One of the first things that strikes a casual reader today who looks back at 19th century America is that there were a lot of egomaniacs around, and most of them were really, really rich, thanks to the Industrial Revolution.
These American aristocrats – the “fellows that wear downy hats and clean shirts, guilty of education and suspected of bank accounts,” according to Ambrose Bierce – were the big players of the day in government and politics from the local all the way up to the national level. It’s fashionable today to condemn them, and since they were human, there was a lot to condemn in hindsight, but they also made buildings and restructured local landscapes in ways that still show up today.
The South – Business and Leisure
The newly mechanized textile factories were going full blast in Britain during the early 1800s, and American cotton growers had that market pretty much to themselves, thanks to a superior product and the ability to ship vast quantities of it to England more easily and at lower cost than India, their nearest competitor, could.
All the Southern states benefited, especially the new (1817) state of Mississippi, according to Marc R. Matrana, whose recorded population grew from 5,179 in 1800 to 353,901 in 1860, thanks to the cotton boom. Most Mississippi farmers didn’t own slaves, but the plantation system soon developed in those heady times; men and women who owned the most land and the most slaves profited the most from King Cotton, and they became the antebellum aristocracy.
The big plantation homes mostly went up between 1830 and 1860, and 150 years ago, in 1861 – about 2 months after Mississippi seceded from the Union – the Port Gibson plantation owner Smith Coffee Daniell, II, completed Windsor, the largest Greek Revival mansion ever built in the state.
This four-story, seven-bay structure and its four-bay annex, as well as its 29 columns, were made of brick, like many of the big buildings of the time in Northern cities; unlike the brick used up North, though, Windsor’s bricks were made by slaves.
Its millwork and finishing were done by New England contractors. The columns’ massive Corinthian capitals were made out of cast iron, and together with the fancy iron balustrades and four staircases, were floated down the Mississippi River to the construction site by barge from St. Louis, where they had been manufactured.
Windor’s ground-level floor was framed by the column plinths. It functioned, according to Marc Metrana, as the basement and contained a schoolroom, dairy, doctor’s office, commissary and storage area for supplies. The first floor above included a central hall and several large living spaces, including a double parlor, library and the master suite. On the second floor were more bedrooms. Large tanks in the attic supplied water for multiple interior bathrooms, a rare luxury back then. The mansion was topped by an observatory and could see and be seen for miles up and down the Mississippi River.
The North – Business and Good Works
I don’t know where they got the bricks for all the 19th industrial buildings that still are in use in parts of Cohoes, New York, but the mills’ inventive uses of nearby water resources shaped the very structure of the town.
Cohoes sits at the junction of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, near a large waterfall. Not only were these Industrial Age businessmen able to divert some of that water to a canal that originally ran between Cohoes and Albany and eventually grew into the Erie Canal; they also built a series of local power canals at different elevations through town and formed the Cohoes Company to maintain the canals and sell water power to mills, including these.
Many people did quite well here in various business ventures, from the Cohoes Company itself through the knitting mills – the reason why Cohoes is called the Spindle City – right on through the service economy that also developed during this town’s Golden Age.
It was a good life, if you were born into the right family and could survive childhood. Horace Silliman, born in 1825, was the only one of six children to survive to adulthood. His father was a carpenter and businessman, and after graduating from college, Horace became first a druggist and then a newspaper publisher. He bought stock in several mills and got involved in local water affairs.
His good works are still remembered in Cohoes today. In 1849, he organized a school district here. In 1857, he was involved with the construction of a reservoir and reliable water system for the town. In 1858, he was elected first president of the Cohoes chapter of the YMCA.
During the Civil War, as local newspaper obituaries started to include the names of young men (in 1861, for example, “July, Jesse D. Van Hagen, aged 22…killed at the battle of Fair Oaks, Va.”), Horace Silliman got involved in raising troops and other activities for the soldiers, and he gave the welcoming speech for returning veterans.
There were many such veterans. Just going by the 1861-1865 newspaper obituaries, from the above resource, of those who didn’t come home, sons of Cohoes served in the 10th, 22nd, 30th, 50th, 76th, 77th, 91st, 97th, 113th, 115th, 118th, 128th, 175th and 177th New York regiments; the 4th and 7th regiments, New York Heavy Artillery; and the 6th New York Cavalry.
Some of those Cohoes men certainly came up against men from the Windsor plantation area in Claiborne County, Mississippi.
It was a terrible war.
Thirty-one years after the war’s end, in 1896, Silliman had a church built to commemorate his parents’ founding of a Presbyterian church in Cohoes. It was finished in 1897, and downtown Cohoes (also known as the “city of churches,” with 19 congregations in 1958, according to the Spindle City Historic Society) now had a new church, Romanesque in style, along with a 2-1/2-story church house and 2-story manse, occupying the block opposite City Hall.
All that remains
In a way, the Mississippi plantation owner Smith Daniell was lucky. It didn’t seem so at the time. Just a few weeks after moving into his huge, beautiful mansion at Windsor, he died, aged 34. He was lucky in that he didn’t have to see his new country defeated in arms, the arrest of Confederate officers by Union troops during a ball in his own home, and the confiscation of all his property.
He also missed seeing Windsor go up in flames, not from Yankee torches (Marc Metrana speculates that the great mansion may have been spared during the war because it functioned as a hospital), but because of a careless smoker in 1890, seven years before Silliman Memorial Church would open its doors up in Cohoes, New York. All that remained of Windsor after the fire were 22 of the columns:
Horace Silliman died in 1910, aged 84. I can’t help but remember Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a philanthropist when thinking of him (“A rich [and usually bald] old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket”), but he did many good things and is especially beloved by students in the Philippines, where he founded Silliman University in 1901, judging by the comments they make online at various sites about him.
Perhaps he was lucky, too. He didn’t have to see his memorial to his parents abandoned over the years as the glory days in Cohoes faded, until it was pronounced an eyesore and torn down in 1998, nor did he have to experience the irony of having the empty space turned into a park dedicated, not to his parents, but to him:
Time marches on. People change and new priorities appear. Nobody has forgotten Windsor, or Horace Silliman.
Windsor was added to the National Register of Historic Places in November 1971. Windsor Ruins today is a famous Mississippi landmark.
In Cohoes, they rededicated Silliman Park in September 2010.
The challenge we face during this 150th anniversary of the American Civil War is to get beyond the words and textbooks and memorials and ruins to rediscover what things actually were like when this old stuff around us was fresh, alive, and sometimes at the center of the biggest financial and political dealings of the day.
People built these things, and they found them worth fighting for. Why did they fight? Why was there so much hate when North and South lived in such wondrous times, during economic booms? What can we learn about our own divisive times by trying to find answers to those questions?
That remains to be seen.
Categories: American Civil War