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Vicksburg History

When ‘Big Mama’ burned, Vicksburg lost a great attraction



The Sprague in Vicksburg, probably in the early 1960s. (Photo courtesy The Waterways Journal Weekly)

My grandfather was a steamboat engineer who spent most of his working life on U.S. Army Corps of Engineer vessels. But he had a fondness for the Sprague, dubbed “Big Mama of the Mississippi,” and we would often visit it to look at the vast collection of river photos.

The Sprague, built in 1901, was moored at the Vicksburg waterfront in the late ’40s as a shrine and marine museum. She was the largest steam-powered sternwheeler towboat ever built.

On the evening of April 15, 1974, we received a call that the boat was on fire. My father, then a Vicksburg firefighter, was summoned to come in to work, as they were calling every available person to come assist. The fire quickly engulfed the wooden vessel, and it burned throughout the night. We went to a location where we had a good vantage point and watched the once mighty boat disintegrate in the inferno.

The Sprague on fire. (Photo by Chris Faulk, courtesy The Waterways Journal Weekly)

There was much speculation as to the cause of the fire. Some believed it was possibly arson. Retired Vicksburg Fire Captain Wilford Cockrell related to me the same story that my father told me after the fire. Lt. Sheldon Kenworthy was the fire inspector for the department at the time. He had been trying for a while to get the operators of the Sprague to fix wiring issues on the decades-old boat. Most believe the fire was electrical in origin.

The remains of the Sprague were towed up the Yazoo Canal to the area known as the old “Government Fleet,” so named because the Corps tied up equipment and vessels there for many years before moving to the harbor area. It was there that what was left of the boat deteriorated and sank in 1979, during high water. The Corps dynamited the remains in 1981 to clear the channel.

Pieces of the mighty steamboat are strewn among several locations around Vicksburg. The capstans and kevels are in the park at Catfish Row. There are several pieces, including the smokestacks, in the weeds off North Washington Street. You will find more pieces near the Klondyke and the City Shop.

Marty Kittrell has lobbied for something to be done with the remains for many years. Visit his blog to see photos of several pieces of the boat.

The Sprague was once home to the annual summer staging of “Gold In The Hills” and was a tourist attraction at our city waterfront for years. Several vessels have attempted to take her place, but none were able to gain enough traction to sustain viability.

Once hailed as the most powerful steamboat and largest paddle wheeler on America’s waterways, the Sprague met a horrible end and with that end, Vicksburg lost a great attraction.

Read more about the Sprague here.

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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