On May 22, 1856, pro-slavery South Carolina Congressman Preston S. Brooks approached abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts as Sumner sat at his desk in the nearly empty Senate chambers. Brooks declared ”Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech carefully, and with as much calmness as I could be expected to read such a speech. You have libeled my state, and slandered my relation, who is aged and absent, and I feel it to be my duty to punish you for it.” With that, Brooks began beating Sumner with the heavy gold-headed, gutta-percha walking stick he carried. Over thirty blows were struck. Sumner tried vainly to defend himself but he was trapped by his desk, which was bolted to the floor. Sumner finally managed to wrench the desk free, bleeding profusely he staggered down the aisle as Brooks continued to beat him, even after breaking the cane over Sumner’s head. By this time Sumner collapsed unconscious and witnesses rushed to restrain Brooks and aid Sumner.

What prompted Brooks’ actions? Three days earlier, on May 19, Charles Sumner had delivered a much anticipated speech to a full Senate and packed gallery. “The Crimes Against Kansas” was a blistering attack on the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which left determination of slave or free status for new territories up to the settlers, popular sovereignty. Kansas had erupted in violence because of the act. Sumner was considered a powerful speaker and ardent anti-slavery advocate. But in his speech, Sumner also assailed the two main supporters of the bill, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina. Sumner especially heaped scorn on Butler, even mocking his speech impediment. He used sexual imagery in the speech, saying Butler had taken “the Harlot, Slavery” as his mistress. Butler, a respected 59-year-old Senate veteran and proponent for slavery, was suffering from ill health and wasn’t present for Sumner’s speech.   The Southern senator, as well as being a fellow South Carolinian, was also Preston Brooks’ cousin. The speech lasted on to the second day, with Sumner continuing to attack Butler and speaking derisively about South Carolina.

Preston Brooks felt that Charles Sumner had dishonored both Andrew Pickens and South Carolina. The Southern code of honor demanded that the insult be answered by pistols on the dueling field. But Brooks also decided that Sumner, by his intemperate language, had demonstrated he was not a gentleman and didn’t merit being treated as an equal. A thrashing with a cane or whip was the proper response to a social inferior. Butler, being too old to thrash Sumner, the duty fell to Brooks.

After the caning, Preston Brooks reported his actions to the police, he was subsequently fined $300. After a House resolution to expel him failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority, Brooks resigned his House seat. He returned to South Carolina and was promptly reelected. He would die unexpectedly a year later in 1857, at Brown’s Hotel, Washington. Butler also died in 1857.

Charles Sumner didn’t fare as well, it would take over three years for him to regain his health after the attack. He was unable to fully resume his Senate duties until December 1859. Sumner was also reelected and his seat was left empty as a symbol. He would have a distinguished political career, including chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee during the Civil War, dying in 1874.

The incident galvanized the nation and reflected the growing sectionalism of the country.  Both men became heroes.  Southerners sent Brooks a number of gold-headed canes, including one inscribed “Hit Him Again.”  Southern newspapers praised his actions and communities passed resolutions approving his conduct.  The North called him “Bully” Brooks, held “indignation meeting” to express their outrage, and considered Sumner a martyr to abolitionism and free speech, with the caning a demonstration of the depravity and brutality of the slave owner.  The new Republican Party made good political use of the affair, aiding the party in its rise to power.

United States

By the end of World War II, 425,000 German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) were being held in the United States under the supervision of the Provost Marshal General’s office. The Geneva Convention and War Department directives had established policies for treatment to which United States’ officials observed strict adherence in hopes that American POWs overseas would be treated as humanely.

Until the spring of 1943, the US held only a few thousand Axis POWS, but this changed when the Allies successfully resolved the North African campaign in May, 1943. By September, 115,000 German and Italian POWs were sent to the United States including Rommel’s Afrika Korps, known as the most disciplined soldiers and ardent Nazis.

For more details about German POWs in SC, we recommend The German POWs in South Carolina by Deann Bice Segal.

For more details about German POWs in SC, we recommend The German POWs in South Carolina by Deann Bice Segal.

South Carolina

During WWII, South Carolina maintained twenty camps in seventeen counties, housing between 8-11,000 German (and to a lesser extent, Italian) prisoners of war.  Most lived in small camps of about 300 men and cut pulpwood or worked on farms.

This was not the first time South Carolina had housed POWs. During WWI, small contingents of seamen and enemy aliens were confined at Camp Sevier (Greenville), Camp Wadsworth (Spartanburg), and Camp Jackson (Columbia).

American farmers were hit by a labor shortage during WWII.  New war industry jobs paid more than farmers could afford to offer, and many young men were away fighting.  In South Carolina, POW labor was used to harvest labor-intensive cash crops such as peanuts, cotton, and peaches.

Working conditions were generally good, but not necessarily easy.  Farm labor was better than working in the timber industry, as the timber industry was more physically demanding and involved achieving strict production quotas.  Regulations stated that employers were to maintain minimum contact with the POWs, but prisoners’ productivity was rewarded with afternoon breaks and substantial meals.

Recreation helped to combat boredom.  Soccer fields, gardens, and reading rooms were created by prisoners.  Plays, art exhibits and variety shows were put on and some camps constructed theaters for prisoner productions and movies. Public reaction evolved from curiosity about the prisoners to resentment and accusations of “coddling” the prisoners.  After the war, it was revealed that providing privileges to the POWS was, in part, an attempt to re-educate and democratize the prisoners in order to combat rising Nazism in the camps, and also, postwar Germany.

West Ashley Camp Controversy

A chimney built by German prisoners of war during World War II has become a thorn in the side for one West Ashley Jewish family. The Pearlstine’s, who have deep roots in Charleston, bought the empty lot 20 years ago as it adjoins their land. Mary Ann Pearlstine Aberman and some of her relatives currently own the property on Colony Drive off Highway 61.

The fireplace, chimney, and a concrete slab are all that remains of a West Ashley POW camp clubhouse built by prisoners. The rest of the camp was torn down after the war, but for a time the clubhouse was used for supper clubs and Boy Scout meetings.

The Abermans wanted the chimney removed when they discovered its origin and received a permit for demolition from the county. When preservationists wanted to save the chimney, the Abermans proposed to give it to the group – and even chip in $1,000 to pay moving costs. The cost to move the chimney proved prohibitive, but by then the property was annexed into the city and the demolition permit void.

City planning officials heard about the prison camp relic and proposed a “landmark overlay zone” to protect the chimney. If City Council approves the landmark designation, the Pearlstines will have to preserve the chimney unless granted special permission to demolish it.

We are very excited about Dr. Michael Trinkley of Chicora Foundation doing a program for us Sept. 11th at 6:30.  It will be Rice in 18th and 19th Century South Carolina.  Dr. Trinkley and Chicora over the years have done numerous and extensive archaeological studies of plantations, cemeteries, and historic sites in South Carolina and the South.  So his look at typical rice plantations should be interesting and informative.

Rice in 18th and 19 Century South Carolina

Wednesday, September 11, 2013, 6:30-7:30pm

Main Library Auditorium

Join Dr. Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation for a look at typical SC rice plantations and rice cultivations of the 18th and 19th century.

Program is free and open to the public.

Tuesday, October 30

Garden History Author Panel Discussion and Book Signing featuring Anne Sinkler Whaley LeClercq and Louisa Pringle Cameron.

 Main Library Auditorium, from 6:00-7:30 pm.

 Please join us for a discussion highlighting Anne LeClercq new book from University of South Carolina Press,  A Grand Tour of Gardens: Traveling in Beauty through Western Europe and the United States and Louisa Cameron’s very popular Private Gardens of Charleston and Secret Gardens of Charleston, which have just been re-issued. The authors will also sign copies of their books, which will be for sale at the event.

Program is free and open to the public.

Researchers who are interested in South Carolinians who served in World War Two or are trying to track down marriage information will want to view our two new guides. Please click on the ‘Research Guides’ tab at the top of the page to view pdfs of the new material, which highlight available service records for World War Two and marriage records for Charleston County and the surrounding area.

Please join us for three great programs that are free and open to the public at the main library in May 2012. In addition to a lecture by our staff member Christina Shedlock, the South Carolina Room is fortunate to host two authors for book signings and discussions of their latest works.  Read more about the programs below:

Wednesday, May 2

South Carolina in the Great Depression


Main Library Auditorium, from 6:30-7:30 pm.


Join historian and South Carolina Room staff member Christina R. Shedlock for an illustrated discussion of South Carolina during the nation’s worst economic slump in the past century. The lecture will include descriptions and reminiscences of life during the Depression, as well as the state’s slow recovery through the federal programs of the New Deal.  The program is free and open to the public.

Thursday, May 10

Author Talk and Book Signing, From Animal House to Our House, with Ron Tanner


Main Library Auditorium, from 6:30-7:30 pm.

Author Ron Tanner will be speaking at the library as part of a national tour for his new book, From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story, a true recounting of he and his girlfriend’s quest to restore a historic Victorian house in Baltimore to its formal glory after being ransacked by its previous owners, a rowdy fraternity. Described as an ideal book for ‘lovers, dreamers, do-it-yourselfers, and fans of old houses’, Tanner’s discussion of is latest work is sure to entertain. Program is free and open to the public.

Thursday, May 17

Author Talk and Book Signing, Blood and Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a South Town, with Jack Shuler

Main Library Auditorium, from 6:30-7:30 pm.

Orangeburg, South Carolina was the location of the one of the most violent college campus incidents during the Civil Rights era, known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Author Jack Shuler will discuss his new book from University of South Carolina Press, Blood and Bones, which explores how and why the shootings occurred, as well as the community’s ongoing reaction to the event. Program is free and open to the public.