The Ruins of Mississippi’s Biggest Plantation House

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Ruins of Windsor Plantation | Claiborne County, MS | c. 1861

Few homes of this era could’ve possibly rivaled Windsor in its day, which was the biggest plantation home ever built in Mississippi. In constructing this mansion, its builders spared no expense. And while a visit to the property today (which is a well-maintained public park) is peaceful and serene, the ghostly pillars that mark the building’s former footprint stand like sad sentinels to remind us of the difficult and often tragic stories that this home witnessed at the crossroads of our Nation’s history.

Built between 1859 and 1861, it once sat at the center of an expansive plantation of 2,600 acres that relied on chattel slavery to support its operations. The house was a five-story tall, 23-room mansion, with an observatory at the top and intricate Corinthian capitols. It was estimated to cost some $175,000 for the building and furnishings which would amount to over $4,000,000 in today’s costs.

Windsor, which was built by Smith Daniell and designed by architect David Shroder of Maryland, was made of almost entirely 16-inch brick, all made on-site, by enslaved craftsmen along the Natchez Trace, an important travel and trade route to Natives and European settlers. This important route allowed for travel along the Mississippi River for hunters, merchants, and early white settlers.

After 1793, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin changed the way cotton was produced and European settlers flooded the Natchez Region to establish large cotton plantations. Many would make their fortunes in this cotton-based economy, built on enslaved labor, and access to trade routes. Cotton was king and back then, the river was the only highway.

At the time, this point on the Mississippi was known as Bruinsburg, where boats could pull into a landing to load cotton from the surrounding plantations. During the first half of the 1800s, 44,000 bales of cotton per day could be loaded onto Mississippi riverboats from Bruinsburg and surrounding landings like Rodney and Port Gibson.

And while Bruinsburg was probably an obvious choice for Smith Daniell to establish a plantation and build Windsor, he couldn’t have possibly known that this very land would find itself at a crossroads in the upcoming battle between South and North.

Smith Coffee Daniell, born the son of an ‘Indian fighter’ from Georgia, became a farmer and landowner in early Mississippi.

In 1849, he married Catherine Freeland (1839-1903) who was a relational cousin. The Freelands had relocated here to the Petit Gulf Hills area from Maryland around 1800. The families in the region during the time were relatively isolated from the rest of the United States and received significant land grants from the federal government. They brought with them large numbers of enslaved people who they used to farm the cotton fields. 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 enslaved 150 people on his Mississippi farm, and another 164 in Louisiana, making him one of the largest slave-owners in Mississippi.

In 1851, Smith and Catherine have the first of 6 children together and in 1859, he began building Windsor. But before the project was complete, Smith dies of yellow fever from a mosquito bite in 1861. As misfortune would have it the day he died was April 12th- the very same day of the outbreak of the Civil War with the attack at Fort Sumter. Catherine was already pregnant when her husband died, leaving her to administer the property, lands, and family through the Civil War.

Catherine Freeland Smith and Smith Coffee Daniell.

War comes to Windsor

Catherine Freeland Daniell, who was pregnant with another son at the time, was about to find herself at the helm of Mississippi’s grandest (and not quite complete) mansion and a large slave operation. With children to raise and her future in an uncertain state, the worst was yet to come as war would befall her doorstep.

And while the War Between the States broke out in the Spring of 1861, it wasn’t until 1863 that Windsor found itself in the center of a Civil War. As Gen. Grant campaigned to overtake Vicksburg, MS, just 40 miles from Catherine’s home. As Union troops pushed further down the river, the cupola atop Windsor was often used by Confederate soldiers to keep an eye on the movements of their Northern enemy.

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But the strategic vantage point at Windsor hadn’t gone unnoticed by Union troops who had been keeping watch over the activity at Windsor. According to the legend of the Daniell Family, the widow Catherine was still a gracious host during the days of war and would regularly invite neighbors, family, friends, and Confederate soldiers over for dinner. Like a wartime supper bell, a seemingly clandestine signal from the cupola would alert guests nearby that it was time to come over and eat.

But they weren’t the only ones to intercept the signal. Union troops nearby dressed in disguise and made their way to Windsor to capture the Confederate soldiers there. They presented themselves on her doorstep as if they were kin and a servant unknowingly them in.

Quite a scene unfolded and luckily, we have this vivid account of the evening from one of the Union officers from a letter he wrote afterward 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 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.”

From then on, Union troops would keep a station at Windsor, taking advantage of her strategic location and using the very cupola to track enemy movements that Confederate troops had used just days before.

In April of 1863, General Grant tried to cross the Mississippi from Louisiana at Grand Gulf (where the Windsor officers had been detained) but was unsuccessful and he shifted plans to Bruinsburg Landing where Windsor Plantation was.

A map showing the relevant river landings along the Mississippi during the Civil War. At Bruinsburg, you’ll notice a small grouping of boxes, representing the columns at Windsor

17,000 Union soldiers would come ashore and most of them likely gazed upon the impressive columns at Windsor as they passed. One such officer was Lieutenant Henry Otis Dwight who served with the 20th Ohio Infantry. As the legend goes, he stopped at Windsor during the and while he rested against a tree, he sketched the plantation home in his diary.

This drawing wasn’t discovered until 1991 and to date, is the only drawing or image we have of Windsor when it was still intact.

On the sketch, Dwight wrote: “May 1st, 1863. Residence Near Bruinsburg Miss” which was also the day of the Battle of Port Gibson. There were so many wounded during this battle, that Windsor was used as a temporary field hospital.

There are plenty of stories that Catherine enjoyed telling her family about this time at Windsor, that interestingly enough, paint a civil relationship between Mrs. Daniell and Union troops in an otherwise uncivilized time.

As the first story goes, after Grant permanently stationed troops at Windsor, one of his men stole a horse from the Daniells. The soldier had remorse about his action and felt so badly that he offered to pay the Daniells $150. They refused and forgave the debt. And according to family legend, Union troops were regularly at Windsor, where a sentry was regularly assigned to stand guard. Every night, he would join the family in prayer and over time, they became quite attached to the young man. As the story goes, a Confederate soldier snuck onto the property one day and shot the sentry. The family was so wrought with grief that they brought him into their great hall and consoled him as he lie dying on their sofa. They wept over his body when he passed.

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Union troops arrived shortly thereafter to avenge the sentry’s death and 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 had treated him well so they spared the mansion. 

Artist Rendition of Windsor recreated from Smith Coffee Daniell’s notes and the sketch from the Union solider

After The War

Some reports say that the lead pipes (which supplied the bathrooms with water) were taken out by Union soldiers in order to make ammunition but the home was otherwise left intact, unlike many of its Southern counterparts that met the torches of Union troops. And while the home might’ve looked the same on the outside, the people who lived here, and the slave-based cotton economy it was dependent upon, would never look the same again.

In the years following the Civil War, the Daniell Family embraced a tenant farming system, leasing out their land to the family’s 150 freed slaves to generate income. Over time, they would have to sell off most of their holdings so that the widow Catherine Daniell could stay here at Windsor. While researching it, I came across this letter that paints a better picture of what life was like after the war for them:

“Sad changes have taken place in the last six years. Smith Daniel and four of his little Children have died, only six of us left, my Sister Catherine, Pris, Tom, and little Smith who was born six months after his Fathers (sic) death. We had no one to protect and fight for us during the war: the anxiety and trouble we passed through is pass (sic) discription (sic), all of our property taken from us, one hundred and sixty-five horses and mules taken from us, three steame (sic) gins, three thousand bals (sic) of cotton burnt at one time. Our house searched about twenty times; Grant made this his headquarters for two days and then made our house a Hospital. Had between four and five hundred wounded in the house at one time they would not suffer us to leave the house; aloud (sic) us four rooms in the third story.
Our cook, cooks our meals out at her house, and brough (sic) it in a waiter from day to day until they left here, The smell from their wounds was very offensive we could hardly bear it. They made our yard their burying grond (sic). If we made any complaint, they would threaten to burn our house, so we had to bear it patiently. We feel thankful that our house and lands have been saved to us we can rent out or lease our plantation so that we will be able to live comfortably.”

~Letter written from Windsor on January 25 1867 by Emily MacGruder Ross. Smith Daniell has in his 1860 household Eliza Ross, 55 years of age, born in Maryland. Ross’ relationship to the family is not explained in her letters.

Artist Rendition of what Windsor Plantation Looked Like

Yet it would seem that at least in small ways here and there, Mrs. Daniell was able keep up the auspices of her former life, entertaining guests and keeping house.

It was in these years when Mark Twain was spending his days as a river boat captain along the Mississippi that he came to visit the widow Daniell’s mansion at Bruinsburg. As the story goes, he marveled from atop the cupola as he watched the steamboats pass along on the river. In his book “Life on the Mississippi” he remarked that Windsor struck him as more of a university than a home, due to its grandeur.

And just as she had before, Catherine continued to entertain friends in her home and this was exactly her plan on February 17, 1890. She was expecting guests that evening but needed first to make a quick trip to the post office. She left early that morning and as she returned home, she noticed smoke. As her wagon rounded the bend, she discovered her beloved Windsor was aflame. Neighbors rushed to the area to find the cause and to try and stop it, but it had become so engulfed, that efforts to thwart the blaze were hopeless.

They found a despondent Catherine, crying under an oak tree nearby, as she watched her home and everything in it turned to ash. Within a few short hours, this palatial home that took more than 2 years to build had burned from the top down. The only survivors were some pieces of fine china, 23 of Windsors columns, balustrades, and iron stairs. It was later discovered that, during a house party on February 17, 1890, a guest left a lighted cigar on the upper balcony.

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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.”

After the Fire

Catherine and her family would find refuge in a former overseer’s cottage on the grounds of Retreat, a plantation house built by Thomas Freeland near present-day Alcorn College. They never returned to Windsor.

Catherine & members of the Daniell Family after the fire

Clinging to her family, Catherine found refuge in story-telling. Nothing delighted the grandchildren more than the stories she told about Windsor. Smith Coffee Daniell IV, Catherine’s grandson, had been five years old when Windsor burned. After the move to Retreat, he often listened, entranced, to his grandmother’s fascinating stories and it is his accounts that have provided much of the historic and architectural details that we have available to us today.

The widow Catharine Daniell died in 1903 and the Windsor property went to her daughter, Priscilla Daniell Magruder.

Windsor in Modern Day

Although the columns of Windsor have been all that remains of it for so many years, that hasn’t stopped thousands of visitors, and even Hollywood celebrities from visiting this infamous landmark.

Hollywood featured Windsor’s haunting columns in the movie Raintree County (1957) with Elizabeth Taylor, photographed on the right

Windsor Ruins In Modern Day

Hollywood featured Windsor’s haunting columns in the movie Raintree County (1957) with Elizabeth Taylor, photographed on the right.

1960s: 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. The Magruder family took one of the iron capitals, retaining it as a family heirloom. 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. 

1970s: 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.

Windsor was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 23, 1971, and today, the ruins are maintained by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Descendants of the Daniell family donated Windsor Ruins to the State of Mississippi in 1974.

1990s: Hollywood featured Windsor’s haunting columns in the movie Ghosts of Mississippi (1996).

Planning a Visit to the Ruins of Windsor?

The ruins of Windsor are located about 10 miles west of Port Gibson on Mississippi Highway 552 towards the river.

The closest town is Port Gibson and if you’re visiting the area, you should plan ahead as facilities and food are few and far between in this area. But if you’re here while they’re open for business, you simply can’t miss stopping for a fried chicken lunch at The Old Country Store in Lorman.

If you’re looking for a place to stay while you explore the area, I HIGHLY recommend checking out Canemount Plantation B&B.

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  1. When in Port Gibson for a friend’s ordination in the late 1970’s, we stayed with the family descended from these folks. They took us to see the ruins and told us amazing stories. Thanks for sharing. Great memories.

  2. Such a great read, thank you. You would have thought more would have been saved as the fire was burning the building just by people running in and grabbing stuff to save for the family?

    1. I was thinking the same thing. Seems like since the fire started up on the top of the mansion some of the furniture, pictures, rugs etc. could have been saved.

    2. Since I was in 6th grade, I have been fascinated by Windsor. I can only imagine her majesty and beauty. Thank you for sharing her history. The people who built it, did a wonderful job and were very talented.

  3. Thank God it burned! I wish nothing if it was left. Just as the souls of many Black people was burned out of them by being enslaved in an evil place by evil, greedy people. This awful place was built by slaves. How can any person enjoy stories that promoted the suffering of others? They have fond memories of their ancestors who benefited from involuntary free labor. There is nothing beautiful about this place! I attended Alcorn State University. I visited Windsor Ruins. My experience was of complete sorrow and sobbing. I felt the heaviness of the pain from the enslaved.

  4. I am REPULSED by the comments here about the family and their possessions!! What about the slaves and THEIR families? The place burned down and nothing was saved but a few columns, stairs and china because THAT’S ALL that should have been saved! To remind ALL OF US that evil WILL NOT be saved, SHOULD NOT be saved…. but should ALWAYS be DESTROYED. The mansion is a piece of history…to show what shouldn’t be glorified.

    1. It called “ Longwood” an antebellum house in Natchez, Ms. Where I was born and raised! I know Kelly has been there because she did a story about “ Dunleth” .

  5. Mam, you did a overly lovely job. I enjoyed reading and also learned quite a few new things about this beautiful treasure. Thank you so much for taking the time on this. As you can see, MOST others are also grateful.

  6. Hoⅼɑ! I’ve been following ʏouг blog for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead
    and give you a shout out from Humble Texas! Just ѡanted to tell you keep up tһe fantastic work!

  7. Our family would go see this in the 60’s. Even though we only saw the remaining columns, you could almost envisage what it looked like. These columns are huge! It was amazing to be able to fight your way through briars and brush just to touch a piece of history. The entire area including Port Gibson and Rodney is a truly haunting experience.

  8. I think of how really smart and talented those slave were to have built such a structure with no machines to help them.. They were strong, ,capable workers.

  9. I found this to be very interesting and an eye opener. We must remember this is part of our history, like it or not. History is there for the future, so we do not repeat the unfortunate things of the past. Still the historical value is something to behold. Keep up the excellent work of our past, not to be forgotten.

  10. People have made good and bad comments about the mansion due to its majestic architecture and oppressive roots. I think it is important to be able to unify and divorce the issues one from another—much like seeing flowers on a grave. Flowers don’t lose their beauty because of the grave—but the grave oughtn’t be forgotten because of the flowers. Sometimes the most beautiful and ugly live side by side; sometimes beauty grows from ugliness, sometimes ugliness grows from beauty. My request is this:
    Please don’t cut down people for forgetting architectural appreciation in remembrance of human tragedy, nor forgetting human tragedy in remembrance of architectural appreciation. Each soul needs salve today. Let people look at the flowers.

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