‘South Carolina Fire-Eater’

SOUTH CAROLINA FIRE-EATER: The Life of Laurence Massillon Keitt, 1824-1864. by J. Holt Merchant. University of South Carolina Press. 263 pages. $39.95.

Holt Merchant recently retired as chairman of the department of history at Washington and Lee University after a distinguished four-decade teaching career. In a way, it is a shame that so much of his energy and time were dedicated to academic responsibilities, for he has proven to be a writer of sizeable talent.

In “South Carolina Fire-Eater,” Merchant gets the story moving along at a good pace and avoids a narrative with ponderous analysis or cumbersome details, yet all the facts are well documented. The events speak for themselves. Merchant is an excellent storyteller.

His subject is Laurence Keitt, a native of St. Matthews. Keitt grew up a child of the social and economic plantation life wrought on the backs of slave labor. The “peculiar institution” was the lowest common denominator of all Keitt knew and valued, and he was to become one of its most virulent defenders.

Keitt was one of a coterie of so-called “fire-eaters,” along with fellow South Carolina politicians Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Porcher Miles, as well as other like-minded, loosely organized spirits throughout the South who, in the forums of the U.S. Congress, trumpeted Southern nationalism and sowed the seeds of discord and disunion. It has been said that Keitt, as much as any other man, materially contributed to the outbreak of the War Between the States.

It is interesting to note that Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton much earlier used a form of the term, “fire eater,” as applied to the Southern Nationalists, when describing John C. Calhoun as a “fire brand.” The term was later resurrected as “fire eater,” by the Northern press, always in search of suitable hyperbole when describing Southern chauvinism.

The author reveals that Keitt, as a debater, had few equals and no superiors in the U.S. Senate, and he devoted almost his whole political agenda to the defense of slavery, baiting his opponents with inflammatory rhetoric, acts which lead to several fistfights.

The atmosphere became so heated, with each side slandering the other, politicians took to carrying knives and guns on the House and Senate floor. Keitt was heavily involved, if not actually the instigator, of Preston Brooks’ caning of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, and he was present at the altercation with a gun in hand.

In describing the period leading to secession, Merchant relies on a generous trove of letters that expose Keitt’s political thoughts and personal feelings, including letters to and from his fiancee Sue Sparks. Sparks had almost convinced him to give up politics and take a diplomatic post in Europe until the Harper’s Ferry episode. With John Brown’s raid, Keitt jumped back into the fray and even more vigorously pursued disunion. He was able to persuade South Carolina to go it alone even if other states were too timid. Where secession had early been employed as a weapon to threaten political opponents, it had become an end in itself, a train wreck about to happen, which the conductors were helpless to stop.

Some of this book’s most telling moments come in the immediate aftermath of secession and during the course of the war when Keitt saw the enormity of the consequences of what he had been instrumental in bringing about: the train wreck that destroyed pretty much everything in its path.

During the secession convention, Keitt had single-mindedly fought for the language describing the main cause of the war as the preservation of slavery and refused to have any diluting causes added to it.

A perennial discontent, he soon became disenchanted with the administration of the Confederacy as he saw the same old political patronage and bureaucratic inertia taking hold, and what he saw as political over-reach into the affairs of the individual states by the central government. He was vocally and publicly critical of the administration of President Jefferson Davis and his conduct of the war.

Most of his military service was around Charleston. He was the colonel in command of the garrison at Fort Wagner on Morris Island up until it was ordered to evacuate just as enemy sappers approached to within yards of their outer defensive works. Near the end of the war, Keitt expressed regret in a letter to his wife over the death and destruction of the conflict he had in large measure caused, and he vowed to do everything he could to help repair the damage to their lives after the war.

He never got a chance to fulfill his promise; he died as a result of wounds received near Cold Harbor while leading his brigade in a full frontal assault in the face of intense enemy gunfire.

Laurence Keitt was the quintessential Southerner: doggedly loyal to his state; fiercely protective of his way of life and a formidable adversary to any who would seek to encroach on either. Merchant has done a commendable job bringing to light the colorful experiences of Keitt, who was very much a man of his times.

Reviewer Ben McC. Moise is an author and essayist who lives in Charleston.