What was once a magnificent plantation mansion, the Windsor was built by Smith Coffee Daniell, II, a wealthy planter who had extensive properties in the Mississippi Delta, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Smith Daniel was born in 1826, the son of an Indian fighter turned farmer and wealthy landowner. In 1849 he married his cousin, Catherine Freeland and the couple would have seven children, three of whom would survive to adulthood.
In 1859, the couple began to build the Greek Revival style mansion on their 2,600-acre plantation that overlooked the Mississippi River in the distance. Built by New England craftsmen and slave labor, the couple spared no expense in architecture, furnishings, and details. The four-story home, which borrowed Italianate and Gothic architectural styles, would include 25 rooms when completed, each having its own fireplace, fronted with marble mantels. The home featured interior bathrooms which were supplied with water from a tank in the attic, which caught and stored rainwater.
An above-ground basement contained a schoolroom, dairy, supply rooms, commissary, a doctor’s office, and the kitchen. The main floor featured a broad hallway at the entrance, the master bedroom, a bath, two parlors, a study, and a library. An ell on the main floor contained a pantry and the dining room, which included a dumbwaiter, from which meals were brought up from the basement. On the third floor were an additional bath and nine more bedrooms. The fourth floor contained a ballroom that was never finished, and topping the elegant structure was a roof-top observatory. The observatory, with its hipped roof, was supported by smaller versions of the main Corinthian columns. From here, Smith Daniell could see his entire Mississippi plantation and much of his land across the river in Louisiana. Eight chimneys broke the roofline.
The exterior of the mansion featured 29 fluted columns with attached iron balustrades which enclosed the galleries on the upper levels. The bricks for the 45-foot columns were formed and fired by slaves at a kiln on the Windsor grounds. The columns were then covered with mortar and plaster by the expert masons. The wrought iron stairway was manufactured in St. Louis, Missouri, shipped down the Mississippi River to Bruinsburg, and hauled 14 miles overland to Windsor.
The skilled carpenters, brought in from New England, completed the finished woodwork, moldings, and other elegant details inside the home, which was decorated with the finest furnishings from as far away as New York and Europe. Designed and furnished to reflect the height of Southern life at the time, Mark Twain, who would visit during his riverboat piloting days, would compare the Windsor mansion to a college, due to its size. Later, he would write of its elegance in his book, Life on the Mississippi.
Completed in 1861, the home was one of the largest in Mississippi, costing some $175,000 for the building and furnishings. After waiting patiently for two years and overseeing many of the details, Smith Coffee Daniell, II, would not live to enjoy his new home. Just a few weeks after it was completed, he passed away at the age of 34. That same year, the Civil War would erupt, and Windsor, like so many other plantations in the South, would find itself in the midst of it.
Smith Daniell’s family would remain at Windsor after his death and would not immediately see Civil War soldiers upon their lawn, but, this would change during General Ulysses S. Grant’s Campaign of Vicksburg. As Union ships moved along the Mississippi River and troops forged through the region, the rooftop observatory was often utilized by Confederate soldiers, tasked with watching Union movements on the river and using signal equipment to alert their comrades of Yankee advances.
What the Rebels were unaware of, however, were that they too were being watched by Union troops in preparation for the advance on Vicksburg. Years later, Smith Coffee Daniell, IV would tell of a story he had heard from his great grandmother, Catherine Daniell of the night that Union troops showed up at the mansion uninvited. Though the South was in the midst of the Civil War, the widow Catherine still tried to make things pleasant and comfortable for her friends and family. On one occasion, she invited several neighbors over for a covered dish dinner. She also extended invitations to several Confederate officers. When she was ready for her guests, she sent a signal to her neighbors and the Confederate officers. What she didn’t know, was that the Union troops also picked up the signal.
As her guests enjoyed the party, Catherine was surprised by some latecomers. A servant opened the door to the men and welcomed them in. These men; however, were not neighbors — but, they were soldiers — Union soldiers who had interpreted the signal, dressed in civilian clothing, and come to capture the Rebels. One of the officers would later write in a letter to his family:
“So we entered and there in the parlor of the house was quite a party, singing and laughing and having a fine time generally. Among them were three Confederates dressed in their gray uniforms. I walked in and went up to the one that seemed to be in command, touched him on the shoulder and inquired, ‘Are you a Confederate officer?’ He promptly replied, ‘Yes, I am.’ At this the singing stopped, and the ladies present came around and insisted that we Yankees were not gentlemen and that we should not spoil their evening by arresting and taking prisoners these three Confederates. The ladies grew very boisterous and attacked us with their fists and fingernails, and refused to allow the arrest.”
The lieutenant and his detail came in from the rear and we then took the three rebels prisoners and marched them down to the river edge from Windsor to where our yawls had been left, and loaded them and went back up the river to Grand Gulf where the gunboat was tied up. It was late at night when we arrived there. We then took them to Vicksburg where they were placed in prison.”
Afterwards, Union soldiers were placed at the Windsor Plantation as permanent guards and the observatory was used again, this time, by Federal troops. On April 29, 1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant tried to cross the Mississippi River from Louisiana at Grand Gulf, about ten miles northeast of the Windsor Mansion. However, he was unsuccessful and changed tactics. He then moved his men down river to Bruinsburg Landing the next day. After some 17,000 Union soldiers were ashore, the inland march began, with thousands of troops passing right by the Windsor mansion.
When the Battle of Port Gibson was fought on May 1st, many of the wounded were brought back to Windsor, where a temporary hospital was established in the basement. During this time of occupation, a Union soldier was shot and killed in the front doorway of the home. The details of the shooting remain unknown. Upon hearing of this, General Grant sent troops to burn the mansion. However, Catherine begged them not to, reminding them that she had nursed many Union soldiers after the Battle of Port Gibson and that she and her family would have no place to go. Her home was spared, but the barn was burned anyway, as a lesson to the family and neighbors, of the consequences of killing a Federal soldier.
Unlike many of its counterparts, the mansion survived the war; but, its lavish heydays were over, as, like the rest of the South, the plantation was devastated by the economy. Over the years, the family lost many of their holdings, as the land was sold. However, the family would remain on the grounds, but, would again suffer a tragedy some 25 years later. On February 17, 1890, the sky over the Mississippi River loomed heavy with smoke. When neighbors rushed to see its cause, they found the four-story Windsor mansion blazing with flames. Catherine Daniell was standing helplessly beneath an Oak tree at a safe distance, watching the grand house and all its contents being reduced to ashes.