In mid-October 1833, Seargent S. Prentiss wrote his brother, William:
“For the past three or four weeks, I have had some business on my hands, which has prevented my writing, and which I think it will puzzle you to guess. I will tell you, but you must not for the world let mother have the slightest hint about it.
“I have fought a duel.”
In late September 1833, in a Vicksburg courtroom, Prentiss faced opposing attorney Henry S. Foote in a murder case. During the course of the proceedings, Foote used words so insulting that Prentiss took immediate offense and struck Foote in the face with a fist.
Stunned by Prentiss’ blow, Foote initially did nothing. But later, he challenged Prentiss to a duel.
They met on the Louisiana shore opposite Vicksburg at dawn on Oct. 5. Foote fired first and missed. Prentiss’ shot grazed Foote’s shoulder causing a flesh wound. Both men walked from the dueling ground satisfied and in a mood of reconciliation.
But a short time later, Prentiss heard rumors that some felt he had cheated during the contest. Because Prentiss had a lame right leg, he couldn’t walk without the use of a cane. He was sensitive over the disability and never sought nor expected pity or special privileges because of it. When he heard that Foote’s followers felt Prentiss had an advantage because he had taken “rest” with the use of his cane, Prentiss was furious.
Now he challenged Foote to a duel.
Although Prentiss had moved to Vicksburg the year before, he had strong ties in Natchez, where he had lived since 1827. A native of Maine, Prentiss grew up in family financially ruined by the shipping embargo of the early 1800s. As a child, he almost died from a mysterious illness that left his right leg lame. For a long period, his mother cared and prayed over him like an angel. He adored her and knew she would be crushed to learn that her son had taken part in an act his entire family considered immoral.
For several days, the 25-year-old Prentiss prepared for the second duel with two of his closest friends, attorney Felix Huston, who was a few years older, and G.B. Shields, who was younger. Because lawmen were believed to be preparing to stop the second duel, the three men, staying for a period in Natchez, disguised themselves, and quietly took a steamer to Vicksburg, arriving at dawn for the second contest.
HE TOSSED HIS CANE ASIDE
Prentiss’ brother George, a minister who published his brother’s memoirs, wrote that Prentiss believed Foote, who was 29, originally challenged him in part because Southerners believed “a Yankee … would not fight.”
“The practice of dueling was, at this time, frightfully rife through the Southwest, particularly in Mississippi,” George Prentiss wrote. Human life had become so cheap that the so-called “code of honor” made men foolish, resulting in “sweet homes” left desolate, happy families devastated and hearts of children broken with sorrow.
Newspaper articles abounded of the “honorable” men whose great courage led them to the dueling grounds to defend their good names. These were the only stories for public consumption, George Prentiss wrote. What was left out were the “bitter and remorseful consequences” of a deadly game.
News of the second duel spread up and down the Mississippi River. When Prentiss’ steamer arrived opposite Vicksburg, hundreds of people, including children, had gathered.
Prior to departure, Prentiss, Huston and Shields had witnessed a cock-fight under the hill at Natchez in which the two gamecocks in battle were named after the duelists. The one named “Foote” quickly killed the one named “Prentiss.”
Prentiss biographer Joseph Dunbar Shields wrote that Prentiss considered it a bad omen. But when he stepped onto the dueling grounds, Prentiss was relaxed. In fact, he appeared downright cheerful.
As Prentiss reached his position, Shields wrote, “he with a smile tossed his cane from him” so that Foote “might see this time he was without a rest.” At 10 to 12 paces apart, the word was given, ‘Gentlemen, are you ready? Fire,- one –two –three!’
Just as he did a few days earlier, Foote, renown as a terrible shot, fired first, “his ball striking the ground immediately in front of Prentiss – a line shot. He (Prentiss) then stood, his left arm clasped across his side, his right arm hanging down. He neither blanched nor quivered, although the deadly aim of his opponent was upon him. Prentiss pulled his trigger, but the percussion–cap exploded without firing the pistol.
“General Huston immediately stepped up, put on another percussion-cap, pointed the pistol at a tree, and fired a bullet into it, thus proving that the fault was in the defective cap, not in the loading. It is said that of the hundred caps afterward tested from that box there was not a single failure, and one is almost tempted to look upon the first and only failure as a special interposition of Providence in mercy, for, had Prentiss’ pistol fired … Foote would in all probability have been killed.”
It couldn’t end there, so the parties once again took their positions. As they prepared, Prentiss noticed that several boys were perched in a tree to get a better view of the action. With a smile, he looked their way and advised them to take cover, shouting: “Boys, Mr. Foote shoots wild, you know!’
Shields wrote that on the second fire, “Prentiss escaped unscathed, but … Foote was seriously wounded. He reeled, staggered, and fell into the arms of his friend.” He would recover.
‘LEAST OF TWO EVILS’
Word of Prentiss’ action on the field made him even more famous than he had already become in Mississippi. A successful lawyer, he was also a great orator who in the years to come would become a spokesman for the Whig Party and be sought after for his support by Presidential candidates.
But for now, he struggled to come to terms with his two duels with Foote – the only times he would participate in such an event although he would come close in later years.
After the event, George Prentiss wrote his brother and admonished his actions. Prentiss replied:
"I am very sorry you heard at all of my foolish scrape. I regretted the occurrence as much as any one. I neither sought the difficulty nor sent the challenge, but having received it under the circumstances that existed, I could not have acted differently from what I did. If I had, I should have lost my own self-respect, and life itself would have had no further objects for me.
“I know that with your principles, no excuse will be sufficient in such a case. I am no advocate of dueling, and always shall from principle avoid such a thing, as much as possible; but when a man is placed in a situation where if he does not fight, life will be rendered valueless to him, both in his own eyes and those of the community, and existence will become a burden to him; then I say he will fight, and by so doing, will select the least of two evils.
“I know you will say that such a case as I have supposed, cannot occur; but, brother, I think you are mistaken, and such cases may occur, but not often. However, I trust I shall never again have occasion to act in such a matter. You may rest assured, that I shall never seek a quarrel, and shall always avoid one, so long as I can do so, and retain my self-respect."
‘HE IS OUR DOG’
In a letter to brother William, Prentiss wrote: “Mother must on no account hear a word of this … I know her religious feelings and principles are so opposed to what I have done.”
George Prentiss writes that their mother didn’t hear of Prentiss’ duel with Foote until after Prentiss’ death.
Foote would later be elected to the U.S. Senate, serving Mississippi along with Jefferson Davis, and later defeating Davis for governor by 999 votes. Unlike Prentiss, Foote’s mouth never stopped offending.
He was a small, balding man with a hair-trigger temper. Well-educated, at times charming and knowledgeable of history, he fought many duels. During one political campaign he got into a fistfight with John Quitman of Natchez. (He also got into a fistfight with Jefferson Davis.) While on the U.S. Senate floor during a debate over slavery involving the Compromise of 1850, Foote pulled a gun Sen. Thomas Hart Benton during a scuffle.
G.B. Shields, who was in Prentiss’ party during the duels, said, “A braver man than … Foote never lived.”
Joseph Dunbar Shields wrote that the “two then mortal foes (Prentiss and Shields) became reconciled, and how warmly they became attached to each other.”
A short time after the men patched things up, Prentiss was in Cincinnati on the Ohio on business. During a conversation, a local man called Foote a “dog,” having little doubt that Prentiss would agree wholeheartedly.
But to the man’s surprise, Prentiss retorted: “If he is a dog, sir, he is our dog, and you shall not abuse him in my presence!”
(To Be Continued)