LAWRENCE MASSILLON KEITT
By Mac Wyckoff
A week after the death of Lawrence M. Keitt at Cold Harbor on June
2, 1864, his Aunt Salina wrote Mrs. Keitt. "His death is an irreparable
loss to the Confederacy. But he fell as he would have wished - in the blaze
of battle, in the full tide of victory, fighting in the noblest cause under
the sun - the cause of Christian liberty."
Lawrence Keitt, the second son of George and Mary Magdalene
(Wannamaker) Keitt, was born on October 4, 1824 in the St. Matthews Parish
of the Orangeburg District, South Carolina. After the death of his mother,
he was raised by his Aunt Salina who always considered him more of a son
than a nephew. His early education was at Asbury Academy before entering
Mt. Zion College in Winnsboro. He graduated from South Carolina College in
1843, third in his class. After passing the bar exam in 1845, he practiced
law in Orangeburg. He was elected to the state legislature in 1848. An
accomplished orator, Keitt was selected to be the featured speaker at the
laying of the corner stone for the new state house. He was elected to
Congress in 1852 and re-elected two years later. He was an ardent supporter
of states rights and secession. His obituary notes that he "eloquently
defended the honor, the integrity and the rights of his native land." His
support of the South came to a climax on July 15, 1856 when he resigned
after the House of Representatives adopted a resolution disapproving his
action in regard to the infamous assault upon Senator Charles Sumner.
Strangely, he was re-elected to fill the vacancy caused by his own
resignation and he was back in the House three weeks after his resignation.
Keitt won more elections for Congress..
Keitt became engaged to Susanna Sparks in January of 1856, but she
broke off the engagement that July. Due to a several year break in the
surviving letters from Lawrence to Sue we don't know when they got back
together. Sue's ambition was to move to Europe where she could study art
and travel extensively. Keitt several times offered to make an trip of
indefinite length to Europe if she would agree to marry him. Eventually she
gave him and they were married, probably in May of 1859. Keitt, in spite of
former promise, decided to return to Washington for the opening of Congress
in December of 1859. Sue was very bitter about leaving Europe, and
expressed great dissatisfaction with life in the nation's capital. Slowly
she began to take an interest in politics and by March of 1860 was pushing
her husband for vice-president.
In December of 1860 he was a delegate to the convention which voted for
South Carolina's secession from the Union. Then he was elected to represent
the Palmetto State at the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy in
February of 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama which established the Confederate
government. Later he was elected to Congress in Richmond.
He raised the 20th South Carolina and on January 11, 1862 was elected its'
colonel. He wrote his wife regularly during the war. The letters reflect
his patriotic feelings and his eloquent abilities as a writer. One is
struck in reading the letters today, especially the last ones, with the love
for his wife. His regiment spent over two years near Charleston. Most of
the time was spent patrolling Sullivan's Island where a fine line earthworks
were constructed under his supervision. In the summer of 1863, his
regiment would go over to Morris Island on the opposite side of the harbor
and return the next morning. As a colonel, he often commanded on Morris
Island and Battery Wagner.
Ambitious and patriotic, he was anxious to perform more active duty. In
late May, 1864 his unit was ordered to report to Richmond. On the night of
May 24th he boarded a train at James Island, near Charleston, headed for
Florence. Before leaving he wrote Susie hoping she could meet him there and
closed with the words that if she couldn't see him there "Heaven knows when
we will meet again." It is not known whether or not he saw her. He arrived
in Richmond on the night of the 29th and the next morning wrote his wife how
he was thinking of her during the entire ride. It was the same train route
they had taken five years earlier on their honeymoon trip to Europe. He
added that he had just spoken to President Jefferson Davis who had granted
his desire for his regiment to be assigned to Kershaw's Brigade of Kershaw's
His regiment arrived on the battlefield near Cold Harbor on the morning of
May 31st. After Kershaw's promotion to division command, Kershaw Brigade
was commanded by a colonel. When Keitt arrived, he instantly assumed
command of the brigade as the senior colonel even though he lacked combat
experience. That evening he wrote his wife about becoming brigade commander
and closed his last letter home with the words, "Kiss the girls, regards to
all, and love to you from your lover husband."
During the day, Confederate cavalry had captured that important
crossroads. Lee ordered, on June 1st, General Robert F. Hoke's Division to
cooperate with Kershaw's Division in retaking the intersection. Recapturing
Cold Harbor from cavalry should have been a fairly routine mission for
veteran infantry. However, these cavalrymen had dismounted and stood
behind earthworks holding repeating carbines and were supported by
artillery. Hoke has he often did, failed to cooperate leaving it up to
Kershaw's men. The general assigned the task to his usual trusty former
brigade under Keitt. Although the participants left few details of the
occurrence, we know that Keitt placed his huge 20th South Carolina on the
right front and probably the majority of the brigade was in the rear. This
alignment has some logic since the regiment was so large, when compared to
the other regiments of the brigade that had suffered numerous casualties,
that Kershaw's veterans called it the 20th corps. It can also be argued
that Keitt placed the regiment he organized and trained on the front line
because of personal pride to show them off. On the other hand, they lacked
combat experience. Being under occasional long range fire in Charleston
Harbor was not the same as charging an enemy's fortified position.
Keitt led his men on horseback like "a knight of old" south from
Beulah Church toward the waiting Yankee cavalrymen. When the left of the
regiment started to waver under heavy fire, Keitt went to urge them on. A
bullet struck him in the chest lodging in his liver. The 20th South Carolina
broke and overran Kershaw's veterans forcing everyone back.
Carried to the rear, he was greeted by a friend, S.D. Shannon.
Shannon said, Keitt smiled and said, "Such is the fate of war." His friend
and regimental surgeon Alexander S. Salley next met him. The physician
informed Keitt that he had about a 50% chance of survival. He found Keitt
in great pain so administered whiskey and morphine. Dr. Salley had him sent
to the Berrick House, about three miles to the rear. Salley noted that he
bore the trip well and seemed to feel better.
Despite a good night's sleep, Dr. Salley thought the next morning
that Keitt "was failing." Internal bleeding was the main concern. Dr.
Theodore Pryor arrived and concurred with Salley that the wounds were
mortal. Keitt disagreed, noting the vigor of his physical system. "Alex, I
don't believe this thing will kill me." Realizing the severity of his
condition, Keitt asked to see W.W. Duncan, the regiment's chaplain. He
explained to Dr. Pryor "that doctrinally his views on the subject of
religion were sound, but unfortunately his practice had not been in
conformity with his opinions. In Reverend Duncan's absence, James
McDowell, chaplain of the Palmetto Sharpshooters, visited him. He found
Keitt on a couch "very much weakened and prostrated." McDowell advised
Keitt to turn his attention to his savior. Dr. Salley asked if he had any
last words. Keitt remained silent for a moment and then said, with a tear
from his right eye, "My two children and my wife." Dr. Salley did not think
he spoke again. Chaplain McDowell recorded the last words as "Oh, Wife,
Wife." He is buried in the family cemetery near St. Matthews, South Carolina.
"Few men on his years had become more widely known abroad and
throughout his own State - and although, like all public men of decided
utterances and notion, he had his enemies, and incurred slanders or
prejudices, he enjoyed the friendship and esteem of a large majority of all
who made his acquaintance."
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