Sunday, August 7, 2016

The ruins of Windsor Plantation in Claiborne County, Mississippi. Windsor was one of the largest antebellum Greek Revival mansions ever built in the state. It stood from 1861 to 1890, when it was destroyed by fire. The ruins consist of just 23 standing columns, and an out-building. The The two-acre site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and designated a Mississippi Landmark in 1985.

Windsor's ruins have appeared in the motion pictures Raintree County (1957) and Ghosts of Mississippi (1996).

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The Loess Hills are a distinctive geographic zone in Mississippi. Loess is windblown soil that falls to earth and become compacted. About 15,000 years ago, as the glaciers of the last ice age retreated, they left behind large amounts of more or less finely-ground rock and dirt. Initially, this material was caught in the vast meltwater lakes created by the glacier. Over time, these lakes dried up, and the wind coming from the Great Plains scoured the dry mudflats -- lifting vast quantities of soil into the air. These were deposited on the banks of the Mississippi River, where over time plants and weather compacted them.

During the 1600s, the Mississippi River curved slightly in the area now known as Claiborne County. This created a whirlpoo-like current, which French explorers called the Petit Gulf. The hills along the east side of the river, extending from the border with Louisiana to the Yazoo River became known as the Petit Gulf Hills.

The Mississippi River is constantly shifting its course. About 1800, the river had a broad, rectangular bay that extended about 2,000 feet to the east of the modern riverbank. (This is the current border between Louisiana and Mississippi.) Bayou Pierre emptied into the river about 2,000 north of where it does today.

After the American Revolution, the state of Georgia claimed all the land between 31°N to 35°N from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River under terms of the colony's land grant, issued by George II of Great Britain on June 9, 1732. In 1787, South Carolina ceded a 12-mile wide strip along what is now the northern border of Mississippi to the federal government of the United States after a survey found that the headwaters of the Savannah River were further north than South Carolina had claimed. Below 31°N, between the Chattahoochee and Mississippi rivers, was the Spanish colony of West Florida. The federal government took control of this regain in 1795, when the Treaty of San Lorenzo transferred it to the United States. In 1798, the federal government drew a line from waht is now Nickajack Lock to the Chattahoochee River, and declared this line and the river -- down to the border with Florida -- to be the western border of Georgia. The territory west, to the Mississippi and Louisiana, was organized as the Mississippi Territory. Georgia recognized the federal government's border in 1802. (In exchange, Georgia's debts to the federal government were forgiven.)

The Mississippi Territory encompassed all of what is now modern Mississippi and Alabama.

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Thomas Freeland was born in Calvert County, Maryland, in June 1788. In 1800, when Thomas was 12 years old, his family moved to the Petit Gulf Hills area of Mississippi Territory. The Freelands -- in addition to the Magruders, the Daniells, the Skinners, and others -- were families which moved en masse to Mississippi. The development of Eli Whitney's cotton gin in 1793 had led to the gin's widespread adoption across the American South. Colonists flooded into the Natchez District (the modern counties of Wilkinson, Adams, Jefferson, Claiborne, and Warren), where existing tobacco plantations were converted to cotton and thousands of acres of virgin land broken for cotton planting.

Since only the borderlands against the river were settled (leaving the interior unoccupied), these family were relatively isolated from the rest of the United States. They received significant land grants from the federal government, and brought with them large numbers of slaves from Maryland. The Petit Gulf Hills areas were only lightly forested, easily cleared, and easy to plow. "Upland" cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) had been grown on a wide scale in the South since 1733. This was mostly a variety known as Georgia Upland (aka Green Seed, Georgia Green Seed), which didn't yield much fiber, had fiber that was coarse and broke easily, and fiber that was short. About 1800, it was replaced with an improved variety, Tennessee Green Seed, which had a larger boll (meaning it was easier to pick) and matured earlier (which meant it could be grown further north). Cotton production in the Mississippi Valley dated from 1722 as well, but French colonists had used a "Black Seed" (or "Creole") cotton, Gossypium arboreum . Black Seed cotton was easier to turn into cloth, because its seeds were more easily separated from the fiber. It had larger bolls than "Sea Island" cotton (Gossypium barbadense, an extra-long fiber cotton with easy-to-separate seeds that was not easily grown), but its fibers were coarse and broke easily and it was difficult to separate the boll from the pod.

In 1806, Mississippi farmer Walter Burling brought an unknown variety of Mexican cotton with long fibers and a large boll to Natchez, Mississippi. This cotton had a very big boll, which made picking easier. The cotton practically fell loose from the pod, and the fiber was very long and very flexible. It even had fewer seeds in each boll! Cotton production soared, and with it came significant immigration into the area that resulted in Mississippi statehood in 1817. By 1820, farmers had crossed this "Mexican upland" cotton with Green Seed, Creole, and Sea Island to create a bewildering new number of variety of "white seed cotton", each suited to the particular climate and soil types it was grown in. White seed cotton caused production to soar again. The best of these new varieties were Petit Gulf and Alvarado. Just when and who developed Alvarado is not know, but Petit Gulf cotton was developed by Dr. Rush Nutt of Rodney, Mississippi.

The isolation of the Natchez District families meant that they tended to intermarry, which consolidated their farms into ever-larger estates and then plantations. By 1830, they were rich enough to found Oakland College (present-day Alcorn State University).

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Thomas Freeland married three times. His first wife, Emily Jane Wells, died in 1815 after giving birth to two daughters (Catherine, birth date not known, and Sarah in 1813). His second wife, Lavinia Magruder Skinner, died in 1837 after giving birth to children: Emily in 1821 (died 1834), Frisby in 1822 (died 1857), Thomas in 1824 (died 1843), Augustin in 1827 (died 1836), Smith Coffee in 1827 (died 1836), Catharine in 1830 (died 1903), Adderton in 1832 (died 1835), Priscilla in 1833 (died 1840), Smith Daniell in 1835 (died 1836), and Augustin in 1837 (died 1843).

Thomas Freeland died on January 5, 1856. Despite having 12 children, at the time of his death only three had survived: daughter Sarah, son Frisby, and daughter Catherine. He divided his estate equally among his to Smith C. Daniell and Frisby A. Freeland the joint management of said plantation and negroes." (Thomas Freeland Will-July 25, 1854)

The Daniell family had emigrated into the Natchez District in 1824, where their cousins the Freelands lived. Smith Coffee Daniell Sr. was born in Greene County, Georgia in November 1794. He married Priscilla Skinner, of the wealthy Skinner family, in 1825. The couple had four children: Smith Coffee Daniell II in 1826, an infant son (died days after childbirth) in 1828, Emily Jane in 1835, and another infant son (died days after childbirth) in 1836. Daniell Sr., legend says, was an "Indian fighter", but soon bought a large farm and began growing cotton. By the time he died, he was a wealthy man.

Smith Coffee Daniell II married Catharine Freeland in 1849, uniting the two branches of the family. Although only moderately well-off, the junior Daniell had attended Oakland College. (At least one source says he also studied law at the University of Virginia.) He probably used part of his own inheritance (his father had died in 1836) and his wife's inheritance to finance the purchase of Frisby and Sarah's portion of the 2,000-acre Thomas Freeland estate.

By 1857, Smith Coffee Daniell II owned 2,600 acres of property in Mississippi and another 18,189 acres of land directly across the river in Louisiana. He had 150 slaves on his Mississippi farm, and another 164 in Louisiana, making him one of the largest slave-owners in Mississippi. He fell seriously ill that year. During his convalesence, Daniell decided to build a grand plantation home. Such homes were a status symbol among wealthy slaveowners, and Daniell must have felt that it was time for his family to have a proper home -- one befitting its status. It would also be a home for his family and children should he die.

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Construction began on the mansion in 1859. The architect was David Shroder of Maryland. Shroder had designed other mansions in the area, and was well known for combining Gothic Revivial, Italianate, and Greek Revivial architectural styles in the same structure. Shroder designed a four-story, 23-room Greek Revival style mansion. The house was constructed almost entirely of 16-inch brick, which was manufactured in kilns across the road from the mansion, and African American slaves not only made the brick but also built the house.

The footprint of the west-facing building was square, 64 feet on a side. A four-story wing (which extended into the basement) was 26 feet wide and 59 feet long, and jutted from the the rear of the house. Windows throughout much of the house were floor-to-ceiling. On the first, second, and third floors, three rooms were distributed on either side of the center hall. The westernmost of these (the "front rooms") were 23 by 21.5 feet, while the two east rooms were just 16 by 21.5 feet. The basement wing contained the kitchen, which isolated it from the rest of the house so that it did not contribute to the heat in the spring, summer, and fall. The dining room and pantry occupied the wing on the first floor, with three bedrooms above this on the second.

The "first" floor was actually an above-ground basement. Practically a self-contained community in itself, it had a classroom, dairy, commissary, two supply rooms, doctor's office, and kitchen. The foundation consisted of a concrete beam, on which a brick "chain wall" was erected. The foundation is massive, five to seven bricks deep (about six feet, nine inches at the base and four-and-three-quarter feet wide at the top). The "chain wall" foundation was then filled in with compacted earth. The column piers rest atop the chain wall (which widens at this point to accommodate the piers), and 18-inch thick brick walls constructed to support the walls of the residence above. A brick floor was laid on the bare clay soil below, and the walls of the basement and the floor plastered.

The first, main floor was reached via a highly detailed, 17-step, 17-and-a-half foot wide ornamental iron stairs in the front. Archeological evidence and family descriptions indicate that 13-foot wide ornamental iron stairs accessed the porch on the right and left sides, while another iron stairs just over 14 feet wide led to the back door in the wing. The mansion had a nine-foot-wide balcony which wrapped around the front and right and left sides on the second floor, which created an arcade-like porch on the first floor. The balcony and roof were supported by 29 Corinthian columns. Each 40-foot high, three-and-a-half-foot wide column was made of specially-designed curved brick, and set on a 10-foot high, five-foot square pier (or stylobate), visible in the basement. The pier was high enough so that the plinth of the column was just above the floor of the first story porch. Six-foot-high, elaborate Corinthian cast-iron capitals weighing 1,200 pounds topped each column. Each capital consisted of several interlocking parts, which included a two-piece cap, a multiple-piece floral urn, and a fluted base ring. Each column was covered in white plaster which was fluted, to make it appear like marble. Windsor was one of only a few plantation houses in the South with a peripteral (continuous) colonnade.

The first floor had a 16-foot wide center hall, master bedroom, study (attached to the master bedroom), full bathroom with marble tub in the northeast corner (attached to the master bedroom), two parlors, and a library. A spiral staircase, offset at the rear of the center hall, led to the second floor. The western room in the ell was s 42 by 23 foot dining room, with an enclosed staircase rising from the kitchen below. The eastern room was a 21.5 by 23 foot pantry linked to the kitchen with a dumbwaiter. It's possible that a small servant's bathroom existed in the southeast corner of the wing; archeological digs have uncovered sewage drains here.

The second floor contained a center hall, five bedrooms, and a full bathroom with marble tub in the northeast corner. In the wing were another three bedrooms. The windows on this floor, also floor-to-ceiling, had round Italianate tops. A simple wood staircase led to the third floor. It's possible that a small servant's bathroom existed in the southeast corner of the second floor above the wing; archeological digs have uncovered sewage drains here.

The windowless third floor was slightly smaller than the rest of the house, as it was enclosed by an inward-leaning mansard roof with an exterior of tin. It had a center hall, around which wrapped a single large room. This was to have served as a ballroom, but it was never finished. A roof catchment funnelled rainwater into two tanks on this floor, which supplied the bathrooms below with gravity-fed water. These tanks were eight feet wide, 20 feet long, and five feet deep. They were so large, children sometimes swam in them. Complex drains took wastewater from the bathrooms to an underground, box-shaped brick culvert, that emptied into a field some 40 feet away. (Downspouts leading from the roof allowed rainwater to flush these drains.) A simple wood staircase led to the roof.

A series of dentils ran along the top of the exterior walls of the second floor, just below the eaves.

The roof was covered in slate, and featured Italianate decorations along the cornice line. Atop the mansion was a small, square observatory, its roof supported by miniature versions of the columns supporting the balcony and roof. The windows in the belvedere were double-wide, making it appear to be glass-walled, and these windows had pointed Gothic tops.

Almost every room had its own fireplace, with a Georgia or Tennessee marble mantel. Eight chimneys rose above the roof. Daniell hired skilled craftsmen from Maryland, New York, and Europe to come to Mississippi for two years and furnish the interior details. A number of African American slaves also contributed their artistic talents to the home's furnishings. These included woodworkers, who carved all the moldings, dado rails, paneling, accents, wainscoting, door frames, flooring, and other details for the interior of the home. They also included plasterers, who created all the ceiling, wall, and freize moldings throughout the home. Daniell visited New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, and ordered fine furnishings for the home, most of which came from Europe but some of which came from the relatively newly-established craft workshops and factories of the United States. The furniture was mostly carved rosewood upholstered in crimson brocade. The draperies, too, were crimson, although in some rooms the drapes were green. The library had oak bookcases and green-themed hangings and tapestries, and ebony-framed mirrors framed the dark marble of the library mantelpiece. The two first-floor parlors each had a chandelier, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and red brocade drapes lined with white silk. The center halls and dining room were panelled in oak. Most bedrooms had full-length mirrors. The staircase, column capitals, and balustrade were manufactured in St. Louis, Missouri, shipped by river to Bruinsburg, a town 14 miles south of the Freeland/Daniell estate.

Windsor featured a number of outbuildings, including a smithy, three steam-operated cotton gins, slave quarters, a carriage house, stables, a smokehouse, and several sheds. Archeologists, however, have only identified the location of the smokehouse, which is just east of the wing.

The home was completed in March 1861. The largest plantation house in Mississippi, it costing $175,000 -- probably close to $5 million in today's inflation-adjusted dollars.

The mansion now received its name: Windsor. It reflected the whispering sound the wind made as it passed through the columns (not, as you might expect, the castle in England).

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Smith Coffee Daniell II lived in the home just a few weeks before dying on April 28, 1861, of a heart attack at the age of 34.

The Daniells family remained at Windsor after his death. Windsor remained largely untouched during the Civil War. However, Major General Ulysses S. Grant began the Vicksburg Campaign in March 1863, and soldiers of the Confederate Army of Mississippi occupied the grounds of Windsor. Union gunboats were plying the Mississippi, and Confederate soldiers sometimes used the observatory atop Windsor to spy on Union forces and signal other Confederate units nearby.

On April 29 and April 30, Grant's Army of the Tennessee crossed the Mississippi and landed at Bruinsburg. Grant's men seized Windsor, camping on the grounds. The Daniell family had to vacate the first and second floor, with Grant himself occupying rooms on the second floor as his own headquarters and billet. But otherwise the Union Army did not interfere with the operation of the farm. After the Battle of Port Gibson on May 1, the main floor was used as a makeshift hospital for about 400 to 500 wounded soldiers. The furniture was removed from every room except the library and the center hall, with the library used as the physician's office.

Family legend has it that one of Grant's men stole a horse from the Daniell's, but felt so badly about it that he later offered to pay $150 for it. They refused. Another family story tells how a Union sentry outside the house would join the family every evening for prayer. The family became very attached to this soldier, but one day a Confederate soldier who had slipped onto the ground shot the sentry. The Daniells were so overcome with grief that they had the soldier lay in repose on the sofa in the center hall, and every member of the family wept over him as if he were their own. Union troops threatened to burn the house down, but Mrs. Daniell persuaded them to wait for an investigation of the crime. Union generals determined that the family had nothing to do with the soldier's death, and spared the mansion.

On May 1, 1863, Henry Otis Dwight of the 20th Ohio Infantry camped on the grounds of Windsor along with other Union troops. That day, Dwight drew a fairly detailed side view of the mansion.

Windsor survived the Civil War largely intact. However, the lead pipes which supplied the bathrooms with water were taken out by Union soldiers in order to make ammunition.

After the war, Smith Coffee Daniell's descendants continued to live in the mansion, leasing their property to the family's 150 freed slaves to generate income. Located on a low hill, Windsor was a landmark in the area. Riverboat pilots on the Mississippi used it to guide their craft, and even Mark Twain visited it (calling it a "college", due to its size and luxuriousness).

At about 3 PM on February 17, 1890, Windsor burned to the ground. The actual cause is not known. Family legend says that a guest dropped cigarette or cigar ash into a pile of wood shavings and other debris left behind on the third floor by carpenters making repairs to the house. The entire family had just left the house to retrieve the mail and as they came home, they saw Windsor burning. Only a few pieces of furniture, a handful of artworks, and one or two pieces of china were saved. Only the columns, balustrade, and stairs survived the blaze. Some broken china was pulled from the ashes, its colors changed by the intensity of the flame.

The floor plans and only known photographs of Windsor were destroyed in the fire.

The Daniells found refuge in a former overseer's cottage on the grounds of Retreat, a plantation house built by Thomas Freeland near Alcorn College. They never returned to Windsor. The Long Depression, a severe economic downturn that lasted a full decade, created great harship for them. They had few material goods anyway, with everything having been lost in the fire.

The long-widowed Catharine Daniell died in 1903. Her daughter Priscilla inherited the mansion property. Priscilla married into the Magruder family, another branch of the Freeland/Daniells, and the site remained in the Magruder family. It was declared a National Historic Site in 1971, and the Magruders donated the two acres around the former mansion to the state of Mississippi in 1974.

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Today, Windsor contains 23 complete columns and five partial columns. One column was razed by the family: The Magruders decided to try to clean up the site in 1973 by having a front-end loader and a backhoe remove the debris at the site. To allow access, they tore down one of the columns on the north side. The debris was then piled on the north. Some balustrade remains attached to the columns, high in the air.

The main ornamental staircase leading up to the house, and some of the balustrade, was given to Alcorn State University between 1890 and 1912. It forms the stairs leading upt to Oakland Memorial Chapel. The Magruder family took one of the iron capitals, retaining it as a family heriloom. Thieves stole at least one other capital, and the family sold several others during the Great Depression for scrap iron. The other iron staircases may also have been sold for scrap.

During archeological digs on the site in the 1960s, an extensive amount of broken china was found in the basement. The Magruder family retained a barrel full of broken pieces.

Between 1890 and 1970, some of the columns had lost their plaster exteriors. Bird droppings containing plant seeds had allowed plants, and even trees to grow atop the capitals, tearing pieces off some of them. Because the tops of the capitals were open to the sky, rainwater got inside the brick, and caused damaged to the brick as well as causing more plaster to fall from the exteriors.

Preservationists attempted to protect the columns in 1970 by plastering the brick with watered-down Portland cement. This was a major mistake, as the impermeable cement actually trapped water inside the columns, allowing it to do more damage to the columns than ever before. To correct this, the state of Mississippi added convex cement caps to the capitals, which has helped prevent rainwater from entering them.

In 1970, just before his death on November 6 at the age of 85, Smith Coffee Daniell IV was interviewed about Windsor. His memories about the layout of the house, along with its furnishings, were used in conjunction with archeological findings to recreate a basic floor plan of Windsor. A local artist then painted a picture of Windsor, with Daniell correcting the details.

In the 1990s, Henry Otis Dwight's 1863 drawing was rediscovered.

These two documents remain our only sources for what Windsor actually looked like.


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