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Vicksburg History

Dueling was a way of life, and death, in 1800s Vicksburg



A pistol similar to what would have been used in the 1830s and '40s in duels

A recent story on “The Black Knight,” Alexander McClung, sparked interest in the sordid history of dueling in the Vicksburg area during the 1800s.

McClung was reported to have killed 10 men in duels before taking his own life in a drunken fit at a Jackson hotel. But what a life he led. A contemporary of Jefferson Davis, a hero of the Mexican American War, undersecretary to the Ambassador of Bolivia and well-known rabble-rouser, McClung is one of dozens, maybe hundreds of duelers that enthralled folks in the Vicksburg area. From our first recorded newspaper, The Vicksburg Times and Republican, in 1825, up until the last days of the 19th century, that 75-year period is replete with stories of men defending their honor, the honor of their beloveds and sometimes, even the honor of those in their employ.

Dueling was governed by a long list of rules, almost all of which were about resolving an issue before it necessitated a visit to the dueling grounds. The gentlemen—and all the duelists were considered gentlemen—were expected to adhere to the rules before settling their dispute with deadly force.

“Whenever you believe that you are insulted, if the insult be in public and by words or behavior, never resent it there, if you have self-command enough to avoid noticing it” was rule No. 1 for “the person insulted, before challenge sent,” in the pamphlet “The Code of Honor: Rules for the Government, Principals and Seconds in Duelling.”

“If resented there, you offer an indignity to the company, which you should not.”

The pamphlet provided a rule for every bit of dueling minutiae, from how to send a challenge (“Let your note be in the language of a gentleman”) to the type of pistol that should be used (“smooth-bore pistols, not exceeding nine inches in length, with flint and steel”).

A handbook from 1858 on how to conduct yourself prior to, during and after a duel.

Gentlemen were expected to behave in a fashion reflective of their upbringing. Their conduct should have proceeded from goodwill and an acute sense of propriety; their self-control was expected to be equal to all emergencies. While rare in today’s world, the upper crust in the 1800s was held to that standard with a clear understanding that not doing so could result in financial ruin and early death.

Most of the local duels were held on a strip of land across the Yazoo River diversion canal called DeSoto Island. Dueling was illegal in Vicksburg and Warren County, and gentlemen wanted to avoid being arrested.

Duels were quite the event.

“It was 1838, when, one bright morning, all Vicksburg was crossing the river to the ‘battle ground,’ as the encounters were all in one place and of frequent occurrence, as any stranger who visited Vicksburg, contemplating settlement, if a professional gentleman, had of necessity to fight a duel, to establish his claim to gentility. The river was covered with skiffs or canoes, (usually called dugouts,) as it was always a gala day, and witnessed with as much gusto as a ‘bull-fight’ in Spain, or the old English and French tournament of the good old day of legalized chivalry.”

From “Scraps from the Prison Table: At Camp Chase and Johnson’s Island” by Joseph Barbière, 1868


A disgruntled gentleman properly defended his honor against a man of lesser integrity. He declares the lesser man a “poltroon and a cowardly puppy.”

A poltroon, according to the dictionary, is an utter coward. “Cowardly puppy” speaks for itself.

Despite the forced chivalry of our past, people died in duels and did so in a violent way. Perhaps some of the most infamous duelists in Vicksburg were its newspaper editors, who tended to fight one another. This description from “After Sundown” by Monroe F. Cockrell, 1961, tells of the Vicksburg Sentinel editors, whose penchant for fighting brought the paper to its demise.

“On January 31st, 1838, began the publication of the ‘Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel’ with James Hagan as its editor and publisher. The tragic history of this paper furnished one of the saddest chapters in the early story of the city. It was the organ of the Democratic party, an intensely partisan sheet, and though conducted with considerable ability, its vindictive and vituperative utterances constantly involved its editors in personal difficulties, five of whom on account of which met violent deaths, the first being James Hagan himself, the owner and proprietor, who was killed by Daniel Adams in a street encounter. The paper continued its precarious career until 1860, when Roy, its last editor was killed by Shepard at the corner of Washington and Clay Streets, shortly after which the ‘Vicksburg Sentinel’ breathed its last, leaving behind only a train of bloody memories.”

The tombstone at Cedar Hill Cemetery of Dr. James Hagan, one of five editors of the Vicksburg Sentinel to meet an untimely end by violent means.

The last duel in Vicksburg under The Code took place on Aug. 30, 1898, between “Hon. Chas. Scott, of Rosedale, and Mr. C. E. Wright, of this city” according to the account in the Vicksburg Herald published the following day.

“[T]wo shots were ex-changed with no serious results to either side,” the author wrote.

“Both Mr. Scott and Mr. Wright, according to the representatives, were calm and collected, neither showing the slightest nervousness,” he concludes. “They stood before each other as if they were engaging in a little target practice.”

Vicksburg History

The senator and the oyster



Walker Brooke (public domain)

It was Friday afternoon and a typical winter day in Vicksburg in 1869. Federal troops, garrisoned in the city to “reconstruct” it, policed the muddy streets. The inauguration of U.S. Grant as the 18th president of the United States was only a month away.

Local attorney and politician Walker Brooke and his friend, Sgt. Levi Fletcher of Maine, a Yankee soldier who was stationed in Vicksburg, stopped by the Bank Saloon, operated by F. Piazza, at the corner· of Crawford and Washington streets.

Seating themselves at a table in the rear of the building, they enjoyed friendly conversation. As it was February, a month with an “R” in it — which most folks thought made it safe to eat oysters — the two men ordered some, probably on the half shell.

They were having a good time, and when Brooke picked up a very large oyster, Fletcher joked that he bet the senator couldn’t swallow it whole. Brooke bet he could, and he plopped the big oyster into his mouth. As he swallowed, part of it lodged in his trachea, the other half in the pharynx, and Brooke began to choke. He tried to cough it up, but the oyster wouldn’t budge.

Sgt. Fletcher immediately sent for Dr. E.T. Henry, and the doctor opened Brook’s trachea with a knife. Using his fingers, the doctor forced the oyster back into Brooke’s mouth, but it lodged again in the esophagus. By this time, Brooke was bleeding badly and passed out.

Six more physicians arrived — doctors Hunt, Whitehead, Balfour, O’Leary, Duncan and finally, Dr. Swift (the latter two were stationed in Vicksburg with the occupation forces). None of them could alleviate the pain, though the oyster was removed.

At dusk the unconscious senator was taken to his home which stood at the corner of South and Cherry streets where the First Presbyterian Church is now located. At 3:15 the next morning he died, and later that day a group of citizens met to pass resolutions of respect.

A native of Virginia, Brooke was born on Christmas Day 1813, and was a graduate of the University of Virginia. He taught school in Kentucky for two years before moving to Holmes County, Mississippi, where he made his home in Lexington. In 1840 he married Jane Eskridge of Carroll County, and to them were born 10 children.

Brooke served in the state Senate from 1850 to 1852 when he was elected to the United States Senate to fill the unexpired term of Henry Stuart Foote who had been elected governor. Brooke and his family moved to Vicksburg in 1857 where he entered the legal profession.

Brooke was a Whig but eventually became a Union Democrat. As a Warren County delegate to the Secession Convention in Jackson in 1861, he urged that the measure be put to popular vote. Once the die was cast, he cooperated with the secessionists and was a member of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States in Montgomery, Alabama. When he sought a full term as a Confederate senator, he was defeated and returned to Vicksburg.

Walker Brooke was a very popular man in Vicksburg, and when his funeral was held Feb. 21, 1869, Sunday morning at 11 o’clock, the Presbyterian Church where he had worshiped and the courthouse where he had gained fame in the legal profession were draped in black. The courthouse bell tolled as the procession passed, and the United States Army Band played the funeral dirge for the former Confederate official.

While his body lay in state, it was guarded by a dozen lawyers and a dozen Masons as an act of respect. Services were conducted by Dr. C.K. Marshall and the Rev. Mr. Wheeler, and pallbearers included many prominent men as well as several officers of the Union Army.

The editor of the Vicksburg Daily Herald noted that Brooke “fell in the midst of friends and in the fullness of his strength.” He was 55 when he died. The editor went on to say that Brooke was a speaker noted for his power, beauty and effect, and described him as one who “read much and thought more.”

“A more noble, true or generous man than Hon. Walker Brooke will never ‘hallow a grave’ in Warren,” the editor concluded.

A year later, a portrait of the senator was placed in the courtroom of the Old Court House where it still hangs.

Years later, a very large pearl, retrieved from the murderous oyster and possibly responsible for the tragedy, was lost when the Fletcher home burned.

Walker Brooke was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, and a simple stone marks his grave, but therein lies quite a story.

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Gen. Grant’s ‘Truce’ of Vicksburg



The statue of Gen. Grant in the Vicksburg National Military Park. (photo by Calstanhope - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

There’s a small white stone in the Dockery family graveyard at Lamartine in Columbia County, Arkansas, with the simple inscription “Truce” on it, and therein lies a story.

Thomas Pleasant Dockery was a Confederate general in the Siege of Vicksburg, commanding the second brigade under Gen. John S. Bowen.

Dockery was born in North Carolina but grew up near Magnolia, Arkansas, on the Louisiana-Arkansas border, not far from Shreveport. He entered the Confederate States Army as a colonel.

During the siege, Mrs. Dockery, like many officers’ wives, tried to stay close to the army to be near her husband. She found lodging at a home in the county outside Federal lines. She could hear the roar of the cannons, and she spent many anxious moments concerned about her husband’s safety. Like many others, she prayed that relief might come for the entrapped Confederates, but it never came.

After the surrender on July 4, 1863, Mrs. Dockery persuaded her host to take her to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters so that she might learn something about her husband. The planter found a rickety old buggy, one in such poor con­dition the Yankees wouldn’t want it. He caught an old mule so frail he had also been spared, tied some leather and rope into a harness, hitched the mule to the buggy and he and Mrs. Dockery started for Vicksburg.

It was hot and dusty but eventually they made it to the vicinity of Grant’s headquarters. A guard refused to allow them to pass. That, however, was before Mrs. Dockery burst into tears — and he couldn’t bear to see a lady cry. She begged the guard to go to Grant and tell him that a lady in great distress needed to see him. The soldier soon returned with an invitation for Mrs. Dockery and her friend to come to headquarters right away.

Terrible stories had been circulated about Grant, but he received Mrs. Dockery courteously, gave her cool water and seated her in a comfortable chair. She told him of her concern about her husband, asking for permission to visit him. Grant couldn’t give her a pass without breaking his own rules; however, he would get news of Gen. Dockery by sending an orderly to find out about him.

Grant insisted that his guests join him for dinner, and when the meal was finished, the soldier returned with a message that Gen. Dockery was in good health and would visit his wife as soon as he was permitted.

Grant wrote a pass on a scrap of paper for the Confederate officer and his wife to return to their home in Arkansas upon their honor and pending further orders. The Northern commander slipped it into her hand as they parted.

It was several days before arrangements could be made for the Dockerys to leave, and the story was told that on the day of the departure of the Confederate soldiers, followed by their officers and wives, Grant was watching. At his feet was a white Spitz dog that had attached itself to headquarters. He had become a favorite of the men and of Gen. Grant.

As the Dockery’s carriage drew near, Grant picked up the little white dog and handed it to Mrs. Dockery, saying, “Let this be a flag of truce between us, madam, and may my men possess the courage you have shown during the siege.”

The dog was from then on called Truce and became as greatly loved by the men in gray as it had been by those who wore blue.

Eventually Gen. Dockery was exchanged and returned to his duties in Confederate service, taking Truce with him. One story of the dog’s service was that one night after a long march, with the men stretched out on the ground asleep, one soldier was aroused by Truce tugging at his sleeve. Annoyed, he tried to make the whining dog leave him alone. Undaunted, Truce went to wake the next soldier.

Just then, a bullet grazed where the soldier’s head had been resting. By then, everyone was awake, ready for a fight. Truce’s keen perception of danger had saved their lives.

Truce survived the war in which the dog had become a mascot for the Confederate soldiers. It is said that at the dog’s death he was buried in a small satin-lined casket, and some Confederate veterans conducted the burial.

Only the name Truce is on the gravestone, but there is quite a story that goes with it.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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In defense of a bedbug



The portrait of Seargent Smith Prentiss, who died in 1850, was painted posthumously by an unknown artist and has been hanging in the courtroom of the Old Court House Museum since 1860. (Image courtesy Gordon Cotton)

Verse by great poets has been written in honor of a louse — and possibly other critters — but it was a Vicksburg attorney who delivered perhaps the most eloquent speech of his illustrious career when he spoke in defense of a bedbug.

The attorney was Seargent Smith Prentiss, considered one of the greatest orators in U.S. history. Speeches and pleas by the attorney and congressman captivated audiences and brought lavish praise from such men as Daniel Webster.

Prentiss came to Mississippi from Maine at the age of 19 in 1827. For a while he lived in Natchez and taught school for the Shields family at the Maryland Settlement in Jefferson County. He was admitted to the bar and soon moved to Vicksburg where he was active in Whig politics and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The small-in-stature Prentiss was 5-feet 6-inches tall and walked with the aid of a cane because of a badly crippled foot. His forehead, like Webster’s, was high and broad, and his eyes were as penetrating as his voice was commanding. No other attorney wanted to face him in court for Prentiss seldom lost a case.

Two things Prentiss enjoyed were liquor and practical jokes.

When inspired with enough spirits, Prentiss was a master at entertaining. He was in just such a condition in the mid-1830s when he made his famous bedbug speech.

One evening Prentiss and fellow attorney Sam Gholson were traveling and stopped at a hotel in Raymond, Mississippi. After several hours at the bar the two secured a room for the night. For an hour or more, they slept soundly in the double bed, but Prentiss awakened suddenly to discovered that they had many small “bedmates.” He shook Gholson until he was awake as well, and they then debated whether to leave the hotel or meet the enemy head on.

Intoxicated to the point of being ridiculous, Prentiss and Gholson decided to attack. So, arising in their night shirts, they lit the lamp, drew their pistols and preceded to exterminate the tiny enemies. As a bedbug came forth, they would smite it with a bullet.

An interpretation of the massacre of the bedbugs at a Raymond, Mississippi, hotel was done in pen and ink by David Kleinman, an artist who grew up in Vicksburg but now lives in Ocean Springs. (Image courtesy Gordon Cotton)

It didn’t take long before the owner of the hotel came running. Prentiss told him they were simply exercising the right of self-defense, “granted by law of man and God.” Amid the frantic pleas of the landlord, the shooting continued until mattress and bed were demolished in the smoke-filled room.

And then a tiny, last culprit appeared and Prentiss caught the critter. Gholson immediately urged execution of the sole survivor of the massacre, but Prentiss pled for mercy. Both decided the bug deserved a trial by his fellow countrymen. Quickly, they got another attorney who was staying at the hotel to act as judge, and the landlord’s sons and others were brought in to serve as the jury.

For two hours Gholson, speaking for the state, prosecuted the case against the bedbug. Then the eloquent Prentiss spoke in the insignificant creature’s defense.

Prentiss talked for more than three hours, until dawn arrived, and the guests at the hotel who crowded the room to hear the great orator termed it the best address of his career. Unfortunately, no court stenographer was present, so Prentiss’ words were not recorded for posterity.

The fate of the bedbug? He was acquitted. He deserved it after over five hours of speechmaking past the midnight hour. He had enjoyed the services of Seargent Smith Prentiss, something many humans couldn’t financially afford.

The bedbug? He was set free to probably bite again.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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