- 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
In New Orleans, solder for the tin roofs and gutters was sent along to Natchez by people who apparently thought Nutt to be an enthusiastic Confederate. Nutt wrote Sloan in September, “I now feel broken up as Mr. Smith has concluded to leave me and return to his family.” Smith was apparently the last of the Philadelphia workmen. Despondently, Nutt wrote: “This is perhaps the last chance I may have of writing you until we have Peace.” He asked Sloan to send him the plans of the basement, although, he said bitterly, they might be impounded by the local postal authorities “as contraband of War.” But to Sloan the tone was consistently warm: “I hope you are well and that it may not be long before we can resume our accustomed friendly correspondence.” In December Sloan wrote once more into the darkness, saying, “It has been rumored here that the men have been drove from the work at your house.…”
In the spring of 1862, the war in the South began in earnest, and two thousand bales of Haller Nutt’s cotton were burnt by the Confederates, presumably to keep them out of the hands of the Federal forces. In the fall the Confederates burned his cotton gin and sawmill at Winter Quarters. In the spring of 1863 the army of Grant, closing in on Vicksburg, upriver from Natchez, commandeered without compensation a huge supply of corn that Haller Nutt had grown at Winter Quarters and Evergreen. His wife estimated the total to be sixty-four thousand bushels. She went on to say that “Mr. Nutt, being a strong Union man and already having suffered much from the Confederates, rather welcomed the advent of the Union army as about to receive friends. Accordingly the plantations … at the advent of this Army were like smiling gardens of Paradise.”
Union troops did not discriminate among the political sympathies of the Southern planters.
At Longwood, construction stopped. Nutt’s slaves boarded up the windows on the upper floors. Orders for furniture were canceled, and the family gathered in living quarters on the lower floor, which had been intended for a billiard room, a wine cellar, and playrooms.
Finally, on July 4,1863, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant, and the Mississippi was open again, flowing “unvexed to the Sea.” Samuel Sloan wrote Nutt that his business was now “in a very flourishing condition.… We see no signs of War and in fact were it not for newspapers should not know such was the case.”
Things were not so blithe in the South. The Union troops did not discriminate neatly among the political sympathies of Southern planters. The “gardens of Paradise” left in their path by Haller Nutt were destroyed, and farm implements, stock, and household articles either taken or broken. Julia Nutt wrote that “Desolation, as the souvenir of some 50,000 to 80,000 men, reigned supreme.” The Union forces stripped the landscape of wood to fuel the river fleet and set the unharvested fields afire. “The Army needed large quantities of both lumber and brick,” said Mrs. Nutt, and took 200,000 feet “of the best quality Cypress” from the piles awaiting construction at Longwood. They also took, she alleged, the contents of Nutt’s new kiln: 426,000 bricks.
Samuel Sloan had only limited knowledge of what was happening to his client. He wrote his last letter to Nutt on December 2, 1863, saying, “There is not a person here of your acquaintances but that will sympathize amply for you and hope with you that this terrible War will soon end—we are all up to the eyes in business and have but little time to think of the terrible condition sections of the country have been plunged into.… Please write me again… as it seems like old times again to receive letters from that quarter.”
It was not quite “like old times.” On June 16, Julia Nutt buried Haller. He had visited Vicksburg “on private and public business” and caught pneumonia. According to his wife, “it was not Pneumonia that killed him. The doctor said it was … his troubles. Three million dollars worth of property swept away; the labor of a life time gone; large debts incurred by the War … and his helpless wife with eight children … looking to him for support.… This crushed him and he died.” She was probably close to the truth when she asserted that in 1863 she “had but one weeks provisions in my storerooms and no money. I had jewels”—she certainly did; their invoices are staggering—“but I could not sell them; I had dresses but I could not sell them. I had twenty-four cows and while I could keep them I sent my younger son, Prentiss”—Sgt. Prentiss Nutt, the son named after the great Unionist orator- “to the Union Camp to sell milk.” So she precariously supported herself until the cows “were taken from me by U.S. soldiers,” who took as well all of her remaining “sheep, cattle, wagons, mules, horses and harness, fencing, axes, and worst of all… the last and heaviest blow, $8,787 in cash” that was being held by one of Nutt’s executors. “Then came the dark and winter days of my life. I gathered wild weeds and fed my children on them and when winter came on we thanked God when we could get a little corn.”