Tag Archives: Civil War

Port Gibson, Mississippi – Windsor Ruins

29 Oct

Twenty-Three Columns Are All That Remain of the Grand Plantation Home Windsor

The first time that I visited Windsor I turned off of Highway 61 near Lorman, Mississippi, and drove straight to the place.  On another visit I decided to go the back way from Port Gibson.  I thought I would never find the place and perhaps end up hopelessly lost.  After driving through the thick woods and all the ravines filled with kudzu it became more of a maze than a trip. If I had driven off of the narrow road and into one of those kudzu covered ravines chances are I would still be there.  If lucky, the cold weather might have knocked the leave off of the kudzu enough for someone to spot a vehicle wrapped in those tenacious vines.  In my estimation there is a chance that Jimmy Hoffa is there – someplace on the back roads, toward the Mississippi River, in a kudzu covered ravine west and south of Port Gibson.

One thing about Windsor is that it makes a person wonder why in the world it was built in the middle of nowhere.  There are places located in the middle of nowhere all over the place but not many as wondrous as Windsor.  Those large palatial columns are just standing there.  It is sort of like a story book setting.  When it was built, back in the late 1850s, it was located near the Mississippi River and near a narrow road known as the Rodney Road.   The soil in the area is loess.  That means in was brought to the location by wind.  The loess layer is very thick and the loess formation that Windsor was built on extends from Memphis down to Baton Rouge on the east side of the Mississippi River. How it got there is somewhat of a mystery.  Perhaps during the an ice age most of the fresh surface water was tied up in glaciers and westerly winds just pushed the soil westward as if it was a great dune.  In any case it does erode very fast when exposed to the rain and so the giant ravines have formed and reformed over the ages making it very difficult to traverse.  After the ice age the waters began to flow and perhaps a large stream worked its way around the loess and eventually became the Mississippi River.  The ridge tops of the loess formations are flat and fairly fertile and they make good places for winding roads and the soil is also fairly fertile so it would be possible to grow cotton in the area, however, the other side of the river is much more fertile as it was continuously replenished by yearly floods.

Well that is it for the geology of the area but to me it is a part of the story of Windsor, or at least a part of the story that I am interested in.  Those  interested in architecture will love the ruins of Windsor and those that like plantation homes can only imagine how great the home was that once stood between the columns.  Those that are interested in history will perhaps relate the land and columns back to the historical events that took place here about 150 years ago.  That is what I wish to discuss after the obligatory brief history of the home.

These Fluted Corinthian Columns Appear Almost in the Middle of Nowhere, Mississippi

Windsor was built as a plantation home for Mr. and Mrs. Smith Coffee Daniel, II.  The plantation consisted of about 2,600 acres and was completed in 1861 just in time for the War Between the States.  Twenty-nine columns were constructed of bricks, made at the site, that supported the magnificent structure.  Each Fluted Corinthian Column was 45 feet in height and was covered in mortar and plaster. The fluted columns had iron Corinthian capitals and were joined at the galleries by an ornamental iron balustrade. The completed structure was a marvel in that it contained its own school, commissary, Dr.’s office, dairy and kitchen under one roof. On top of the house was an observatory. Each of the 25 rooms had its own fireplace and the home contained indoor bathrooms with running water that was supplied by a water tank in the attic.  This was the state of the structure on the eve of the most important event in American history.

Capturing the Mississippi River strategically was the top priority of the Union, so it wasn’t long before the war came to Mississippi.  As the war continued Vicksburg became the key to victory but the Union Army was on the western side of the river.  Grant had to cross the river.  On the night of April 30, 1863,  troop ships were loaded with soldiers and a journey down the river commenced.  The first planned stop for a possible landing was Grand Gulf but the Union gunships could not silence the guns at the confederate stronghold so General Grant proceeded south to Bruinsburg. There was a road (Rodney Road) near there that could be used by troops headed east.  Thus began the largest amphibious landing of American troops in military history prior to D-Day. On April 30 and May 1, 1863, over 17,000 troops landed at Bruinsburg and headed east on the narrow and winding road.

There was still a considerable “unknown” that General Grant had to deal with and that was the location of the Confederate Army.  As the troops were landing in Bruinsburg General Sherman feigned an attack on Vicksburg and the confederate forces stayed at home.  The Union troops at Bruinsburg immediately began a hasty advance along the road that passed in front of Windsor.  Grant had to get his troops into strategic positions and capture strategic locations such as bridges quickly.  If the large confederate force at Vicksburg moved against him all could be lost.

When walking around the large columns at Windsor one hardly thinks that Union Soldiers were resting and crunching on their hardtack on the grounds.  Union forces took control of the house and when the ensuing battles with confederate troops took place the plantation was used as a hospital and the observatory became a place to observe troop movements.  Prior to this the confederates had used the observatory to monitor Union ship movements on the river and to signal confederate forces on the other side of the river.

The Original Corinthian Metal Caps Sit Atop Columns Made of Bricks That Where Manufactured On Site

Each time I visit Windsor I think about the advancing Union forces and their dash inland and the ensuing fights at Port Gibson and other locations.  General Grant went on to destroy Jackson in order to protect the rear of his army when he advanced on Vicksburg.  That turned out to be one of the most important decisions of the Civil War.  If Grant had decided to go directly to Vicksburg he would have certainly been destroyed by a waiting confederate army. Instead he protected his army by taking Jackson and then set in for a siege at Vicksburg.  Lots of history in the middle of Nowhere, Mississippi.
But try as I may to remember all of the history that is close by I have to admit that the ruins of Windsor captures my mind in a mysterious way and makes it impossible to think of troop movements and the like.  Windsor is a place unto itself –  a place to experience awe and mystery.

Windsor did not come to ruins because of the Civil War. The house survived until 1890 and hosted a number of people and events over the years.  One visitor was Mark Twain and he even used the observatory on top of the home to observe the Mississippi River.  On the 17th of February 1890 some work was being done on the house by carpenters.  There were some visitors that day and apparently one of them left behind a lighted cigar or cigarette and it fell into some wood shavings on the third floor.  The family was returning home from a trip to get the mail when they saw the flames. Windsor burned from top to bottom.

The haunting columns are all we have of the structure today.  Twenty-three of them remain.  Those columns have not only witnessed history but they have become part of history.  It is a mysterious place and is hard to comprehend.  I have taken picture after picture and can’t capture the essence of the place.  There is just too much here for the senses to take in and process at one time.  There are so many questions that can’t be answered.  If fact they can’t even be verbalized so one is left with their feelings.  You can feel the history, the architecture and the grandeur but you cannot explain it to others – it is just one of those places that impresses you and stays with you but you can’t really say why!

Convent, Louisiana – Old Jefferson College and the President’s Home – Manresa Retreat and Ignatius House

22 Aug

Manresa Retreat (Old Jefferson College) Commands the View From Historic River Road

When I first took a job in Convent, Louisiana, I did not know how much history and surprises that I would be exposed to just by going to work.  My first trip down the River Road from the Sunshine Bridge to the Courthouse in Convent was unbelievable.

Things were different then. There were small stores and homes all along the way of the Mississippi River and though many of them were old they had a “charm” about them that is unique to St. James Parish.  This “charm” is not apparent on the first visit.  After living or working there a while one begins to understand – it is not something written in books but in the heart and mind.  It is developed over time.

Things have now changed over the years and on a recent visit I found it hard to recognize what I thought would be familiar sights.  Some of the old had been replaced and the new was foreign. Hymel’s was still there.  Every Wednesday a group of us from the courthouse would travel here to eat lunch.  It was usually a large hamburger steak and most of us would get the large gold fish bowl looking mug of cold beer.

Life was different here.  It was a hard choice to go to Hymel’s.  That meant we had to miss the lunch time Bourée game.  Every day at lunch we ate our sandwiches in a few bites and then placed the tables together for our daily game of Bourée.  What great fun and relaxation.  The rules were rigged at a nickel a pot and a quarter if you booed.  You couldn’t get rich or go broke with that – only have fun.  The third floor lounge was filled with friends and laughter every day. Back during that time there were several large Live Oak Trees that graced the courthouse.  Beautiful is all that comes to mind.  The courthouse also had an amazing neighbor.  A wonderful building with Doric columns that commanded the view from the River Road that passed in front.  This was the Manresa Retreat.

When I first drove to Convent I was certainly enjoying the many Creole influenced homes and barns and whatever kind of structures along the way.  Then all of sudden  and unexpectedly, a tremendous three story building with the front lined in white columns grabbed all my attention.  What is this, I thought?  It was so majestic and beautiful that I just gazed at it without thinking.  Many of the things in St. James were like that.  You knew that just about everything was historical but that rarely entered your mind.  The beauty of things occupied the mind. These special places were very much appreciated.  They were part of the here and now and were a part of everyday life as far back as one could remember.

Ignatius House (President's Home Jefferson College) Dates to 1836

However, this large majestic building was a complete surprise. I soon learned that Manresa was a Catholic Retreat and that men could come there to mediate and be rejuvenated spiritually. I had never heard of such a thing.  Later I learned that Manresa was not constructed as a retreat but once was a college. Jefferson College was its name.  It would be years after I had left Convent before I really understood the history and significance of Manresa or Jefferson College.

Manresa was chartered in 1831 as the College of Jefferson.  The present main building was constructed in 1842. On the front end of the property (nearest River Road) is the former Presidents home.  It was built in 1836.  Today it is known as Ignatius House.  It is a reduced scale version of a Great River Road plantation home of the period.  There is a difference in dates of the two structures because a fire destroyed the original Jefferson College building in 1841.

The main building is a three story English bond brick structure with a colossal Roman Doric order form gallery of twenty-one bays.Of course the main building was occupied from 1862 to 1864 by the Union forces during the War Between the States.  In 1864 Valcour Aime, the owner of the property, transferred Jefferson College to Marist Fathers and the U.S. Government withdrew its troops.  In 1864  Marist Fathers reestablished the college as “St. Mary’s Jefferson College.”  St. Mary’s Jefferson College operated until 1927 at which time it was closed.  In 1931 the Jesuit Fathers of New Orleans purchase Jefferson College and it was renamed “Manresa House of Retreats.” February 25 – March 2, 1931, the first retreat was held at Manresa under the direction of the Fathers of the Society of Jesus.

I guess we need to know some of the history of the place to gain a full appreciation of the buildings and property.  However, when riding down River Road one need not know a thing about the place to be awed by the sight of this beautiful place along a section of what I would call a “Sleepy Section” of River Road.

New Orleans, Louisiana – Garden District – Col. Short’s Villa

23 Jun

Prytania Street View of Col. Short's Villa

Located at Fourth St. and Prytania, in the Historic Garden District of New Orleans, this beautiful home has  a number  of items of historical interest attached to it. It was designed by Henry Howard  and built by Robert Huyghe for Robert Short in 1859.

One of the most unique features of this home is not the house itself but the fence.  It is a cast iron fence with a design of intertwined morning glories growing with the corn stalks. The fence was erected by Wood & Mitenberger, the New Orleans branch of the Philadelphia foundry of Wood and Perot.  Wood and Perot also cast the corn fence located in the French Quarter.

Legend has it that Col. Short’s wife was lonely for her native Iowa and so Short had the fence made for her.  Another source says that the Short’s simply ordered it from the company catalog. Outside of the two corn fences in New Orleans and I am not aware of another in the U.S. or one that is at least a tourist attraction.

Fourth Street View of Corn Fence at the Col. Short Villa

Before the occupation of New Orleans, by the Union Forces, Col. Short returned to his native Kentucky.  As a result his property was seized on September 1, 1863.  Short was classified as an “Absent Rebel” even though his wife still occupied the house.

Close Up View of Col. Short's Villa

She was ousted from the house in March of 1864 and General Butler turned it into the Executive Mansion for newly elected Federal Governor Mr. Michael Hahn.  Two weeks later The U.S. Commander, Department of the Gulf, Major General Nathaniel Banks and family became the new residents.

On August 15, 1865 the property was returned to Col. Short by the U.S. Government.  He remained a resident here until his death in 1890.

Rodney, Mississippi – Presbyterian Church

16 Jun

Just getting to Rodney can be an adventure.  We had no idea where we were but we turned up in Rodney. It was easy though to see how isolated and difficult it can be to find this place. Rodney is in Loess hills that are on the edge of the Mississippi River and valleys and gorges have formed that can be confusing and treacherous. The small roads cannot be much larger than a single vehicle and I say that because in going there and coming back I did not encounter another vehicle so I am just estimating. The small town was mostly the remains of an older town with some buildings in decent shape but with most not suitable for visitation. A few people do live in Rodney as do some loud mouth barking dogs.

Articles and books about Rodney abound so I will not go overly in depth in this post. In the future I plan to make a number of postings about Rodney. For this posting I will limit my discussion to the Rodney Presbyterian Church that proudly displays a cannon ball in it’s facade.

There is a historical feeling about this church and that was very apparent as I circled the church looking in the windows. Despite all the history associated with Rodney, and this church, my thoughts could not stray far from the events that happened on Sunday September 13, 1863. Those that did not attend church that day missed the most exciting day in the history of the church. Some of those that first attended that day probably wished they had never set foot in that church.

The US Gunboat “Rattler” was on duty in the Mississippi River to prevent activity at the port of Rodney and to report on Confederate activities in the area. Seems like duty on that ship was growing routine and the sight of nicely dressed women going to church must have created excitement on the boat that day. On the other hand there was a passenger on board from Red Lick, Mississippi that was headed back North. Mr. Baker had just resigned his position as the Presbyterian Pastor in Red Lick. He was a Northern sympathizer and was on the ship as the guest of Master Fentress awaiting passage to the North. Knowing that Mr. Baker was on board the Rattler the Pastor of the Rodney Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Robert Price, invited Pastor Baker to deliver the message on that day. Pastor Baker accepted the offer and extended an invitation to Captain Fentress and Ensign Strunk. They with about 20 sailors set out for services with Rev. Baker.

Cannon Ball Lodged in Front Facade of Rodney Presbyterian Church

The call of duty should have prevented the acting master and some 20 odd crew from abandoning ship for the pews of the Church that day. It seems that the Union sailors had just settled down into their pews for a day of worship and were finishing the second song. Then in walked Lt. Allen of the Confederate Calvary. He was not looking for a seat but strolled up to the pulpit and after apologizing to the minister he announced to the congregation that the church was surrounded by his men and that the Union sailors were under arrest. A small melee broke out and some shots were fired. Most of the congregation sought safety under the pews while some fled from the church. One elderly woman stood on her pew shouting “Glory to God!”

Once the skeleton crew on the Rattler learned of this fiasco they began lobbing shells into town. As the cannon balls flew through town one of them hit the church and stuck into the exterior. Not to be out ordered and out gunned Lt. Allen sent word to the Rattler that he would start hanging his prisoners if the shelling did not stop. He informed the Rattler that the towns people had in no way played a part in his actions.

The next time that Master Fentress was heard from he was in a prisoner in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. He had written a letter to Admiral Porter explaining the events of that fateful day. The Rattler became a laughing stock and it’s fate was spread far and wide. However the ships notoriety did not last that long because on December 30, 1864, the Rattler hit a snag in the river and sank.

I wonder if Pastor Baker delivered a message that historic day and if he did what did he talk about? A interesting day I must say. Having half the congregation arrested, others diving under pews and some even firing shots. Then on top of that having cannon balls rock the Church. I guess that would drive an elderly lady to stand in a pew and shout “Glory to God.” One thing for sure is that the Spirit does work in mysterious ways in Rodney.