George L. Prentiss.

The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss online

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We may never hear what his fate was, but the suspense has been dreadful.

Her interest in the national struggle was intense and her conviction of
its Providential character unwavering. To a friend, who seemed to her a
little lukewarm on the subject, she wrote at this time:

For my part, I am sometimes afraid I shall die of joy if we ever gain a
complete and final victory. You can call this spunk if you choose.
But my spunk has got a backbone of its own and that is deep-seated
conviction, that this is a holy war, and that God himself sanctions it.
He spares nothing precious when He has a work to do. No life is too
valuable for Him to cut short, when any of His designs can be furthered
by doing so. But I could talk a month and not have done, you wicked

_To her Husband, Hunter, June 27, 1864._

This morning, after breakfast, I sallied out with six children to take a
most charming walk, scramble, climb, etc. We put on our worst old duds,
tuck up our skirts June 27, knee-high, and have a regular good time of
it. If you were awake so early as eight o'clock - I don't believe you
were! you might have seen us with a good spy-glass, and it would have
made your righteous soul leap for joy to see how we capered and laughed,
and what strawberries we picked, and how much of a child A. turned into.
They all six "played run" till they had counted twelve and then they
tumbled down and rolled in the grass, till I wondered what their bones
were made of. I do not see that we could have found a better place for
the children. What with the seven calves, the cows, the sheep, the two
pet lambs, the dogs, hens, chickens, horses, etc., they are perfectly
happy. Just now they have been to see the butter made and to get a drink
of buttermilk. We have lots of strawberries and cream, pot-cheese,
Johnny-cakes, and there are always eggs and milk at our service. From
diplomatic motives I advise you not to say too much about Hunter to
people asking questions. It would entirely spoil its only great charm if
a rush of silly city folks should scent it out. It is really a primitive
place and that you can say. Mr. Coe preached an excellent sermon on
Sunday morning.

_To Mrs. Smith, Hunter, July 4, 1864._

I have just been off, all alone, foraging, and have come home bringing
my sheaves with me: ground pine and red berries, with which I have made
a beautiful wreath. I have also adorned the picture of Gen. Grant with
festoons of evergreens, conjuring him the while not to disappoint our
hopes, but to take Richmond. Alas! you may know, by this time, that he
can't; but in lack of news since a week ago, I can but hope for the
best. I've taken a pew and we contrive to squeeze into it in this wise:
first a child, then a mother, then a child, then an Annie, then a child,
the little ones being stowed in the cracks left between us big ones. Mr.
R., the parson, looking fit to go straight into his grave, was up here
to get a wagon as he was going for a load of chips. His wife was at
home sick, without any servant, had churned three hours and the butter
wouldn't come, and has a pew full of little ones. Oh, my poor sisters in
the ministry! my heart aches for them. Mr. R. gave us a superior sermon
last Sunday.... I know next to nothing about what is going on in the
world. But George writes that he feels decidedly pleased with the look
of things. He has been carrying on like all possessed since I left,
having company to breakfast, lunch, dinner, and finally went and had Chi
Alpha all himself.

_July 25th._ - We went one day last week on a most delightful excursion,
twenty-one of us in all. Our drive was splendid and the scenery sublime;
even we distinguished Swiss travellers thought so! We came to one spot
where ice always is found, cut out big pieces, ate it, drank it, threw
it at each other and carried on with it generally. We had our dinner
on the grass in the woods. We brought home a small cartload of natural
brackets; some of them beautiful.

_August 1st._ - You have indeed had a "rich experience." [11] We all read
your letter with the deepest interest and feel that it would have been
good to be there. Your account of Caro shows what force of character she
possessed, as well as what God's grace can do and do quickly. This is
not the first time He has ripened a soul into full Christian maturity
with almost miraculous rapidity. A veteran saint could not have laid
down his armor and adjusted himself to meet death with more calmness
than did this young disciple. I do not wonder her family were borne, for
the time, above their sorrow, but alas! their bitter pangs of anguish
are yet to meet them. Her poor mother! How much she has suffered and has
yet to suffer! all the more because she bears it so heroically.

_To Miss Emily S. Gilman, Hunter, Aug 1, 1864._

You must have wondered why I did not answer your letter and your book,
for both of which I thank you. Well, it has been such dry, warm weather,
that I have not felt like writing; besides, for nurse I have only a
little German girl fourteen years old, who never was out of New York
before, and whom I have been so determined on spoiling that I couldn't
bear to take her off from her play to mend, patch, darn, wash faces,
necks, feet, etc., and unconsciously did every thing there was to do
for the children and a little more besides. I like the little book very
much. You have the greatest knack, you girls, of lighting on nice books
and nice hymns. We are right in the midst of most charming walks. Here
is a grove and there is a brook; here is a creek, almost a river (big
enough at any rate to get on to the map) and there a mountain. As to
ferns and mosses for your poetical side, and as for raspberries and
blackberries for your t'other side, time would fail me if I should begin
to speak of them. I think a great deal of you and your sisters when off
on foraging expeditions, and wish you were here notwithstanding you are
mossy and ferny there. We have as yet made only one excursion. That was
delightful and gave us our first true idea of the Catskills. Before
Mr. P. came I usually went off on my forenoon walk alone, unless the
children trooped after, and came home a miniature Birnam wood, with all
sorts of things except creeping things and flying fowl.

I have just finished reading to M. and a little girl near her age, a
little French book you would like, called "Augustin." I never met with
a sweeter picture of a loving child anywhere. Well, I may as well stop
writing. Remember me lovingly to all your dear household.

To Mrs. Stearns she writes, Sept. 16:

How much faith and patience we poor invalids do need! The burden of life
sits hard on our weary shoulders. I think the mountain air has agreed
with our children better than the seaside has done, but George craves
the ocean and the bathing. He spent this forenoon, as he has a good many
others, in climbing the side of the mountain for exercise, views, and
blackberries. I go with him sometimes. We had a few days' visit from
Prof. Hopkins. He has heard confirmation of the rumors of poor Eddy's
death and burial. He means to go to Ashland as soon as the state of the
country makes it practicable, but has little hope of identifying E.'s
remains. It is a great sorrow to him to _lose all he had_ in this
horrible way, but he bears it with wonderful faith and patience, and
says he never prayed for his son's life after he went into action. Some
letters received by him, give a pleasant idea of the Christian stand E.
took after entering the army. I believe this is Lizzie P - - 's wedding
day. There is a beautiful rainbow smiling on it from our mountain home,
and I hope a real one is glorifying hers.

_To Miss Gilman, Hunter, Sept. 17._

Oh, I wish you were here on this glorious day! The foliage has begun to
turn a little, and the mountains are in a state bordering on perfection.
It is wicked for me stay in-doors even to write this, but it seems as if
a letter from here would carry with it a savor of mountain air, and must
do you more good than one from the city could. I wish I had thought
sooner to ask you if you would like some of our mosses. I _thought_ I
had seen mosses before, but found I had not. I will enclose some dried
specimens. I thought, while I was in the woods this morning, that I
never had thanked God half enough for making these lovely things and
giving us tastes wherewith to enjoy them.

You ask if I have spilled ink all down the side of this white house.
Yes, I have, wo be unto me. I was sick abed and got up to write to Mr.
P., not wanting him to know I was sick, and one of the children came in
and I snatched him up in my lap to hug and kiss a little, and he, of
course, hit the pen and upset the inkstand and burst out crying at my
dismay. Then might have been seen a headachy woman catching the apoplexy
by leaning out of the window and scrubbing paint, sacrificing all her
nice rags in the process, and dreadfully mortified into the bargain....
Yesterday we were all caught in a pouring rain when several miles from
home on the side of the mountain, blackberrying. We each took a child
and came rolling and tearing down through the bushes and over stones,
H.'s little legs flying as little legs rarely fly. We nearly died with
laughing, and if I only knew how to draw, I could make you laugh by
giving you a picture of the scene. You will judge from this that we are
all great walkers; so we are. I take the children almost everywhere, and
they walk miles every day. Well, I will go now and get you some scraps
of pressed mosses.

* * * * *


The Death of President Lincoln. Dedication of the Church of the
Covenant. Growing Insomnia. Resolves to try the Water-cure. Its
beneficial Effects. Summer at Newburgh. Reminiscence of an Excursion
to Paltz Point. Death of her Husband's Mother. Funeral of her Nephew,
Edward Payson Hopkins.

Two events rendered the month of April, 1865, especially memorable to
Mrs. Prentiss. One was the assassination of President Lincoln on the
evening of Good Friday. She had been very ill, and her husband, on
learning the dreadful news from the morning paper, thought it advisable
to keep it from her for a while; but one of the children, going into her
chamber, burst into tears and thus betrayed the secret. Her state of
nervous prostration and her profound, affectionate admiration for Mr.
Lincoln, made the blow the most stunning by far she ever received from
any public calamity. It was such, no doubt, to tens of thousands;
indeed, to the American people. No Easter morning ever before dawned
upon them amid such a cloud of horror, or found them so bowed down with
grief. The younger generation can hardly conceive of the depth and
intensity, or the strange, unnatural character, of the impression made
upon the minds of old and young alike, by this most foul murder. [12]

The other event was of a very different character and filled her with
great joy. It was the dedication, on the last Sunday in April, of the
new church edifice, whose growth she had watched with so much interest.

In the spring of 1865 she was induced, by the entreaty of friends who
had themselves tested his skill, to consult Dr. Schieferdecker, a noted
hydropathist, and later to place herself under his care. In a letter to
her cousin, Miss Shipman, she writes: "I want to tell you, but do
not want you to mention it to anyone, that I have been to see Dr.
Schieferdecker to know what he thought of my case. He says that I might
go on dieting to the end of my days and not get well, but that his
system could and would cure me, only it would take a _long_ time. I have
not decided whether to try his process, but have no doubt he understands
my disease." Dr. Schieferdecker had been a pupil and was an enthusiastic
disciple of Priesnitz. He had unbounded faith in the healing properties
of water. He was very impulsive, opinionated, self-confident, and
accustomed to speak contemptuously of the old medical science and those
who practised it. But for all that, he possessed a remarkable sagacity
in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic disease. Mrs. Prentiss went
through the "cure" with indomitable patience and pluck, and was rewarded
by the most beneficial results. Her sleeplessness had become too
deep-rooted to be overcome, but it was greatly mitigated and her general
condition vastly improved. She never ceased to feel very grateful to Dr.
Schieferdecker for the relief he had afforded her, and for teaching her
how to manage herself; for after passing from under his care, she still
continued to follow his directions. "No tongue can tell how much I am
indebted to him," she wrote in 1869. "I am like a ship that after poking
along twenty years with a heavy load on board, at last gets into port,
unloads, and springs to the surface."

_To Miss E. S. Gilman, New York, Feb. 23, 1865._

It is said to be an ill wind that blows nobody good, and as I am
still idling about, doing absolutely nothing but receive visits from
neuralgia, I have leisure to think of poor Miss - - . I wrote to ask
her if there was anything she wanted and could not get in her region;
yesterday I received her letter, in which she mentions a book, but says
"anything that is useful for body or mind" would be gratefully received.
Now I got the impression from that article in the Independent, that she
could take next to no nourishment. Do you know what she _does_ take, and
can you suggest, from what you know, anything she would like? What's the
use of my being sick, if it isn't for her sake or that of some other
suffering soul? I want, very much, to get some things together and send
her; nobody knows who hasn't experienced it, how delightfully such
things break in on the monotony of a sick-room. Just yet I am not strong
enough to do anything; my hands tremble so that I can hardly use even a
pen; yet you need not think I am much amiss, for I go out every pleasant
day, to ride, and some days can take quite a walk. The trouble is that
when the pain returns, as it does several times a day, it knocks my
strength out of me. I hope when all parts of my frame have been visited
by this erratic sprite, it may find it worth while to beat a retreat.
Only to think, we are going to move to No. 70 East Twenty-seventh
street, and you have all been and gone away! The rent is _enormous_,
$1,000 having been just added to an already high price. Our people
have taken that matter in hand and no burden of it will come on us. I
received your letter and am much obliged to you for writing to Miss
- - , for me; the reason I did not do it was, that it seemed like
hurrying her up to thank me for the little drop of comfort I sent her.
Dear me! it's hard to be sick when people send you quails and jellies,
and fresh eggs, and all such things - but to be sick and suffer for
necessaries must be terrible.

_To the Same, New York, March 9, 1865._

I thank you for the details of Miss - - 's case, as I wished to describe
them to some friends. I sent her ten dollars yesterday for two of my
friends. I also sent off a box by express, for the contents of which I
had help. The things were such as I had persuaded her to mention; a new
kind of farina, figs, two portfolios (of course she didn't ask for two,
but I had one I thought she would, perhaps, like better than the one I
bought), a few crackers, and several books. Mr. P. added one of those
beautiful large-print editions of the Psalms which will, I think, be a
comfort to her. I shall also send Adelaide Newton by-and-by; I thought
she had her hands full of reading for the present, and the great thing
is not to heap comforts on her all at once and then leave her to her
fate, but keep up a stream of such little alleviations as can be
provided. She said, she had poor accommodations for writing, so I
greatly enjoyed fitting up the portfolio which was none the worse for
wear, with paper and envelopes, a pencil with rubber at the end, a
cunning little knife, some stamps, for which there was a small box, a
few pens, etc. I know it will please you to hear of this, and as the
money was furnished me for the purpose, you need not set it down to my

I meant to go to see your sister, but my head is still in such a weak
state that though I go to walk nearly every day, I can not make calls.
It is five weeks since I went to church, for the same reason. It is a
part of God's discipline with me to keep me shut up a good deal more
than the old Adam in me fancies; but His way is _absolutely perfect_,
and I hope I wouldn't change it in any particular, if I could. Have you
Pusey's tract, "Do all to the Lord Jesus"? If not, I must send it to
you. It seems as if I had a lot of things I wanted to say, but after
writing a little my hands and arms begin to tremble so that I can hardly
write plainly. You never saw such a lazy life as I lead now-a-days; I
can't do _any_ thing. I advise you to do what you have to do for Christ
_now_; by the time you are as old as I am perhaps you will have the will
and not the power. Well, good-bye till next time.

The summer of this year was passed at Newburgh in company with the
Misses Butler - now Mrs. Kirkbride, of Philadelphia, and Mrs. Booth,
of Liverpool - and the families of Mr. William Allen Butler, Mr. B.
F. Butler, and Mr. John P. Crosby, to all of whom Mrs. Prentiss was
strongly attached. The late Mr. Daniel Lord, the eminent lawyer, with
a portion of his family, had also a cottage near by and was full of
hospitable kindness. In spite of the exacting hydropathic treatment, she
found constant refreshment and delight in the society of so many dear
friends. "The only thing I have to complain of" she wrote, "is everybody
being too good to me. How different it is being among friends to being
among strangers!"

In a letter to her husband, dated New York, Sept. 15, 1879, Mr. William
Allen Butler gives the following reminiscence of an excursion to Paltz
Point and an evening at Newburgh:

From the date you, give in your note (to which I have just recurred)
of our trip to Paltz Point, it seems that in writing you to-day I have
unwittingly fallen on the anniversary of that pleasant excursion.
Without this reminder I could not have told the day or the year, but
of the excursion itself I have always had a vivid and delightful
recollection; and, if I am not mistaken, Mrs. Prentiss enjoyed it as
fully as any one of the merry party. It was only on that jaunt and in
our summer home at Newburgh that I had the opportunity of knowing her
readiness to enter into that kind of enjoyment, which depends upon the
co-operation of every member of a circle for the entertainment of all.
The elements of our group were well commingled, and the bright things
evoked by their contact and friction were neither few nor far between.
The game to which you allude of "Inspiration" or "Rhapsody" was a
favorite. The evening at Paltz Point called out some clever sallies, of
which I have no record or special recollection; but I know that then, as
always, Mrs. Prentiss seemed to have at her pencil's point for instant
use the wit and fancy so charmingly exhibited in her writings. She
published somewhere an account of one of our inspired or rhapsodical
evenings, but greatly to my regret failed to include in it her own
contribution which was the best of all. I distinctly remember the time
and scene - the September evening - the big, square sitting-room of the
old Seminary building in which you boarded - the bright faces whose
radiance made up in part for the limitations of artificial light - the
puzzled air which every one took on when presented with the list of
unmanageable words, to be reproduced in their consecutive order in prose
or verse composition within the next quarter or half hour - the stillness
which supervened while the enforced "pleasures" of "poetic pains" or
prose agony were being undergone - the sense of relief which supplemented
the completion of the batch of extempore effusions - and the fun which
their reading provoked. Mrs. Prentiss had contrived out of the odd and
incoherent jumble of words a choice bit of poetic humor and pathos,
which I never quite forgave her for omitting in the publication of the
nonsense written by other hands. These trifles as they seemed at the
time, and as in fact they were, become less insignificant in the
retrospect, as we associate them with the whole character and being
we instinctively love to place at the farthest remove from gloom or
sadness, and as they rediscover to us in the distance the native
vivacity and grace of which they were the chance expression. Since that
summer of 1865, having lived away from New York, I saw little of Mrs.
Prentiss, but I have a special remembrance of one little visit you made
at our home in Yonkers which she seemed very much to enjoy - saying of
the reunion which made it so pleasant to the members of our family and
all who happened to be together at the time, that it was "like heaven."

During the summer of 1865 the sympathies of Mrs. Prentiss were much
wrought upon by the sickness and death of her husband's mother, who
entered into rest on the 9th of August, in the eighty-fourth year of her
age. On the 12th of the previous January, she with the whole family
had gone to Newark to celebrate the eighty-third birthday of this aged
saint. Had they known it was to be the last, they could have wished
nothing changed. It was a perfect winter's day, and the scene in the old
parsonage was perfect too. There, surrounded by children and children's
children, sat the venerable grandmother with a benignant smile upon her
face and the peace of God in her heart. As she received in birthday
gifts and kisses and congratulations their loving homage, the measure of
her joy was full, and she seemed ready to say her _Nunc dimittis_. She
belonged to the number of those holy women of the old time who trusted
in God and adorned themselves with the ornament of a meek and quiet
spirit, and whose children to the latest generation rise up and call
them blessed.

In the course of this year her sympathies were also deeply touched by
repeated visits from her brother-in-law, Professor Hopkins, on his way
to and from Virginia. Allusion has been made already to the death of her
nephew, Lieutenant Edward Payson Hopkins. He was killed in battle while
gallantly leading a cavalry charge at Ashland, in Virginia, on the 11th
of May, 1864. In June of the following year his father went to Ashland
with the hope of recovering the body. Five comrades had fallen with
Edward, and the negroes had buried them without coffins, side by side,
in two trenches in a desolate swampy field and under a very shallow
covering of earth. The place was readily discovered, but it was found
impossible to identify the body. The disappointed father, almost
broken-hearted, turned his weary steps homeward. When he reached
Williamstown his friends said, "He has grown ten years older since he
went away."

Several months later he learned that there were means of identification
which could not fail, even if the body had already turned to dust.
Accordingly he again visited Ashland, attended this time by soldiers, a
surgeon, and Government officials. His search proved successful, and,
to his joy, not only was the body identified, but, owing to the swampy
nature of the ground, it was found to be in an almost complete state of
preservation. There was something wonderfully impressive in the grave
aspect and calm, gentle tone of the venerable man, as with his precious
charge he passed through New York on his way home. In a letter to Mrs.
Prentiss, dated January 2d, 1866, he himself tells the story of the
re-interment at Williamstown:

... After stopping a minute at my door the wagon passed at once to
the cemetery, and the remains were deposited in the tomb. This was on
Thursday. After consulting with my brother and his son (the chaplain) I
determined to wait till the Sabbath before the interment. Accordingly,
at 3 o'clock - after the afternoon service - the remains of my dear boy
were placed beside those of his mother. The services were simple, but
solemn in a high degree. They were opened by an address from Harry.
Prayer followed by Rev. Mr. Noble, now supplying the desk here. He
prefaced his prayer by saying that he never saw Edward but once, when he
preached at Williamstown at a communion and saw him sitting beside me
and partaking with me. Singing then followed by the choir of which Eddy
was for a long time a member. The words were those striking lines of

Go to the grave in all thy glorious prime, etc.

After which the coffin was lowered to its place by young men who were

Online LibraryGeorge L. PrentissThe Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss → online text (page 22 of 57)