The Writing Traveler: Only the Skeleton Remains

General Grant decided that the plantation home of Windsor was too beautiful to burn when his Federal troops marched through Mississippi. So why did it burn? Photograph: J Gerald Crawford

Windsor lay in ruins. Twenty-three columns rose solemnly above the ground – old, weathered, and still wrapped with faint traces of smoke.

So there it stood in all of its glory at the end of a winding little road in the eastern midsection of Mississippi.

The reflection of another time. The reflection of a better time.

It possessed an air of aristocracy. It had a noble and dignified presence.

“Windsor was the best we had,” the little lady said. “The plantation home was known as the largest antebellum Greek Revival mansion in all of Mississippi.”

Her eyes burned with pride. The pride faded.

And her eyes were etched with a touch of sadness.

Windsor lay in ruins. Twenty-three columns rose solemnly above the ground – old, weathered, and still wrapped with faint traces of smoke. Age did not kill Windsor.

Man did.

Caleb Pirtle III

For a moment none of us spoke. Even in death, Windsor was captivating.

“Windsor was the best we had,” the little lady repeated. “Then we had to endure the late unpleasantness.”

“The Civil War?”

She nodded. “And here came the Yankees,” she said.

“Did the Union troops burn it?” I asked.

“No, the Union general thought Windsor too beautiful to burn,” she said. The little lady, a genuine, card-carrying daughter of the Confederacy, squared her shoulders defiantly. “The Confederates had used the observation platform on the fourth floor as a signal station. The Yankees used Windsor as a hospital.”

General Ulysses S. Grant had landed his men at the nearby Port of Bruinsburg and was marching toward Vicksburg when he stumbled upon Windsor. The Southern Rebels had seen him coming. They had an observation platform, you know. And the Confederates packed up and left.

The general was stunned by the grand sight of Windsor. The mansion had been built by an Indian fighter turned landowner and gentleman farmer, a man named Smith Daniell. The home had four floors, and each of its twenty-five rooms had its own fireplace. A tank in the attic held water for bathing. And in the basement were a schoolroom, a commissary, a diary, and a doctor’s office.

The Yankees moved in. Windsor was empty after all. And they began fighting their way past the little towns of Rodney and Port Gibson, moving ever closer to a field of battle around Vicksburg. Bring me Vicksburg, President Abraham Lincoln had told Grant, and you will bring me the key to victory.

The general would deliver Lincoln the key. He left the dead and dying on the hills and fields surrounding Vicksburg. He left the wounded in Windsor. The rooms held so many soldiers. It needed so many more rooms. Windsor, with blood staining its stairways, survived the late unpleasantness.

Mark Twain, at a later day, would stay for a time at the great mansion, sitting for hours on the observation deck and watching the Mississippi River roll past. He wrote about the plantation home’s aristocratic elegance in his book, Life on the Mississippi.

“What happened to Windsor?” I asked.

“The family had gone to town to pick up the mail,” the little lady said. “It was on a February day in 1890. They were riding back to their home when they saw the flames rising above the roof.”

“They couldn’t save it.”

“Too late.”

“What caused the fire?”

“Some say that a house guest left a lit cigar lying on the balcony,” she said. Her voice became a whisper. “And some believe the house guest dropped his cigar into a pile of wood chips that the carpenters left behind.”

No one knows for sure. It doesn’t matter.

“That’s a shame,” I said.

“It’s the curse?”

I must have looked surprised. “When Mister Daniell built Windsor in 1861,” the little lady said, “He spent $175,000, which today would be more than four million dollars. He moved in. A few months later, he was dead.”

“What happened?”

“Men died in all sorts of ways in those days,” she said.

War stormed around the mansion and upon his grave. Men suffered mightily beneath Windsor’s roof. Men died in its rooms.

“Windsor had seen too much pain and agony and dying,” the little lady said. “I believe Windsor had grown weary of the suffering. The South was gone. Windsor had no reason to stay”

It had been too beautiful to burn. That’s what General Grant said.

It burned.

The ghost departed. And only the skeleton remains.

Please click HERE to find Confessions of the Road, a collection of my travel stories.

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