Windsor: Yankees Crash The Party

Rebecca B. Drake


On February 17, 1890, the sky over the Mississippi River loomed heavy with smoke. People rushed to the source of the fire and found that it was Windsor, a four-story mansion near Bruinsburg Landing. The sight was tragic. The fire was blazing out of control and Catherine Daniell Williams, mistress of Windsor, had taken refuge under the limbs of a live oak tree, a safe distance away. With a sad and tear-streaked face, she watched as everything she owned turned to ashes.

Twenty-two Corinthian columns are all that remain of Mississippi's once famous Windsor mansion. Having been spared the torch of U. S. Grant during the Civil War, the five-story mansion burned in 1890.
The fire began about ten o'clock in the morning during a party given for a small gathering of family and friends. One of the guests, an irresponsible young man, had visited the fourth floor ballroom and coming down inadvertently threw his cigarette into some wood shavings. Within minutes, the mansion was burning out of control and everyone was forced to flee. Other than a few pieces of china, nothing was saved. As Windsor burned, all tangible memories of the Daniell family and the mansion they had built vanished. By nightfall there was nothing left but charred ruins and a family sick with anguish.

Clinging to her family, Catherine moved to a nearby plantation, Retreat, where she lived for the remainder of her life. She 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. His favorite was the one of the Civil War and the night the 'Yankees' showed up, uninvited, for a party at Windsor. As the story went, Catherine, at the time a widow, had planned a lavish party and invited all the neighboring plantation owners to come and bring a covered dish. She also invited a host of Confederate officers to the party. Elaborate plans were made. During the afternoon, she and the neighbors decorated the parlor with fresh flowers and baked cakes. Then, as evening came, she took the lantern up to the observatory to signal the Confederates officers that it was safe to come up from the river.

Unknown to everyone, the Yankees were watching the observatory as well and had picked up on her lantern signals. The Yankees devised a plan of their own. Giving the Confederates time to arrive at the party, they docked their boats at Bruinsburg Landing, changed from their uniforms into street clothes, then walked the short distance to Windsor.

As the guest were singing and dancing, the Union officers knocked on the front door. A house servant opened the door and cheerfully exclaimed, "Come in, Gentlemen." She had no idea that they were Union soldiers who had come to capture the Confederate officers. The party ended in sudden chaos and disaster.

One of the arresting Union officers, a Captain in the U. S. Marines, later wrote a letter home telling his family of the party he crashed. "So we entered and there in the parlor of the house was quite a party, singing and laughing and having a fine time generally," he wrote. "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 (posted at the rear of the house) 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."

Never had a party ended on such a glum note. After the party, the Union army placed permanent guards at the front and rear doors of Windsor. "One of the guards was shot," recalled Catherine's son, Smith Coffee Daniell III. "Grant sent a strong detachment from Bruinsburg to burn the house but Catherine begged them not to burn it. She reminded General Grant that she had been good to his soldiers and had nursed the wounded from the Battle of Grant Gulf. She also explained to him the work and money that had gone into the building of Windsor and if her home were burned, her family would have no place to go. So, General Grant spared the house but burned the barn as a lesson to the family."

Windsor survived the Civil War but, in the end, fell victim to fire. Twenty-six years after the infamous party, the elaborate mansion and most of its memories vanished in a cloud of smoke. Today, the twenty-two Corinthian columns are all that remain.

*Historical source: Mississippi-Louisiana Border Country by Marie T. Logan, which was based on an interview with Smith Coffee Daniell IV.

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