Unseen Angels Were Whispering

In January 1848, Seargent S. Prentiss – a Maine native, who practiced law in Natchez and Vicksburg before relocating to New Orleans – was challenged to a duel by the grandson of Henry Clay, the revered orator and statesman from Kentucky. Clay served three terms as U.S. Speaker of the House yet failed in five separate bids to become President of the United States as a representative of the Whig Party

The 39-year-old Prentiss, also involved in the Whig Party, was likewise considered a great orator, and while serving as a congressman from Mississippi, came to love and adore Clay, who felt the same about Prentiss.

Despite this background, Clay’s grandson – 20-year-old Henry Clay Erwin – took great offense at remarks about Erwin’s father that Prentiss made in a courtroom. The harsh comments were reported in the New Orleans newspapers. Prentiss was known to unleash a sharp tongue in the heat of courtroom theatrics. Because of that, he had been in two duels – both with the same man. While Prentiss was unscathed, his opponent was bloodied on both occasions.

In the courtroom, Prentiss had been named prosecutor in case of fraud against James Erwin, the son-in-law of Henry Clay. During the trial, Prentiss called Erwin a thief, coward and villain, comparing him to Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold. In fact, Prentiss claimed Erwin did not possess “one redeeming virtue upon which to rest a claim for heaven’s mercy.” Prentiss won the case.

In his 19th century book (The Life and Times of Seargent S. Prentiss, 1884), Joseph Dunbar Shields of Natchez, a longtime friend of Prentiss, explained:

“The papers had announced that there was to be ‘a skinning of the alligator,’ and many were present to enjoy the fun and excitement. The argument attracted a great deal of comment and attention.

“As soon as the son {Henry Clay Erwin} of the party {James Erwin} on whom the onslaught was made heard of it he posted to New Orleans and demanded satisfaction, according to the code of honor. Prentiss was in great perplexity, not to say distress, at his situation, which was rendered the more peculiarly painful from the fact that the challenger was a grandson of Henry Clay, for whom … he entertained a filial veneration … Some of Mr. Prentiss's friends advised him that, as he had spoken in his professional character, he could not be made amenable. But he thought differently. Fortunately, he was wise in the selection of a friend to act as his second.”

In a letter to his brother, George, Prentiss wrote: “As he {Henry Clay Erwin} was a young man, I should have declined at once; but he put it on the ground that his father was unable to attend to matters of that sort and that he had a right to assume the quarrel.”

 

‘A COLD SABBATH NIGHT’

 

Prentiss’ friend, Bailie Peyton, met with Prentiss:

"I advised him at first to decline the challenge, on the ground that what he said was in the discharge of a professional duty, etc. Failing to satisfy him, I at length persuaded him to postpone action … When the morning came he decided to accept the call, saying he could not deny the right of a son to take up a father’s quarrel, without regard to its merits.

“At my request he associated with me Mr. Bullitt, of the New Orleans Picayune, who, from his intimate personal relations with some of the other party, I was confident would prove a powerful auxiliary in the object nearest my heart, an amicable settlement of this affair.

"This was, in all respects, a most disagreeable affair to us both. Henry Erwin was not only a mere youth, some twenty years of age, acting, too, from the noblest impulses, but he was the grandson of Henry Clay (whose name he bore, and whom he greatly resembles), a statesman admired by us both beyond all others … I was, moreover, very fond of Henry, who had visited me not long before and spent some days on my farm in Tennessee.

"I shall never forget the scene, calculated to try his patience and equanimity. It was on a cold Sabbath night, soon after he received his challenge. He came to my quarters and informed me that he had just been arrested at his own house, and that he was anxious to return as speedily as possible to save Mrs. Prentiss from alarm: she did not know the cause of his absence. We accompanied the officer, with the understanding that he would drive us to the residence of the recorder, there to arrange the matter of bail not to fight in Louisiana. But to our surprise we found ourselves in front of the principal prison.

“Here the officer stopped and refused to budge another inch, regardless of our persuasions and remonstrances. Finally, fearing I might lose my temper, Mr. Prentiss interposed, saying, in a good-humored tone, 'Well, Peyton, we will not fight the law.' So leaving him in the office or anteroom of the prison, I went in search of the captain of the watch. On my return I found Mr. Prentiss hovering over a few coals (it was very cold, and he came off without his cloak) with a strapping fellow who had been picked up towering near him.”

 

‘A RAVING MANIAC’

 

A while later, Prentiss was released on his word to return the next day and pay bail, which he did.

Prentiss’ friend Colonel Richard T. Archer recalled:

"It was said there were nine challenges already written for him. He called at my hotel, accompanied by Bailie Peyton. I expressed my disapprobation of his accepting a challenge from so young a man, and I found he labored under the belief that it was the only mode by which he could avoid involving his friends or could avoid a street affray … I immediately determined that our mutual friend, General Felix Huston, should be present.

"When Huston arrived he and myself had much conversation apart from Prentiss. We both feared he would stand up and be shot at, without purpose of returning Erwin's fire. Huston feared that there was little to choose between his doing this or killing his antagonist. 'For,' he said to me, 'if Prentiss kills Erwin, I know his acute sensibilities so well, that I tell you I will bring him back a raving maniac.' Thinking it suicidal that he should stand to be shot down, and that it was unjust to an antagonist to subject him to the chances of taking the life of an unresisting man, I expostulated with Mr. Prentiss as though I knew he did not intend to fire.

“After we left New Orleans I renewed the subject when we were alone. He thus replied to me: 'My wife has packed up my clothes and bandages and everything I can possibly want' (among his things was a Bible given to him by his mother), 'and has not said one word to alter my purpose, though almost speechless with feeling, and this time, Archer, I will fight for my wife and children, not for myself.'"

 

MRS. PRENTISS FAINTED

 

Shields wrote of Mary Williams, Prentiss’ wife, whose family resided at Longwood Plantation in Natchez:

“Thus weeping, thus praying, thus seeking strength from the Book of books, she, with a breaking heart, prepared those bandages which were possibly to stanch his death-wounds, those clothes which possibly might be cerements for the grave.

“But all unseen to mortal eye, all unheard by mortal ear, those prayers were ascending, and unseen angels were whispering suggestions to those in whose hands the fate of the husband was held.”

In Pass Christian, Miss., the proposed site of the duel, Erwin’s friends demanded a retraction of his harsh words against Erwin’s father. Prentiss ultimately agreed and sent a letter to Robert Johnson, who was to Erwin’s second:

"I am sincerely gratified that the difficulty between H.C.E. {Henry Clay Erwin} and myself has been amicably adjusted. From the beginning of this affair I have not entertained an unkind feeling toward H.C.E. On the contrary, I honor and appreciate the sentiments by which he has been actuated, and under similar circumstances should have acted as he has done.

"I can now say frankly what might have been attributed to improper motives. I disclaim all personal or improper feelings in the matter out of which this controversy arose, as well as all knowledge or approval of the newspaper publications in relation to my remarks. I respond fully to the high and honorable sentiments which have marked your course in this matter, as well as that of your associates, and it gives me pleasure to acknowledge the same.”

Wrote Shields: “The antagonists, it will be perceived, stood on this, what might have been, day of doom upon the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and were saved by their wise friends from the verge of another gulf—that of ruin. Of all the beatitudes that fall on mortal ears none vibrate with more sympathy to the human heart than ‘Blessed are the peace-makers!’”

Col. Archer wrote: "On our return to the city I was told that Mrs. Prentiss had fainted as he left the house. It was a week of intense feeling to us all."

 

‘HIS OWN IMPULSES’

 

From Lexington, Kentucky, on March 31, Clay – the grandfather of Erwin and father of Erwin’s mother {Anne Brown Clay} -- wrote to his longtime friend, pointing out that his grandson had “acted altogether on his own impulses, on the advice of young members of my family.”

Clay was known internationally – having served as Secretary of State. In the U.S. he was called ”the Great Compromiser.” Though he own slaves, he didn’t like the system of slavery and advocated that slaves be freed and resettled in Africa.

Clay wrote: “I seize, my dear Prentiss, the first moment after my return home to express to you my thanks and gratitude for the generosity and magnanimity displayed by you in the amicable adjustment of the difficulty which had arisen between you and my grandson, H. Clay Erwin … When at Washington I heard of the occurrence, it occasioned me infinite pain and regret.”

In Philadelphia, Clay had heard that a peaceful resolution was possible, but feared the worst and unsure what the next message would be: “I might hear of the fall of my friend, or my grandson. Imagine … the agonized state of my feelings! … I was relieved by a telegraphic dispatch, announcing that honorable accommodation of the unpleasant affair.’

“The event, my dear Prentiss, has added a new cement to the friendship which has existed between us, and on which I have ever placed the highest value.

“I request you to present my affectionate regards to Mrs. Prentiss; and how can I think of her and your interesting children without entreating you never to hazard a life so dear to them and so precious to all your friends, but to none more than your faithful friend?"

 

A BEACON-LIGHT OF WARNING

 

Four decades after the affair, Shields, while writing his book on Prentiss, received a letter from Prentiss’ friend Colonel Robert A. Johnson of Louisville, Kentucky who had sided with young Erwin:

"The reconciliation between Mr. Prentiss and young Erwin was cordial … Mr. Prentiss had expressed a wish to know Henry Erwin, when I replied, '’I will take Henry to see him.' {Bailie} Peyton said, 'No; Mr. Prentiss does nothing by halves. He wishes to come here.'

“And he did come to our hotel, and I introduced the reconciled foes. The meeting and conversation between them was polite, cordial, friendly. They drank together, and the past left no poison … Erwin is no more, having departed this life nearly twenty years ago."

Shields advised in his book:

“Let his {Prentiss’} course be a beacon-light to warn others of the legal fraternity to be guarded in their words; but if, in the heat of debate, they go too far and say too much, let them, like Prentiss, frankly acknowledge their having done so.”

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