Friday, July 15, 2011

House of Sorrows

Sitting on a spit of land six miles south of Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River, the crumbling ruins of an old plantation house lie in a picturesque field of pecan and oak trees. Because the river wraps around the land and the former plantation, the setting offers one of the better views found along the River Road. Although destroyed fifty-one years ago, memories of the Cottage Plantation still linger in the minds of some living in Baton Rouge—remembered for what it used to be, what it became and for the ghosts who are rumored to still walk there.

Not many years before fire destroyed the plantation, it was a playground of sorts for several of us, and we went there on many nights to ‘walk with the ghosts’ and to sit under its crumbling columns telling scary tales of blood, murder and vengeance. In those days the grounds were accessible, or at least it seemed that way to a car full of teenagers willing to climb fences. We plotted elaborate dramas and scare tactics to spring on friends, the more elaborate stunts requiring some of us to arrive early, set the scene and then hide among the shadows. We laughed as the terrified girls ran screeching from a ‘ghost’ in flour whiteface, arms pinwheeling with glittering butcher knives but in the long run we all once or twice got scared out of our wits.

At the time not many among my ghost story partners knew much about the old house, apart from it being some old place from the time of the Civil War, and that it was sometimes in the movies. I don’t remember it ever being a subject in our Louisiana history classes. But it does have a story, a colorful one that includes fiery steamboats, yellow fever, occupation by Union soldiers, wandering ghosts and finally crumbling in flames.

The Cottage was built in 1824 as a wedding gift to a daughter and her husband. Considered one of the finest houses in the area, it had 22 rooms filled with imported furniture. Operating as a sugar plantation with 250 slaves, the owners were able to accumulate considerable wealth, and in the years before the Civil War, life was good at the Cottage.

On February 27, 1859 a steamboat bound for New Orleans caught fire on the river near the Cottage, burning to the water, with bales of burning cotton floating on the Mississippi, passengers clinging to them as best they could. Plantation slaves helped pull passengers from the water, while the owner of the Cottage had bed sheets laid out with flour on top of them, a palliative for burn victims to be rolled in. One witness later wrote in his journal: ‘One man approached me wrapped in a sheet with flour covering his face and looking like a ghost. Before I could run away from the hideous object it extended its arms toward me and quietly said, “Don't be afraid, Jimmie. It is me, Mr. Cheatham. I am dying—hold my hand!” then sinking upon the turf beside me. The ghost-like man gave a cry which seemed to wrench the soul from his body. He shivered for an instant, and then lay still. A slave passing by pointed to the body and casually remarked, “He done dead.”’

After the start of the Civil War, life on the plantation changed forever. The Union Army took over the property and removed everything of value, including horses, furniture, jewelry and even the children’s clothing. Troops occupied the plantation holding the family prisoner. When the soldiers finally left, the family abandoned the house and it was taken over as a hospital for Union soldiers with yellow fever. Many died from the disease and were buried on the grounds. In the years that followed, the fact that it was a hospital probably saved it from being destroyed by vandals.

Following the war’s end the family tutor returned to the abandoned Cottage, becoming a recluse and spending his time repairing the old house. He was sometimes seen wandering the grounds of the Cottage with a long, white beard. Years passed and the Cottage stood empty, people living nearby calling it haunted. There were reports of doors opening and slamming by themselves and sightings of ghosts wandering the grounds. In the 1920s, the family began a restoration of the house and in the 1950s it was opened to the public, a museum of the Old South. In 1957 it served as a movie set for the Clark Gable and Yvonne De Carlo picture, Band of Angels.

One early morning in 1960, the Cottage burned to the ground. Firemen later reported that while pumping water onto the flames from the side garden, a man ‘appeared’ in an upper window. Firefighters shouted for him to jump, but he stood not noticing them or the fire around him. The roof collapsed and the man was gone. Searching for the his remains, firemen found nothing. Some say a ghostly figure still haunts the Cottage, passing on dark nights among the ruined columns of a former life.


  1. There has always been literary talk about the Southern influence on writers of that region. And the history of all regions of the country influence their native sons, but the South has quite a depth of sources: occupation by American troops, their dead buried all about, mixed among the bodies of opposing forces; slaves who helped shape the landscape; the battle of all against the unforgiving forces of nature; and the stories of all those who have come before, never dead really, sometimes seen as ghostly figures still roaming their homeland. And plenty more things to shape one's imagination.

  2. Wow. Just watched the 1957 movie with Clark Gable, what a story! Sorry we lost the house of sorrows in flames. May we never forget the history of our nation, the lessons learned and the hope that
    Love conquers all.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America