Completed in 1859, Nottoway Plantation is the largest antebellum home still standing. Designed by renowned architect Henry Howard, Nottoway has become the crown jewel of Iberville Parish.
Completed in 1859, Nottoway Plantation was the pride and joy of the John Hampden Randolph family and a grand display of conspicuous consumption.
Randolph, who named the stately home after his native Nottoway County in Virginia, commissioned renowned architect Henry Howard with the instructions to build the most impressive plantation home in the South and to spare no expense.
The result was a grand white home, impossible to miss driving down the River Road near White Castle, which got its name because of the proximity of Nottoway, or floating past it on the Mississippi River.
Despite its high visibility and fame, the plantation home holds more than its share of secrets.
For example, one would have to take the tour or do some extensive research to find out the White House is actually smaller than Nottoway – 56,000 square feet under roof compared to 53,000 at the White House.
And there are scores of interesting bits of trivia unique to the gracious queen of the Mississippi River.
While most plantations have a single stairway, Nottoway has two. Tour guide Shelli Wilson explained why. “Randolph had quite a few daughters,” she said.
“In order to preserve their modesty, you have a staircase for the women and one for the men,” Wilson said. “The women had to lift their skirts (which were long enough to reach the ground) to go up the stairs.”
“If any of those single men were to see his single daughters’ ankles, it was their duty to court them,” she continued. This illustrates just one example of how protective Randolph was of his daughters’ virtue.
The daughters’ bedrooms were across from their parents. In order to “keep an eye” on his daughters, Randolph made sure there was a window in the home that would allow him to see the windows of their rooms and he slept on the side of the bed facing that window.
Other bits of interesting trivia include the fact that over 200,000 bricks were used to build what was considered the home’s “basement,” which is actually its ground floor – even today, basements in homes in south Louisiana are rare because of the high water table.
It’s also interesting to note that Nottoway has 365 doors and windows, “one for each day of the year,” Wilson explained. Amazingly, almost all of the glass in those doors and windows are original almost 160 years after it was built, according to Wilson.
Even the Civil War, which began just two years after the plantation was completed, caused almost no damage to the home, save for a single broken window pane and an intriguing dent in one of Nottoway’s front columns.
“The house was fired upon by a Yankee gunboat out on the Mississippi River and a cannonball lodged itself, right in the wood there,” Wilson told a group of about 15 tourists, pointing toward the very top of one of the outside pillars of the mansion.
She said the cannonball remained lodged in the wood until 1971.
“The resident at the time, Miss Odessa (her last name was never divulged during the tour) was working the flower beds and, lo and behold, there was the cannonball,” Wilson said. The cannonball is on display in the museum in the basement of Nottoway.
The Randolph family, though, endured the Civil War with less good fortune. John and his wife Emily had eight children in all at the beginning of the war in 1861, four daughters and four sons.
Three of the Randolph brothers enlisted in the Confederate War – one was killed in combat, another was dismissed after a bout with malaria and the third son survived but returned suffering from shell shock, known today as post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
The fourth son was seven years younger than any of his brothers, too young to serve.
Not long after the Civil War began, John Randolph found himself struggling financially and gathered up all of the family’s china and silver and headed off to Texas with two of his sons and nearly all of his 180 slaves.
There, they bought and operated two cotton farms to support the family and maintain and Randolph’s beloved Nottoway.
The Mississippi River was under the control of the Union Army by 1863, at a time when Randolph was in Texas and his wife Emily and two of their daughters remained behind and were living in the home.
When the Union gunship fired on Nottoway, Emily surrendered and pledged loyalty to the Union and gave its soldiers the use of the family’s land and its animals for food but forbid them from entering and using the house.
“They don’t commandeer the house with one exception,” Wilson said, then revealed another of Nottoway’s secrets.
(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about Nottoway Plantation, the largest antebellum plantation home still standing.)