“At this time there stood, near the Woodville road, about two miles southeast of Natchez, a plain country mansion, surrounded by the primeval forest, but its natural beauty was enhanced by art and cultivation. I know not whether it took its name from the prison home of Napoleon, but it was suited to the surroundings, and was called ‘Longwood.’”
The author of those words was Joseph Dunbar Shields, who in his 19th century book (The Life and Times of Seargent Smith Prentiss) described the home of Mary Williams. There, in 1842, she became the wife of Prentiss, a Mississippi lawyer and politician who was born and reared in Maine. Prentiss had made a fortune in Vicksburg in residential and commercial property acquired as the result of a court victory during his representation of some of the heirs of the town’s founder.
Shields wrote that Mary, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James C. Williams, “was then just blooming into womanhood. In the spring of 1841, I attended a convivial party in the neighborhood, and for the first time met and was struck with her beauty … It so happened in that same year Mr. Prentiss fell within the magic of her influence.”
William T. Johnson, the free man of color who operated a barbershop in Natchez, counted Prentiss as a customer. Johnson had noticed that the 33-year-old attorney was obviously in love. A change of habits gave Prentiss away. Now he “Gets Shaved twice A Day,” Johnson wrote in his diary.
The very fact that Prentiss had a girlfriend was noted from Natchez to Vicksburg and back home in Maine. A childhood illness had left Prentiss with a lame right leg. He could walk only by leaning on a cane or walking stick.
Despite the fact that he had a brilliant mind and among men the confidence of a prizefighter, he lost his voice in the company of women. How could they like a “cripple,” he wondered in a 19th century world when physical strength was often critical to success? Why would any woman long for his arms?
It caused Prentiss untold worry and depression. He avoided women but longed to have a wife. It took him years to realize that women really liked him and that, he, too, could enjoy romance and love.
A year before the marriage, Prentiss wrote his sister Anna about Mary. To Anna, Prentiss often expressed his deepest feelings.
Mary, he wrote, “is very beautiful, but so silent and shy … Her image is continually bobbing its pretty face into mine … could I find the slightest feeling of affection, responsive to my own, I would rejoice in laying my heart and fortunes at her feet.
“I have ever yearned for affection; I believe it is the only thing of which I am avaricious. The necessities of life, business, politics, and the excitements connected with them, have heretofore in some degree occupied my mind and held in suspense, but not satisfied this craving, this hunger of the heart.”
A WEDDING AT LONGWOOD
At Longwood, then a rural home in the woods outside the Natchez city limits, there gathered “on the evening of March 3, 1842 … a select company to witness the celebration of their marriage,” Shields recalled in his book.
The house in which Seargent Prentiss and Mary Williams were married was not the mansion Longwood that draws tourists from around the world today.
According to Dallas C. Dickey (Seargent S. Prentiss: Whig Orator of the Old South), the original Longwood home “was destroyed by fire some time in the 1850’s. Between the time of the fire and the outbreak of the Civil War the building of a new house was begun.”
Wrote Shields, “The ritual of the Protestant Episcopal Church for the ‘Solemnization of Matrimony’ is always impressive, but on this occasion, it must have been peculiarly so. The officiating minister, the Rev. David C. Page, rector of Trinity Church, was a man of imposing presence and the most eloquent reader of his day. There stood before him, genius offering itself at the shrine of beauty, purity, and innocence.
“A handsomer face than that of the groom, or a lovelier than that of the bride had rarely, if ever, appeared before the bridal altar. The deep voice of the one plighting his troth, the tremulous response of the other, and the solemn benediction at the close of the ceremony, can well he imagined … I have before me as I write, in the bold autograph of the rector, the entry made in the marriage registry: March 3, 1842, Seargent S. Prentiss and Mary Jane Williams.”
DESCENDANT OF PERCY
According to Shields, Prentiss’ wife, Mary, was a descendant (on her mother’s side) of the famous Percy family of England. That would have made Charles Percy one of her relatives.
Born in southern Ireland, Charles was the first Percy to settle in the American Southwest where he would die under disturbing circumstances in Wilkinson County in 1794.
Playwright William Shakespeare based his character “Hotspur” on one member of that family – Henry Percy.
By one account Charles was a disinherited son, but the only thing ever proven was that he was a bigamist. Bertram Wyatt-Brown reports in his book (The House of Percy) that Charles Percy fought for the British Army during the Seven Years War and at war’s end abandoned his wife and two children in London before briefly settling in Bermuda by the mid-1770s. There, he took up with a local woman who died after learning of Percy’s abandoned family back in England.
In the late 1770s, the British government awarded Percy a land grant for his war service completed before the American Revolution. He settled on 600 acres near St. Francisville, La., and also received payment for the alleged loss of a plantation in North Carolina as a result of the revolution.
Later, he carved out a plantation on Buffalo Creek in Wilkinson County where he lived for the rest of his life with his new wife and children. He named the plainly built plantation home Northumberland House in honor of his claimed family back in England.
Charles Percy had mental issues, a condition that author Wyatt-Brown says some of his descendants inherited. For years he suffered a variety of ailments -- seeing things that weren’t there and fearing things that didn’t exist. He was sleepless, irritable. He lost weight.
Finally, his delusions were beyond his control. Wyatt-Brown writes that in January 1794, Percy took down a brace of pistols, walked to the edge of a stream -- known today as Percy Creek -- took a heavy “tin pot” and waded into a deep spot and drowned himself.
THE HONEYMOON PARTY
In addition to Mary, his descendants included two famous writers, William Alexander Percy, who wrote the well-received 1940 non-fiction book on plantation life, Lanterns on the Levee, and novelist Walker Percy.
More than four decades after Charles Percy’s death, Mary was having a much better time of it.
The Vicksburg Whig announced the wedding and reported that Prentiss and “his young and beautiful bride took passage that same morning for New Orleans, on the steamer Sultana. We understand they leave in a few days for Washington City.”
Wrote Shields, “Business as well as pleasure called him to that place, for he now had on hand the prosecution of the Choctaw land claims, and he had to represent the matter before one of the departments there.”
En route, the steamer docked at Fort Adams, not far from the long-deceased Charles Percy and his Wilkinson County plantation.
Dr. Andrew R. Kilpatrick, soon to move his medical practice from Woodville to Concordia Parish, where he bought a plantation along the Black River, recalled:
"I got on the Sultana at Fort Adams when S. S. Prentiss was aboard on his bridal trip—married that morning at Natchez, and the whole bridal troupe went down to New Orleans … It was my first sight and acquaintance with Prentiss.
“I was charmed with his manners and appearance. He had the most handsome head, and it sat better on his neck and shoulders than any person I know. That was … when his fame was worldwide; yet … he was as bashful, timid and quiet as a boy of 16 in the presence of those ladies.
“At table he had nothing to say, but ate his meals quietly, almost stealthily. But as soon as he came down in the social hall, he was lively and chatted enough."
After the honeymoon, wrote Dickey, “Prentiss took his bride to Vicksburg. He built a new home at the corner of what is now Belmont Avenue and Washington Street and named it ‘Belmont.’
“This house, which was destroyed during the Civil War, was the Prentisses’ abode as long as they lived in Mississippi.”
The couple would have four children: Jane, born in 1843, George Lewis in 1844, Seargent Smith in 1847 and Eunice in 1848.