Image courtesy of the New York State Military Museum
Charles Van Wyck of New York retired from the House of Representatives to serve as a colonel in the 56th New York Infantry, United States Army.
On the night of Friday, February 22, 1861, Charles H. Van Wyck
of New York was attacked by unknown assailants. Returning from a visit with fellow New Yorker, Senator Preston King
, Van Wyck passed across the North side of the U.S. Capitol en route to his boarding house. Suddenly, “a stout-built man,” as reported by the New York Tribune
, wielding a bowie knife approached from behind and tried to stab him in the chest. The blade cut through Van Wyck’s topcoat, and likely would have punctured his heart had not a triple-folded copy of the Congressional Globe
and a notebook in his breast pocket absorbed the blow. Unhurt, Van Wyck fought the first assailant as another, also brandishing a knife, moved to stab him again. In quick succession, Van Wyck caught the blade of the second attacker with his left hand, threw a punch with his right, drew his revolver, and shot his first assailant. As the wounded “ruffian” slumped to the ground, a third man emerged from the shadows and knocked Van Wyck senseless before the three fled. After regaining consciousness, and with his hand bleeding from the attack, Van Wyck reached the National Hotel around midnight. Moses Lee
, a doctor from New York who had been elected alongside Van Wyck to the 36th Congress
(1859–1861), dressed the wounds as Van Wyck gave his statement to the police. Though Van Wyck could find no motive for the nearly fatal attack, it was not the first time his life had been threatened. Earlier in the 36th Congress, on March 7, 1860, Van Wyck took the House Floor and delivered a speech denouncing the Democratic Party and its support of slavery, which, when printed, covered nearly eight pages in the Congressional Globe
. As he concluded his address, Van Wyck accused southerners of cowardice and charged them with burning slaves at the stake. Reuben Davis
of Mississippi called him a “liar and scoundrel” and asked if Van Wyck would “go outside of the District of Columbia and test the question of personal courage with any southern man?” “I travel anywhere,” he responded, “and without fear of any one.” Major newspapers ran spots on the speech, and for months following Van Wyck received death threats. “The attempt to assassinate Mr. Van Wyck may or may not have been prompted by political considerations," reported the Chicago Tribune
a week after the assault.