- Historic Sites
Longwood: The Untimely Octagon
On the eve of the Civil War, a Mississippi plantation owner and Philadelphia architect set out to build a massive octagonal mansion in Natchez.
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
Nutt confessed a desire to have “as perfect a building as we can plan and execute.”
Null persisted with some details: “Mrs. Nutt says she wd prefer the pivot blind.” And something bigger than a detail: could there be a mistake about one hundred thousand feet of rough lumber? “100,000 feet is a large pile of lumber.” No, replied Sloan; there wasn’t any error. (Eventually they ordered three times that much.)
On March 29 Nutt felt it necessary to inform Sloan about the difficulty of putting Negro slaves to work in tandem with white artisans. The white mechanics, he wrote, were accustomed to work a fixed number of hours a day, a custom he could not pass on to his slaves.
On April 9 Sloan was ready to ship nails, gas pipe, water pipe, drainpipe, mantles and grates. By the twenty-first there were also the bay windows and doorframes, brackets, cabinets, tin, nails, slate, doorsills, and stone chimney tops. Nutt had written on the fifth that he was “getting on pretty well with my work—but fear not as forward as you would like.” He had made, in a slaveoperated manufactory that he owned, 180,000 bricks and was getting ready to make 300,000 more.
Early in May 1860 Nutt asked for two Philadelphia bricklayers; slaves could make bricks apparently, but did not lay them well enough for his standards. Sloan provided them and a carpenter. The architect himself visited Natchez between May and July. The letters between the two after this visit became friendly, almost affectionate. Sloan urged Nutt to return the visit: “I hope to see you pass into the office some morning before long.”
But things were becoming difficult in Mississippi. Nutt wrote on July 16 that the frames and slate arrived “very much damaged” and that the bricklayers had left. Sloan replied on the thirtieth that Null’s leller gave him “much uneasiness,” because he knew lhe goods had been so well packed lhal lhey would have arrived inlacl unless harmed “by wilful acts.”
By August things seemed to have quieted. Sloan recommended a change in the entrance and, having learned his lesson, asked Nutt to “talk over the matter” with Mrs. Nutt. The reply was that “Mrs. Nutt and I both agree that this change would be very unfortunate.” With the bitter presidential campaign in full swing, Nutt wrote on August 23 that “something might happen to Mr. Mutton so I will be deprived of his supervision during the erection of my house.” He suggested that the head carpenter, apparently less vulnerable, be made fully cognizant of the architectural plans.
In November 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President. In April, Fort Sumter fell to the South Carolina insurgents, and at Big Bethel in June and at Manassas in July were fought the first major battles of the American Civil War.
After Mississippi seceded in January 1861, Addison Mutton, the Yankee who was a houseguest as well as a construction superintendent, became too much of a risk even for the Nutts. He left after overhearing Mrs. Nutt express her worries about his presence. The four carpenters followed him northward in March 1861. Nutt proudly sent Sloan a notice they had filed in the Natchez newspaper, which showed, he said, that “Philadelphia Mechanics have been south and well treated and not hanged.”
On May 5 Nutt wrote Sloan that there was danger sending out tinsmiths, saying that “affairs may grow more aggravating and possibly workmen from the North may be molested.” A portion of this letter was censored by the Confederate authorities, and five days later Sloan wrote Nutt saying he had not heard from him, which led him “to believe that the mails are now interfered each way. The very thoughts of the condition of our country gives me pain.”
On May 19 Nutt replied, as much for the eyes of the censors as for Sloan: “We do not feel much like taking the trouble of writing nowadays and paying postage on letters what are suppressed by the agents of those who issue the stamps.” But, since the rain was coming in through his untinned roof, he asked Sloan to send the tinners after all, if he could find “sober, discrete men” who would “attend to their business.” In this letter he also rejoiced that the dome was complete.
On June 20, between the news of Big Bethel and the battle of Manassas, Sloan wrote, saying that the tinners “to my surprise … declined going in consequence of the state of the country.” A month later Sloan found another set of tinners, twin brothers, who “are quiet men and pay attention to nothing but their business.” He actually thought of going to Natchez himself and taking his son, who had been ill, with him. Sloan apparently had little sense of the conditions along the lower Mississippi, for he opined that the “change might be much benefit” to his son. This letter was heavily censored on its way to Nutt.
Nutt’s Philadelphia suppliers were making large advances to their suppliers and workmen. One of them began to worry about the likelihood that “as long as this war continues there will be no transmitting of goods to the South, nor of money to the North.” One of them, eager to keep his lines open to Nutt, wrote on July 25, four days after the federal defeat at Manassas: “As soon as your house is ready and the communications is opened I can forward the doors.… I do hope our intercourse will soon be renewed but God Only Knows what is to be done as the War spirit predominates here.”