The Bench and Bar of Mississippi

SEARGENT S. PRENTISS (inset) was born in 1808 in Portland, Maine, where the lighthouse there was a familiar sight to sea captains, including Prentiss’ father. As George Prentiss wrote in a book on the life of his brother, Seargent, the “home of a sea-captain is marked by peculiar excitement and gladness during his visits, followed by unusual fears, anxiety, and loneliness while he is away. How differently affected are his wife and children by the wintry blasts, by tidings of shipwrecks and storms at sea, by reports of pirates and naval captures, from those of the landsman.” (Portrait Credit: Library of Congress)

Seargent Smith Prentiss was one of the nation’s greatest orators before the 41-year-old’s death in 1850 at Longwood mansion in Natchez. 

In the decades to follow, what is now one of the town’s most-traveled streets was given his name. 

But beyond that, few know much, if anything, about him. During his day, the people and even Congress were electrified and inspired by his words. 

  

GROWING UP IN MAINE 

  

Prentiss’ life was forever marked by a childhood illness in his native Maine that almost took his life. 

Mississippi historian Dunbar Rowland wrote that when “Seargent was an infant he was attacked by an almost fatal illness, followed by paralysis. This was mainly cured by massage and plunges in cold water, daily, for several years, by” his “devoted mother, but one limb {right leg} she was unable to save from withering, and throughout life he was a cripple, requiring with the help of a cane to walk about or stand before an audience. With this one exception he was physically perfect, though short of stature {5-foot-6}. The beauty of his face, the vigor of his body, enhanced the charm and power of his words. In speaking he lisped slightly, but this was not considered a defect.” 

In mind, Prentiss was a giant. 

As a child he read the Bible and the works of Shakespeare several times. Once he read something he never forgot it. A friend said that when Prentiss held a book he read one page with the left eye and the other with his right. 

He grew up hearing stories about pirates, storms, shipwrecks and commerce from his father, a sea captain. Many a night he sat at the fireside of his material grandfather, who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and heard stories of politics and war. 

Despite his physical disability, Prentiss was an avid hunter and fisherman. He loved to “go a-gunning” for squirrels and ducks and knew every honey hole on every trout stream in the area. On their small farm, he rode the horse to help plough and till the ground, dropped seeds during planting, weeded the garden and husked corn. 

During his late teens, Prentiss decided to become a lawyer. It was an era when lawyers seemed to operate on every street corner in the northeast, so Prentiss opted to travel to Cincinnati on the Ohio River, complete his law degree and practice there. In the meantime, he planned to teach school to earn a living. 

  

SOUTHERN SUCCESS 

  

Later, after teaching in Church Hill in Jefferson County, Miss., and obtaining his law degree, he anchored in Vicksburg, then a thriving frontier town much like Natchez in her early years. There he became one of the most famous criminal and civil lawyers in the South, once convincing a jury to acquit in Kentucky three Mississippians accused of murdering two Kentuckians during a brawl in a Louisville hotel. 

He served in the Mississippi Legislature, argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and stood before the U.S. House of Representatives arguing his contested election to Congress in Mississippi during a tumultuous week in Washington, a town that quickly filled with reporters. The great leaders of the Senate, including Henry Clay, were awed by his speech. Daniel Webster said of Prentiss’ oration: “Nobody could equal it.” 

During his campaign speeches in Mississippi, Prentiss drew crowds so great that they were measured in acres, not in people. 

While a lawyer in Vicksburg, he fought two duels against the same man. He experienced enormous financial success early on but later suffered economic ruin. At times, he drank too much. 

But there were constants in life that never wavered, particularly his love for his family and his lifelong financial support of his mother, Abigail, and two sisters, Ann and Abby. Throughout his days, he wrote long, loving letters to all three. 

He was the son every mother wanted. He never forget his mother’s loving hands and soothing words as his fever raged on and off for years. Every Sabbath evening when she prayed with her children, Prentiss kneeled beside her chair. 

Upon arriving in Natchez at age 19, he wrote a letter home about his trip down the Ohio and Mississippi. 

  

LETTER TO MOTHER 

  

Natchez, Miss. 

November 8, 1827 

My Dear Mother: 

You have, probably, received before this a letter dated at Louisville, Ky., informing you that I had left Cincinnati for this place. I arrived here yesterday, having been about three weeks in performing the journey. 

The steamboat ran aground several times upon the sand-bars, on one of which she lay a week. While the hands were getting her off, the passengers would go ashore, and hunt, there being plenty of game in the woods. I came very near, at one time, being left behind by my love of hunting. The boat had run aground one morning, and the captain told us we might go a gunning, as he didn't think he should be able to get her off before night. 

Accordingly several of us went ashore with our guns, and, went into the woods. I parted from the rest, and followed up a little creek in pursuit of some wild ducks. Having spent a couple of hours, and killed three of the ducks, I returned to the bank of the river—when, behold! the boat was gone. 

There was a little log cabin close by (the only habitation for perhaps thirty miles round), where I immediately inquired what had become of the boat, and was told she had started at least an hour before. I was, as you may well imagine, in a pretty pickle. They told me, however, that she would, probably, stop to take in wood about two miles below, and that, if I was expeditious, I might, possibly, overtake her. 

I accordingly threw away my ducks, shouldered my musket and marched on as fast as I could. Upon arriving at the place, I saw the boat had left it, and was nearly half a mile on her way. I hailed her as loudly as possible, when she put about, came back and took me in. But if I had been one minute later, I should have lost my chance. 

I could have staid, however, at the log-cabin, till another boat came along. But it was a dreary place, and in the midst of the forest. Tell Abby to look upon her map at about the middle of that part of the State of Indiana which borders on the Ohio river, and she will be near the spot. 

The country is very little inhabited on the banks either of the Ohio or the Mississippi. Most of it, along the Mississippi especially, is entirely overflowed for half the year. Sometimes there's a little spot which can be cultivated, and in such places I have seen the corn fifteen feet high. The banks of the Mississippi are also covered with immense brakes of cane, or reed, which grow very thick together, and are of a most beautiful green. 

I had letters to some of the first men in Natchez, which I have delivered; and they tell me they have no doubt I shall obtain, in a few days, such a situation as I wish. They appear very friendly, and offer to assist me in any way I may desire. 

I am very anxious to hear from you all. You must write often, and tell me how everything goes on at home—how the neighbors do, and what crops you have raised from the farm. Tell Uncle James to write me too, if he has not already done so. You will hear from me again soon. 

In the meantime, my love to you all. 

Your affectionate son, 

S. S. P. 

(To Be Continued)

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