The Bench and Bar of Mississippi

On March 3, 1842, Seargent S. Prentiss – then a Vicksburg lawyer – married Mary Jane Williams of Natchez. Mary’s father was the late James C. Williams, owner of Longwood plantation. 

At the age of 33, Prentiss had long believed that he would live out his days as a single man. A childhood illness had left his right leg so mangled and deformed that he wrapped the limp limb around a cane, or stick, so that he could walk. He felt this deformity – despite his good looks and brilliant mind – doomed him to bachelorhood. 

But when he married Mary Jane Williams, his life “commenced a new and brighter era,” according to Prentiss’ brother, George, who in the 19th century published his brother Seargent’s memoirs. 

While Prentiss would become nationally known as a spellbinding orator and would grow rich from his lucrative law practice and Vicksburg real estate investments, he was subject to overspending and over imbibing in alcohol. Around the time he married Mary, an adverse U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding his Vicksburg real estate, and a bottomed-out economy, led to the loss of his fortune. 

In April 1842 while in Washington City on business, Prentiss wrote George back in the family’s native Maine, where Prentiss’ beloved mother and sisters lived: 

“I am very anxious to get home {Vicksburg}, for my professional engagements, and the condition of my affairs generally in Mississippi, imperatively require my immediate attention. The condition of things in the United States, at this time, especially in the Southwest, is truly alarming. There is no currency, property has no representative, and is without any fixed value. A man in debt can see no mode of liquidating it, no matter how much property he may possess. If it were not for my profession, I should despair of saving anything; but that is of itself a fortune, and I, therefore, look forward with confidence, notwithstanding the gloom in which we are all enveloped.” 

Despite his physical and financial woes, Prentiss found great solace in the love of his family in Maine and in his bride Mary and her family. In the same letter, he wrote: 

“Well, dear George, I have now been married between five and six weeks, and am able to form some estimate of the new condition of life which I have assumed. I do not doubt that I shall be happy, and have continued cause to congratulate myself upon my good fortune. 

“My wife is beautiful and good, with an almost child-like simplicity of character, united to a strong intellect, capable of the highest degree of cultivation, and as pure as truth itself. I am most devotedly attached to her, and I believe she fully reciprocates my affection. I see nothing, therefore, to prevent our future happiness.” 

ESCAPE FROM DEATH 

Six months after their marriage, Mary narrowly escaped death in a steamboat disaster at Bayou Sara in West Feliciana Parish at present day St. Francisville. Prentiss was beside himself when news of the disaster reached Vicksburg. 

“My Dearest Wife: —  

“I wrote the enclosed last night, and on coming down in town this morning, found your dear and thrilling letter from Bayou Sara, giving an account of your misfortune and Providential escape. Oh, my dear, dear Mary, how thankful I ought to be for your preservation! Had any evil befallen you, I should never have forgiven myself for being away from you. 

“I have heard how nobly and courageously you behaved, and am proud of your conduct, while I tremble to reflect on the danger that elicited it. Thank God, you will be with me, I trust, on Thursday, for I shall hardly believe you are safe till I hold you in my arms. I send this by the Missouri today, and trust you will get it in the morning. I am very well, though full of trepidation on your account. 

“Good-bye, sweet, good-bye. May Heaven ever preserve, and bless you, as it has already done.” 

‘OUR BRIGHT SPRING CHILD’ 

By the spring of 1843, Prentiss was a father. While at home in Vicksburg in July, he wrote to George: 

“A week ago I took Mary and dear little Jeanie down to Natchez, tarried them several days at Longwood, left them there, and came back day before yesterday … Jeanie, dear little thing, is increasing rapidly in all good nurture and admonition. She is already notorious through the regions hereabouts as the finest child extant, and I believe I have become equally notorious for my boasting and vanity on her behalf.” 

A short time later, while preparing to journey to the eastern counties of Mississippi for court, he wrote Mary who was still at Longwood with Jeanie: 

“Absence has taught me the full value of the treasures I possess at home. All the rest of the world looks poor and miserable. Indeed, my dear Mary, my distaste for the world is growing so strong upon me, that I fear its results; it almost unfitted me for business, and will, I am afraid, grow into a confirmed habit of misanthropy. But the less I love the world, the more I love you and our child — our bright spring child. 

“You cannot imagine how much I am attached to her. I find myself continually thinking of her. I see her lying on the floor crowing away, and striving to express, both by sound and gesture, her tiny thoughts. I see her in the bath, splashing the water with her little hands and feet, her eyes glancing and sparkling, half with fear and half with delight. In imagination, too, she has grown many months older, and climbed my knee and kissed me, and lisped in my ear her childish hopes and wishes. Even this is not all; sometimes I behold her in full maturity, beautiful and good like her mother; shedding light and happiness upon all around; dividing with you your household cares, and with her sunny smile dispelling all the clouds which may lower upon us … My kind remembrance to all the family. Kiss dear Jeanie for me till you get tired. To you, my own dear wife, as much love as you can bear.” 

‘A BEAUTIFUL LITTLE FLOWER’ 

To his sister Anna, Seargent wrote in September 1843: 

“Jeanie is improving wonderfully. I would give anything in the world if you could all see her. She weighs eighteen pounds, can sit alone, and almost stand, and I verily believe will talk in a month. You never saw a child with so much vivacity. Her eyes and ears are constantly on the alert, and she eagerly investigates all she hears or sees. She wakes up regularly at daybreak, and commences crowing, and has already acquired the trick of pulling my hair to wake me, thereby intimating her dislike of my lazy habits. She is a dear, sweet, funny little thing, and a great comfort to her father and mother.” 

In October, Prentiss wrote brother George: “Jeanie is a beautiful little flower, and the petals of her heart are already sufficiently open to receive the dews of goodness and virtue.” 

SISTER ANNA’S WEDDING 

Later that month, he wrote his sister Anna, who had spent several months with the family and who now was planning her own marriage: 

“About two weeks ago, I took Mary and Jeanie down to Longwood, while I went out to Jefferson County to Court. I returned to Natchez, and we were all coming up together {to Vicksburg}, but missed the packet. As I was not willing Mary should come on an up-country boat, I had to leave her, but shall go down today after her. While at Natchez, I got your letter informing us that you expected to be married by the middle of November. 

“There is nothing Mary and I would not give to be with you, as you were with us, sympathizing in your happiness, and invoking upon your dear head all the blessings which belong to a union of good and loving hearts. But though we cannot be with you in person, dearest, our hearts and wishes will be there. When you think of us on your bridal day, you will know and feel, that in spirit we are present among the guests, smiling upon you; and that thought will make you less sad, because you see us not. 

“You cannot know how much we grieve at losing your society this winter. Mary is not yet reconciled to it, and even dear little Jeanie seems to be aware how much she has lost. Your friends everywhere express much regret that they will not see you, and complain as bitterly as if you had committed a personal injury.  

“You must write me very often from your new home, and tell me all about your house, your town, your parishioners, everything that interests you; for it will, on that account, be interesting to me. There is nothing new here. The sickness is over, and we are all well. The weather is getting quite cold, and we have already had frost. 

“And now, my dear, dear sister, may God bless you, and smile upon your nuptials. The good wishes and the blessing of your brother you already have; and whatever fortune may betide you, you know his feelings towards you can never change; he will rejoice in your joys, and weep for your sorrows. 

“My love to dear mother, and to you all.” 

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