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 supplied with water from a tank in the attic, which caught and stored rainwater.
An above-ground basement contained a schoolroom, dairy, supply rooms, a commissary, a doctor’s office, and a 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. With its hipped roof, the observatory 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 mansion’s exterior 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 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, 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 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, was that they, too, were being watched by Union troops in preparation for the advance on Vicksburg. Years later, Smith Coffee Daniell, IV would tell a story he had heard from his great-grandmother, Catherine Daniell, of the night 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 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. She didn’t know 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.”
Afterward, 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 downriver 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 wounded were brought back to Windsor, where a temporary hospital was established in the basement. During this occupation, a Union soldier was shot and killed in the home’s front doorway. 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 nowhere 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 holdings as the land was sold. However, the family would remain on the grounds but 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 stood helplessly beneath an Oak tree at a safe distance, watching the grand house and all its contents being reduced to ashes.
That very day, the family was preparing for a dinner party. They had left briefly to pick up the mail, only to return to find the house ablaze. An investigation uncovered that a worker hired to repair the observatory had carelessly tossed a cigarette into a pile of sawdust. Within minutes, the mansion was burning out of control from the top down. Though family and friends did their best to control the flames, it was too late. Other than a few pieces of china, nothing was saved. A local newspaper reported on February 21, 1890:
“The palatial dwelling on Windsor plantation, near Bethel Church in the southwestern part of the county, burned to the ground last Monday. The fire was discovered about noon, but it could not be checked, and in a few hours, this splendid country site was in ruins. Most of the contents were also destroyed. These included not only a great deal of elegant furniture but many costly heirlooms and much other household property of value, such as jewelry, silver plate, a large library, etc. This residence, probably the most magnificent in the state, was erected by Mr. Smith Daniell shortly before the war. It was a brick structure comprising 25 rooms and was completed, we believe, in 1859. The building cost $140,000 and furniture $35,000 additional, bringing the total cost to $175,000. We regret to learn that neither upon it nor its contents was there any insurance.”
Catherine Daniell then moved to a nearby plantation called Retreat, where she lived for the remainder of her life.
Through the decades, thousands have driven a winding road from Port Gibson, Mississippi, to see the stately columns, which are all that remain of Windsor, one of the most magnificent homes in the antebellum South. How it appeared before being destroyed by fire in 1890 was a mystery (and possibly part of its attraction), until a drawing was discovered 130 years later in the diary of a Civil War officer, showing the Claiborne County home in its heyday. The diary and drawing belonged to Lieutenant Henry Otis Dwight, a Union officer who served with the 20th Ohio Infantry during the Civil War, and was discovered in the Ohio State Archives in Columbus, Ohio.
Though other artists have sketched pictures of the house, they were done from oral descriptions. Dwight’s drawing is the first found that was done by someone who saw the home. The sketch bears the words, “May 1, 1863. Residence Near Bruinsburg Miss.”, in what is believed to be Dwight’s own handwriting.
The only remnants today are 23 haunting columns, portions of the balustrade, a few pieces of china, and a set of wrought-iron stairs. The flight of stairs and part of the balustrade are now used at Alcorn State University’s chapel down the road. The numerous outbuildings have long disappeared, and over the many decades, the nearly 3,000 acres of cotton fields that slaves and sharecroppers tended have been replaced with hundreds of trees, heavy brush, and lost to soil erosion.
The property remained in the family until 1974 when descendants of Smith Coffee Daniell donated it to the state of Mississippi for historic preservation. Hollywood also made the pilgrimage to these enigmatic ruins in two films — Raintree County in 1957 and Ghosts of Mississippi in 1996.
It comes as no surprise that these silent-standing obelisks have long evoked numerous legends. Like so many other places of the antebellum South, legends, and tales abound about the ruins. Visitors to the ruins of this once-elegant mansion often agree. Standing within the midst of these massive columns, imagining the size of the mansion, appreciating the detail in the elegant columns, and knowing both the luxurious life and following turmoil that the family went through, vivid images almost come to life.
One of the ghosts that is said to linger here still is the Union soldier who was killed in the mansion’s doorway during the Civil War. According to visitor reports, his faded image has been seen walking up the old iron staircase that no longer exists. Others have reported hearing the sounds of laughter and music coming from this once magnificent mansion as if there is still an elegant soirée going on. Another ghostly figure of a man has also been seen walking the grounds. Dressed in clothing of the period, might this be Smith Coffee Daniel II, himself — who never got to enjoy his beautiful home? Some visitors have reported that his image appears so real, that they have approached this spirit to talk to him. However, as they got closer, the man fades away.
Paranormal investigators who have visited this historic property agree with the visitors. These “ghost hunters” have reported seeing the same spirits have captured the sounds of revelry coming from a plantation party on EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena). Others have also said they have been poked by unseen hands and heard disembodied voices.
The Windsor Ruins are located on the Windsor Loop off the Natchez Trace, between Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi. They are located 12 miles from Port Gibson on Mississippi Highway 552.