Stanley Nelson

In a contentious case in a Mississippi courtroom in 1833, opposing attorneys Seargent S. Prentiss and Henry S. Foote had words.

Prentiss biographer Joseph Dunbar Shields wrote in his 19th century book (The Life and Times of Seargent S. Prentiss) that Foote had a habit of purposely antagonizing his opponent with sarcasm “to provoke him to madness, and thus get him into his power.”

When Foote, the future governor of Mississippi (1852-54), employed that strategy against Prentiss in 1833, the latter “deeming some of his (Foote’s) remarks offensive, resented them upon the spot by a blow.” Stunned, Foote didn’t retaliate. But later, he challenged Prentiss to a duel.

In Vicksburg, dueling had become as commonplace as it had once been in Natchez.

A Virginian by birth, Foote lived in Clinton, west of Jackson. Prentiss had only recently moved to Vicksburg, a boomtown. Both men would become well-known politicians in the years to come and Prentiss was fast becoming a celebrated lawyer.

A Yankee born in Maine, Prentiss moved to Natchez in 1827, later obtained his law license and in 1832 moved to thriving Vicksburg to establish his practice. Being a Yankee in the South was not easy. Southern men tested northerners regularly.

To make matters worse – at least in Prentiss’ mind -- was the fact that he had a lame right leg, the result of a mysterious childhood illness that almost took his life. He was sensitive about his disability only because he did not want people to pity him or to offer him any advantage because of it.

Although for all his life he had to use a cane to walk, he lived fully. He was an experienced horseman and had become an avid hunter and fisherman during his childhood. He was short in stature – about 5-foot-6 – but was stout and strong. Prentiss was all man – but very polite and well mannered -- and although he despised dueling, he accepted Foote’s challenge.

 

‘VICES … WERE NOT WANTING’

 

During the 1830s, Vicksburg was a town without a moral base, drawing men from many locales with great ambition and combative spirits, all looking to get rich. The town had been incorporated only a few years earlier and, according to Prentiss’ brother George (A Memoir of S.S. Prentiss), “Every man stood on the arena of life, alone and unpropped … If he lacked either mental or physical nerve, the gate of fortune seemed barred against him. This was, no doubt a severe school … a school which few could pass through, even successfully, without learning much of evil as well as of good.

“The vices which usually infest such a condition of society were not wanting” in Vicksburg; “intemperance, skepticism, profaneness, gambling, and fashionable dissipation – not to speak now of dueling – were sadly prevalent.”

There were no established churches or society to give balance to a young man’s energy in a town filled with temptations and tempers. 

 

‘FIRING AT THE WORD’

 

Three years earlier, while Prentiss was practicing law in the firm of Felix Huston in Natchez, he spent part of a summer at Conventry, the home of Huston’s mother-in-law, located within a mile from the village of Washington a short distance east of Natchez.

During that time, Prentiss did what young white men in their 20s did in Mississippi – practiced pistol shooting in the event the day would come when he would find himself on the dueling grounds.

In his biography of Prentiss, Shields wrote: “This was the fashion, or rather passion, of the young men of his day … Tons of powder and lead were thus wasted, and fortunes were lost in practising. The idea was to be always ready for the chances and changes of this Southern life.”

Eight years Prentiss’ senior, Huston was an excellent pistol and rifle shot who in 1836 would spend $40,000 of his own money to equip and lead local men to fight in the Texas revolution. He would head west with approximately 600 volunteers and his co-leader, Rezin Bowie, the brother of frontiersman Jim Bowie, who had been killed at the Alamo.

“The custom was to practise ‘firing at the word.’” Shields explained. “A tape-line, the height of a man, was stretched upon an upright pole or tree for the target. The marksman would take his position about ten or twelve paces in front of the mark, with his loaded pistol in his right hand down by his side.

“The man who was to give the word would then call out emphatically, but slowly, ‘Gentlemen, are you ready? —Fire—one—two—three—stop!’

“The rule was to fire between ‘one’ and ‘stop.’

“Prentiss was gifted with a nerve of iron, and was an unerring shot: he rarely failed to cut the tape.

“On one of these ‘practising occasions’ a very painful incident occurred. He had just bought a brace of pistols, and was testing their accuracy; before loading he usually snapped a cap to clear the tube of its obstruction. Huston was lolling on the grass near him. Prentiss snapped the percussion-cap as usual, when, to his infinite distress, he saw Huston clap his hand to his eye and cry out in an agony of pain, —a fragment of the copper from the cap had penetrated his eye. He suffered excruciating pain for a while, but it subsided in the course of time.

“The wound healed over, but the vision of the eye was never recovered. Huston saw that it was entirely accidental, and had too much magnanimity to reproach his friend; knowing how deeply distressed Prentiss was, he studiously avoided ever alluding to the accident.”

 

‘I LEANED UPON MY CANE?’

 

At sunrise on Saturday, October 5, 1833, Prentiss and Foote met on the dueling grounds at Young’s Point in Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg.

Shields wrote that Prentiss intended to “to throw away his fire. He was such an unerring marksman, however, that this humane purpose came very near being thwarted, for General Foote fired so quickly {and missed} that it drew Prentiss's fire” before “he had elevated his weapon, as was his intention, above the danger-line,” but instead hit Foote in the shoulder causing a flesh wound.

For the moment, the bad feelings subsided. Prentiss tried to keep his emotions to himself. He knew his family back in Maine would be upset by his actions. In Port Gibson a few days later he saw attorney R.T. Archer, who congratulated him for sparing Foote’s life. Prentiss burst into tears, expressing deep pain and suffering over the event and fear that his dear mother would one day learn of his actions.

But in the days to follow, Prentiss heard a rumor. He asked a friend: "Did you ever hear whether or not Foote had made the insinuation that I had taken rest because I leaned upon my cane?"

Although the friend said he had not, Prentiss answered, "Well, I have heard it, from what I believe to be good authority. I had no animosity against him when I fought him, but the next time … he shall not come off so lightly."

Shields noted: “It was misery enough to him to be afflicted for life, but to have his infirmity thrown up to him at such a crisis, in such an hour, on the field of honor too, where he had exposed his own life without seeking that of his adversary, was to him an insult only to be expiated by vengeance.”

 

‘A BAD OMEN’

 

Prentiss biographer Joseph Dunbar Shields and his brother, G.B. Shields, had been pupils of Prentiss when he taught them and their siblings at their home on Rokeby Plantation in Jefferson County in 1828. G.B. Shields and Prentiss became close friends and G.B. Shields would have a role in the next phase of the Prentiss-Foote affair.

Wrote Joseph Dunbar Shields: “The rumors and counter-rumors gradually assumed such shape and body that they culminated, and Prentiss sent, by his friend, Major G. B. Shields, a communication to Foote, the purport of which was that he was willing to receive another call from him.

“The bearer of the communication reached Clinton at night. Foote, at that time, was a married man and the father of a family, who were dependent upon him for support … Foote courteously told the messenger that he would send his reply in the morning. He did so. The preliminaries as to time, place, and terms were soon arranged.”

Prentiss returned to the plantation of Huston’s mother-in-law at Conventry. Both duelists “felt that this time there was to be no child's play. The former fight had been about a few idle words and a blow, but this was to be about a supposed imputation that touched the soul of honor.”

Rumors of the second duel spread like wildfire.

Shields continues the story: Law enforcement officers “were thought to be on the watch to arrest the parties. In order to avoid this, some two or three days before the appointed time Prentiss and his friends—General Huston and Major G.B. Shields—secreted themselves near the landing, ‘under the hill,’ at Natchez, on the watch for a boat. Time passed, but none hove in sight.”

The boat was to transport Prentiss and his party for the second duel on the Louisiana shore opposite Vicksburg.

At one point, Prentiss and his friends, their identities concealed, “stumbled on to a cock-pit. Much to their astonishment and mortification, just before the roughs were about to pitch two of the noble birds into the pit they named one after each of the principals in the coming duel, and bets were put up.”

Once the fight began, the gamecock called “Prentiss” fell dead at the feet of the one called “Foote”.

Prentiss and his friends quietly retreated.

Wrote Shields: “Prentiss, with a tinge of superstition, natural to all of us, regarded it for the moment as a bad omen.”

(To be Continued)

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