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Happy Secession Day!


The NYT has been running a series on “Disunion” that, alas, I’ve somehow managed to overlook for the past two months. Regardless, the most recent entry coincides with the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s Secession Ordinance nation-destroying exertions in defense of slavery, signed and feted on this date in 1860. In the course of describing South Carolina’s post-secession exuberance, Jamie Malanowski offers one of the great wedding-crasher stories in US history, featuring one of the least remembered Worst Americans Ever.

There was one party, however, that would not be postponed, that of the wedding of John Bouligny, the popular congressman from Louisiana and one of the very few officials from the deep South who opposed secession, to Mary Parker, daughter of Washington’s wealthiest grocer. The bride’s father had produced a magnificent spectacle, filling his large home with roses and lilies and illuminated fountains. The president came, joined by his niece Harriet Lane, and was the first to kiss the bride.

It was a happy event in a beautiful setting, reminiscent of so many other happy events and beautiful settings the president had enjoyed in his younger days as a diplomat in Russia and Great Britain. But soon the mood was broken by a commotion instigated by the entrance of Lawrence Keitt, the brash, bombastic, recently resigned congressman of South Carolina. Jumping, bellowing, waving a piece of paper over his head, he shouted “Thank God!’’ again and again. Finally he elaborated. “South Carolina has seceded! Here’s the telegram! I feel like a boy let out of school.’’

Lawrence Keitt ranked among the finer B-list Slave Power deacons of his era. When Preston Brooks was clubbing Charles Sumner half to death in early May 1856, it was a liquor-fortified Keitt who — wielding a pistol or a cane of his own, depending on the account — helped prevent anyone from intervening on behalf of the Massachusetts Senator.  After being censured by the House for his role in the assault, Keitt resigned and immediately stood for re-election; two years after being returned to his seat, he initiated a brawl on the House floor when he attacked Pennsylvania congressman Galusha Grow, a former free-soil Democrat who had joined the Republican party at roughly the same moment that Keitt was abetting the attack on Sumner.  When the party of Grow and Sumner elected Abraham Lincoln in November 1860s, Keitt joined the congressional fire-eaters and abandoned his office for the second time in five years.  His wife Susanna — also a piece of work — justified her husband’s (and her state’s) disunionism by characterizing the “Black Republicans” as “a motley throng of Sans culottes and Dames de Halles, Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and amalgamationists.”

Keitt went on to organize the 20th South Carolina Infantry Regiment, which eventually joined Lee at Cold Harbor in late May 1864.  On May 31, Keitt wrote to Susanna, to whom he expressed a wish that she could “see the confidence of our troops,” whom he believed were being “led by the hand of providence.”  Several days later, fused with and placed in charge of another South Carolina unit, Keitt led an ill-advised cavalry charge across an open field near Beulah Church; his men were easily shredded by Union fire while the 1st New York Dragoons brass band serenaded them with renditions of “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia,” with a round of “Dixie” adding to the humiliation.  Keitt himself, badly wounded, was retrieved from the field and hauled on a litter to a crowded farmhouse, where doctors administered whiskey and morphine until he died the next morning.

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