUTHERN BORDER OF TEXAS HAD LONG BEEN A SOURCE of friction between Mexico and its northern neighbors by the mid 1840s. Border clashes with Texan and later American military forces were frequent, and Mexico had even threatened to go to war with the United States over the issue of Texas statehood. Therefore, when President James K. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to lead his four-thousand-man army into the disputed region between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers in January 1846, the commander in chief knew that he was committing a blatant act of aggression, one likely to provoke a war. Had Polk been able to foresee the enormous consequences of that war, he might have thought twice before ordering Taylor to proceed. In fact, the War with Mexico would prove to be a violently transformative event for both the United States at large and the thousands of American soldiers who fought in it.

Among the men whose lives were forever changed by their Mexican War service was a twenty-seven-year-old South Carolina planter named Preston Brooks. Brooks gained notoriety in 1856 for his assault upon Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a pivotal event in American history known as the "Caning of Sumner. " A decade earlier, however, Brooks was a sometime lawyer and former single-term state legislator whose chief claim to fame in his home state, apart from having fought a duel with hot-headed attorney Louis T. Wigfall, was his brief tenure as Governor James Henry Hammond's aide-de-camp.1

But just as the Mexican War fundamentally changed the nature of American politics, transforming it from a debate concerning issues such as internal improvements and westward expansion into a bitter fight over slavery and states' rights, so too did the war alter the course of Preston Brooks's life from one of relative obscurity to national political prominence. Today, Brooks is largely a forgotten figure, even among professional historians. To the extent that he is mentioned at all, it is almost always in connection with the Sumner assault. To be sure, the Caning of Sumner was one of the most important incidents of the antebellum period - it led to a worsening of sectional tensions and thereby directly contributed to the process of disunion - but there must be more to Brooks's story than this single, ugly incident.

Thirty-six years of age at the time of the caning, Brooks could already lay claim to a lifetime's worth of knowledge and experiences when he walked into the Senate chamber on that fateful day in May 1856.2 Yet of all those experiences, Brooks's participation in the War with Mexico represented a defining moment that was of paramount importance in shaping his character and temperament. His Mexican War record is significant for not only what it reveals about Brooks himself but also the insights it provides into the attack on Sumner and, indeed, the entire process of sectionalism. By examining this little-known chapter in a largely undocumented life, this article aims to arrive ata better understanding of Brooks as well as the forces that eventually drove the North and the South to civil war.

Born on August 6, 1819, at his father's plantation near the village of Edgefield Court House, Preston Smith Brooks was part of an extensive kinship network that embraced some of the antebellum South's most prominent families.3 Through his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Butler Brooks, he descended from a long, proud line of war heroes that included Revolutionary War general William Butler, whose father and brother, both named James Butler, had been killed in 1781 by a loyalist force under the command of Major William "Bloody Bill" Cunningham at the infamous Battle of Cloud's Creek. Perhaps the most esteemed of Brooks's Butler kin was illustrious Alamo defender James Butler Bonham.4

In addition to this family tradition of military service, Brooks's birthplace had such a reputation for violence and mayhem that throughout much of its history, the community carried the epithet "Bloody Edgefield. …

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