Longwood Plantation

APPROXIMATELY 10 years after Seargent Prentiss died on Longwood Plantation in Natchez, the old house was torn down and construction of the Longwood Mansion initiated. Planter Dr. Haller Nutt bought the Longwood Plantation and initiated construction on the mansion at the dawn of the Civil War. Prentiss is buried nearby in the cemetery along Lower Woodville Road, across the street from Gloucester mansion in Natchez. His wife Mary and brother George are buried beside him. (Credit: Library of Congress, 1936)

At Longwood in Natchez during the summer of 1850, 41-year-old Seargent Smith Prentiss spent his final days in a room with his loving wife, Mary, and friends. The fragrance of roses filled the air.

He had recently arrived from New Orleans. His friends there – who physically placed him aboard a streamer for the trip to Longwood Plantation, the home of Mary’s parents -- didn’t think he would survive the journey.

Prentiss had traveled from Maine to Natchez as a young man. Well educated, intelligent, vibrant and ambitious, he taught the children of the Shields family at Rokeby Plantation in Jefferson County while studying the law. Once he earned his law license, he moved to Vicksburg, a thriving town growing by leaps and bounds.

The young lawyer quickly established a lucrative law practice, invested in real estate, served in the Mississippi Legislature and in Congress, campaigned for Whig Party presidential candidates and became one of the nation’s most popular orators. Henry Clay was mesmerized by Prentiss’s speeches.

At the same time, Prentiss became one of the nation’s most able trial lawyers and prosecutors. So great was his skill and persona that he made men cry, women faint.

But despite his many professional accomplishments in life, nothing meant more to him than his family. He loved his wife and children as much as a man can love. No son ever loved his mother more than he. No sibling ever felt more love from a brother than did his.

His letters were like poetry.

During the great depression of the 1830s, Prentiss was ruined financially. He moved to New Orleans in the 1840s to start anew, but despite his best efforts could not revive himself financially before chronic cholera – as well as alcoholism – sapped his energy.

Mary and their four children had gone ahead to Natchez to prepare for his later arrival. Despite his failing health, Prentiss pushed himself to complete a final case – fainting often – before achieving his goal.

‘WHILE YOUR BROTHER SLEEPS’

On June 20, 1850, Mary wrote Prentiss’ brother, George, a clergyman from the northeast who later published Prentiss’s memoirs:

“I snatch a moment, whilst your brother sleeps, to inform you of his arrival here, but regret to say how very feeble he is. As we were sitting on the gallery last night, General Stark, a friend of his, came up on the steps and said, ‘Mr. Prentiss will be here soon; he has been very ill.’

“Just then the carriage drove slowly up, and we had a large chair taken out, brought him into the house and put him to bed. He was so glad to get here, and to see me once more; at one time he said he thought he would never see me again. He was taken very ill last Sunday, but … came to, and Mr. Hammet, accompanied by Gen. Stark and Dr. Cross, left with him Tuesday evening and reached here last night about 8 o'clock.

“Mr. H. says, he longed exceedingly to get here, begging them to ‘take him home.’ I never saw him so low. He seems better to-day than he was yesterday; for the change is so agreeable to him. The flowers, the birds, and the pure air revive him.”

Prentiss’ mother-in-law recalled in a letter to George that “his passion for flowers returned during his sickness. The night of his arrival, though he was so very ill, and had nearly died on the boat, he requested Mrs. C. to gather half a bushel of roses, with the dew on them, which he had put in a large basin, and the stand placed by his bedside. He then expatiated to everyone on their beauty, and the delight their fragrance and the sight of them gave him.”

Mary continued in her letter to George: “But the disease still goes on, and keeps me in the deepest anxiety of mind. He won't be able to leave here, I fear, this summer.”

‘HE FANCIES HIS MOTHER’

The next day, Mary wrote George again. And more letters would follow:

“I am happy to say that your brother is better to-day, but still very, very feeble. I can hardly hear a word he says, his voice is so weak; and he is very thin. I was so shocked at the change in him, for when I left {New Orleans} he was doing well, and in the last letter I got from him, he said he was better than he had been for several weeks. He has the best medical advice, Dr. Sydney Smith staying with us day and night. Mamma and Mrs. 0. take the children off my hands, so that I can devote myself wholly to him. He has every comfort and convenience here, and his room filled with flowers all day long. He says he will be up and riding in a day or two.”

June 23: “He is a little better to-day, though as feeble as ever. He can hardly speak, and is so nervous that he can't bear the least noise. Thursday he was a little better, and a great many of his friends came to see him, and kept him so much excited — Thursday and Friday — that Friday night I thought he would hardly live till morning. So yesterday I allowed no one to see him, except his physicians, and he is better, as I have said, though still very low.”

On June 29, Mary’s mother wrote George: “The chance in his favor has slightly increased since yesterday; but he is just hovering between life and death. That he still lives, is beyond all hope or expectation; we know not what an hour may bring forth. All that mortal aid can do we have done; the rest remains with our Heavenly Father, who wills and

directs all things in wisdom. We have only to watch and pray that this blow may be spared us. In his wildest moments he fancies his mother and the rest of you are present, addresses and takes leave of you all; at other times, he tells Mary to write you that he is dying.”

Mary’s mother added in another letter “The hand of God has been laid heavily upon me; I acknowledge it, I feel it, and trust it is in love. I thank Him for all His mercies, mingled with this affliction; that my child and her children were safely removed here, and that your brother was permitted to reach us and to die among friends such as, surely, never mortal man had before! It would be vain to describe their afffectionate solicitude or their kindness. We had to decline innumerable offers … If human aid could have availed, he would have been spared.”

‘I BEGGED HIM TO PRAY’

On July 1, Mary wrote George: “My mother has written to you several times since I last wrote, for my heart was too full to write, and I have been constantly engaged night and day. It is one week to-day since he became delirious, and, excepting lucid intervals, he has continued so up to this time … At first his mind was full of his business; he talked about his suits, raising money, and his children; feeling, I suppose, that he was leaving them destitute, and trying to think what he could do to provide for them. He called me several times and told me to ‘be sure and do it’ but I could not learn what he was alluding to.

“Yesterday I thought he would die every moment, but last evening he took some nourishment, and has slept well all night. He is still asleep, and we can't tell how he will awake. I pray and trust that he may be refreshed by this long sleep, and awake himself; but I fear I am hoping too much, and am willing to leave all in the hands of God. — Mark, XIV 36.

“He has called for you all by name again and again during his illness, particularly for his mother. ‘Dear mother, do you love me?’ he would say; and ‘dear, dear mother’ has been constantly on his lips. Her early instructions, and her prayers, were, no doubt, in his mind. He has also called repeatedly upon God. One day when he was very low, and much distressed at the idea of death, I urged him to go to the Saviour, and repeated to him many sentences from the Bible; but he said God would never forgive him, that I did not know how wicked he had been. I told him only to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and ‘though his sins were as scarlet they should be white as snow.’ This seemed to quiet his fear.

‘I begged him to pray, and asked him if he didn't remember how his mother used to teach him? He said, ‘Oh, yes,’ and desired me to pray with him; and I then repeated to him the Lord's Prayer. Several times he has said, '’Amen, Amen,’ as if he were praying. Yesterday I heard him saying, as if to himself, ‘Oh God! the Son!" recalling, I suppose, the petition in the Litany.

“We are all now watching, hoping, praying and trembling for him to awake. God grant that all may be right with him!”

‘A SWEET SMILE’

George would recall:

“From the moment of his arrival until this sleep, even in the height of delirium, his expressions of love and devotion to his faithful wife, were indescribably touching. He could not bear her out of his sight for an instant; his eyes would follow her wistfully about the room, and if he could not see her, he would rise up in bed and call her loudly by name, until she came. From her hands alone would he take either medicine or nourishment, and the thought of dying and leaving her, several times threw him into convulsions of grief.

“It was on Sabbath evening. She went to him, and, sitting up in bed, he kissed her, gave her a sweet smile, and begged her to sit at the foot, instead of the side of the bed, so that he might see her the moment he should awake. He then sank back into a gentle infant-like slumber, which grew deeper and deeper, until, on Monday evening, July 1, a little before seven o'clock, without a sigh or a groan, it changed into the mysterious sleep of the grave!”

His last words were: “Mary, shall we meet in heaven?”

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