For the past two posts, I’ve taken a look at the story of General Henry Prince, a Civil War officer ignominiously removed for failures incurred during the Mine Run Campaign of 1863. Today, I’m going to tell the tale of his death. In short, he did not die happily. At age eighty-one, Prince committed suicide in London, far from his home. Like a large minority of people who commit suicide, he left behind a note explaining why he decided to end his own life. For him, it was an “apology to the world.”
First, it’s best to summarize Prince’s lengthy military career, which spanned forty-eight years. He graduated from West Point in 1835, and during his first combat action, he battled the Seminoles in the winter and spring of 1836, receiving two minor wounds during the Battle of Camp Izard. Prince stayed with his regiment, the 4th U.S. Infantry, rising to the post of adjutant. On September 8, 1847, he was badly wounded fighting the Mexican Army at the Battle of Molino del Rey, a wound that required a three-year leave of absence. Prince spent the 1850s operating as an army paymaster, and in 1862, he received a brigadier general’s commission. He participated in only a handful of engagements, including Cedar Mountain (in which he was captured), Wapping Heights, and Payne’s Farm. After Mine Run, he was removed from divisional command, and spent the rest of the war as a garrison commander. After the war, he returned to the paymaster’s department, holding that post until his retirement fourteen years later, on December 31, 1879.
Prince’s wounds never left him. As he aged, the Mexican War injury continued to cause him pain and discomfort. Eventually, he traveled to Europe to seek medical advice, which, in the end, failed him. In September 1889, while bathing in Baden, Germany, his wound reopened, and the next month, he went to Switzerland to have surgery to repair it. He was seventy-eight-years-old. During his recovery, which lasted several years, Prince moved into Morley’s Hotel, a massive structure that occupied the eastern side of Trafalgar Square in London. While there, Prince was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, a painful swelling of the kidneys. In the summer of 1892, a London physician, Dr. Samuel Mills, began treating him for his new ailment.
For six weeks, Mills regularly visited the hotel and consulted with Prince. The visits rarely ended in optimistic talk. Prince repeatedly stated his belief that it might be better if he simply died, for it would cease all the pain he felt, both in his kidneys and from his Mexican War wound. Several times, he asked Dr. Mills for a sedative that could put him to sleep forever. Mills tried to convince Prince that life was worth living, but during their last meeting, Prince told him that he was so old and in so much pain, that he thought it better if his life were at an end. Mills once again rejected the idea of giving him a death-dealing sedative. In response, Prince told Mills not to call upon him again. For whatever reason, the London doctor failed to tell the hotel staff to keep an eye upon Prince, who was clearly depressed.
On August 17, Prince walked over to a nearby firearm dealer, Harrison Gun-makers, and purchased a revolver and cartridges, claiming that he needed to wear a weapon for protection. Apparently not knowing about Prince’s talk of suicide, the gun salesmen sold him whatever he wanted. On the evening of August 19, 1892, Henry Prince shot himself. The time of death was not exactly known. On the morning of August 20, Lizzie Faust, the chambermaid at Morley’s Hotel, found Prince dead with a bullet wound to the head, apparently self-inflicted. The bullet had fractured Prince’s skull above the right temple, embedded itself into his brain, and deeply lacerated all of the surrounding tissue. Investigators found three letters in Prince’s room, one of them unsealed. The unsealed letter, his unsigned suicide note, read this:
To all friends:
Morley’s Hotel, Trafalgar Square
When life has run its cycle, and become a waste of nature in the body, overwhelming its natural and physical qualities with weakness and pain to an intolerable degree, it may with all propriety be removed. Such being the case with the life of the writer, his apology to the world is by these terms made through his most beloved and most intimate friends, who, he trusts, will appreciate the relief to him of the ceaseless distress which ought, in his opinion, to be brought by the physician, who is summoned with his drugs surely for the purpose, when not to cure.
It is hard to envision a tough old soldier like Henry Prince killing himself. He had endured the horrors of the Seminole War, perhaps one of the last alive to remember the sight of the Dade Massacre. He had marched with Winfield Scott’s army during the campaign to take Mexico City. He had suffered half a year in Libby as a prisoner of war. He had fought with the Army of the Potomac during the fall campaigns of 1863 only to be removed in disgrace. In his final moments, he wrote out an apology to the world—to his friends, his colleagues, and to us future historians—to absolve him of his final crime, taking his own life.
Prince was buried in Hillside Cemetery in his hometown of Eastport, Maine.
This photograph depicts Brig. Gen. Prince during the Civil War. When he committed suicide nearly thirty years later, wounds and disease had ravaged his countenance.
This postcard depicts Trafalgar Square. Morley's Hotel, the place where Prince committed suicide, is the large building at middle distance.