Stanley Nelson

Eight years had passed since Seargent S. Prentiss had last seen his beloved mother, but in the summer of 1835 he saw her again.

Prentiss was 26. At age 17, he had left Maine to make his way in the world and many weeks later arrived in Natchez with $5 to his name. He taught for a while and studied law. He had big plans to make something out of himself in the American Southwest, known then as a land of opportunity and wealth, especially for aspiring lawyers.

Prentiss’ father was a shipmaster when Prentiss was a child. He and his siblings cried with sadness when their daddy left for sea and laughed with joy when he returned. At many a fireside in their home in Portland, they heard stories of shipwrecks, foreign lands, war and mighty storms.

When just an infant, Prentiss had been seized with a fever and for a period of time lost the use of his limbs. But every day – all day – his mother watched over him, nursed him and prayed over him. Although his right leg never healed, the rest of his body did and his mind was one of the healthiest in America. The boy was super smart and read every book he could get his hands on.

When he was five, the family had moved inland a few miles to the community of Gorham. His father, jobless due to a shipping embargo during the War of 1812, bought a farm. Living nearby was Major George Lewis, Prentiss’ maternal grandfather, who had served as an officer during the Battle of Bunker Hill in the Revolutionary War. Many a night Prentiss stayed up late listening to the old men talk about the fight for independence.

Every chance he got he hunted and fished – mostly fished. He knew every “honey hole” in the vicinity.

While lameness had no effect on his attaining his professional dreams, it caused him untold heartache in the presence of women. He thought that his disability (in an era when strength seemed supreme) made him less desirable to a woman.

Prentiss was so intelligent that he finished college while in his teens, an accomplishment that came around the time his father died. Making a good life as a lawyer in Maine would not have been a bad living, but he yearned for more and wanted to see the world. A series of experiences and chance meetings led him to Natchez.

He eventually moved to Vicksburg – then a thriving town in need of professional men. Prentiss’ law practice was an immediate success. Before him was a career as one of the country’s greatest lawyers and orators. But everyday since arriving in the Southwest Prentiss had yearned to return home to see his mother and family.

JOURNEY BY SEA

In the summer of 1835, the opportunity came.

One of Prentiss’ best friends, Edward Wilkinson, a judge from Yazoo County, Mississippi, accompanied him on the trip. (Five years later, Wilkinson, his brother and a friend would be in a Kentucky courtroom facing two murder charges following a barroom brawl. Prentiss was among the lawyers representing the defendants, who were exonerated.)

During the journey by sea from New Orleans to New York, Prentiss entertained all around him with stories and poetry.

Wilkinson recalled: “He would recline upon the quarter-deck, and hour after hour rehearse from Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Byron, Scott, and the chief poets of England page by page in his finest style; many of the best passages I afterwards recognized, as he would reproduce them in his public speeches.

“He kept us in excellent spirits during the long voyage, although, with his characteristic impatience, he would sometimes wish for a storm as a relief to the dead calm of the sea. His mind was in perfect tune. He was not then distinguished in the great world; it was just before his genius burst upon the country in all its splendor. The commonest incident that happened in the ship was sure to call forth some highly poetical and happy illustration or witty remark, sometimes borrowed, but almost always original.”

‘DWARFED AND CRIPPLED’

Wilkinson was one of only two men {the other Virginia politician Henry Wise) that Prentiss felt comfortable enough to unburden his inward doubts about his physical disability, the lame right leg and foot, which required Prentiss to use a cane to walk.

While Prentiss adored his mother and sisters, they were family. Otherwise he avoided the opposite sex like the plague. He was embarrassed, unsure of himself and highly sensitive, all due to his disability.

Wilkinson recalled that a day or two after anchoring in New York “we agreed to take an excursion together to West Point. Here, being entire strangers to every one, we sat at the table d’hôte, opposite a party quite distinguished in appearance, one of whom, was the attractive and distinguished Miss W … Some courtesies of the table passed between our parties, and after we had withdrawn from the dining-parlor, Miss W. sent a gentleman to us to request an introduction.

“Prentiss declined—he did not at that time frequent the company of ladies—but upon bearing who the lady was I readily complied. At the end of a pleasant interview, I, after a long search, found Prentiss lying in the shade, on the bank of the river, in a somewhat sad and contemplative mood. I rallied him upon his want of gallantry, and for the only time I ever heard him, he alluded most feelingly to the dwarfed and crippled condition of one portion of his body, alleging that as his reason for not desiring and ever shunning the society of ladies, and he would not be persuaded that any man could possess attractions sufficient to obscure such a defect as his.”

HIS APPEARANCE WAS STRIKING

After returning to New York, Prentiss, headed for Gorham, Maine. It was July.

Wrote Prentiss’ brother George: “He had been absent eight years … I was at Brunswick, and first learned of his arrival home by a note from himself … Hastening thither, I found him sitting … absorbed, seemingly, in deep thought. He was musing, doubtless, upon the past, and upon the varied fortunes which had attended him since, nine years before, he bade adieu to College scenes.

“His appearance, at this time, was very striking; and arrested the eye of the most casual observer. When animated by conversation, every feature of his countenance glowed with intellectual beauty; his smile was peculiarly radiant; the tones of his voice were clear and persuasive; while the shape of his mouth and the whole carriage of his head gave assurance of an indomitable will.

“His mother, at first, thought him greatly altered, but in days the boyish looks came back, and he seemed to her, just as he did on the day of setting out for the Far West.”

THE GREAT BROOK

His great delight was angling in the streams and brooks around Gorham, according to Prentiss’ brother George:

“There were two trout streams in the vicinity … the Branch, and the Great Brook; the latter— including Jordan’s Brook—was Seargent’s favorite resort. He pronounced it ‘the most classic stream in North America.’ It took its rise in a forest, called the Haith, and, after winding through fields, woods, and pasture lands, for several miles, emptied itself into a neighbouring river. It was, indeed, a notable stream; abounding in trout of unequalled flavor, and whose quick, dashing bite was the admiration of all true anglers.

“There were certain holes, often at unsightly points, and quite hidden from the eyes of the uninitiated, which rarely failed to furnish a kingly victim. How well remembered are these favored spots! There was something almost mysterious about them; they were never approached but on tiptoe, stealthily, and with eye half-averted; or, if concealed amid the tangled brushwood, one must creep towards them on all fours; and then with what an anxious glance and careful hand was the fatal lure let down into the water. There was hardly a foot of the Great Brook which Seargent had not traversed again and again; not a nook or bend with which he was not familiar.

“When talking of it once, in Mississippi, he maintained that, even in the night, he could find his way direct to the old holes, and, kneeling down, put his hand upon the identical hooks which had been caught and lost in them twenty years before. Many and many a long summer’s day did he spend in wandering slowly up and down the Great Brook; and never, in after life, was the subject mentioned without reviving some of the pleasantest memories of his youth.”

THE INNER HOME CIRCLE

“ … He took much delight in revisiting the old homestead fishing again in the Great Brook—calling upon the old neighbors and his numerous friends at the village and in Portland. But it was in the inner home circle that he seemed most happy and most like himself. His manner towards his mother was still the same as aforetime; only to the artless love and devotion of boyhood, there was added a certain tone of deepened respect and deference, which well became his change of years.

“Not less striking was his bearing towards his sisters. His intercourse with them was marked by a tender affection, delicacy, and manly gentleness, which reflected the very spirit of romantic courtesy. This journey home was to him a holy pilgrimage. For years it had been fondly meditated in lonely hours at Vicksburg; and when he reached the domestic shrine, his heart seemed gladdened as by the payment of a solemn, long-neglected vow. How quickly the bright hours were spent in talking over the past, enjoying the fleet present, and laying plans for the future!”

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