Historical Homes, Traveling Tidbits

Bragg-Mitchell Mansion – A Survivor of the War

The more I research the Civil War, the more I begin to recognize influence in everyday things. Street names, businesses, etc. So, when I saw “Bragg-Mitchell House” as an attraction and wedding venue in Mobile, Alabama, you must guess what my first thoughts were. I knew this place had to have some connection to the notorious Confederate general from the western theater. While I wasn’t entirely right, I wasn’t wrong either.

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John Bragg

The Bragg-Mitchell House was built in the mid-1850s for Judge John Bragg on 27 acres in what is now bustling midtown Mobile. Who built it for him is still a mystery due to a negligence in official recordkeeping for the era. It was either designed by Thomas James, who was a prominent Mobile homebuilder of the time, or Alexander Bragg, John’s brother who was also an architect. John, Alexander, and their other four brothers were born and bred in North Carolinian society and prospered in their respective careers. As a politician, however, John did not enjoy an illustrious early career and left his home state for Mobile under not so pleasant circumstances. While Charles Green, the editor of the Boydton got off with some minor injuries for the cane-beating John and his other brother Thomas had inflicted upon him, the Braxton boys were recovering from some nasty knife wounds. All over a few hateful words written about John’s political career in the state legislature.

Bragg Mitchell 1That all changed when John fled to Mobile six weeks after the violent episode. He married Mary Frances Hall in 1847. Into the marriage, she brought her family plantation in Lowndes County and a mind sharp enough to manage it – having been educated at Troy Female Seminary in New York – once her mother was out of the picture. John, however, continued as a lawyer and was elected to Alabama Congress in 1852. But as tension between states’ rights and the Compromise of 1850 made the position untenable, he resigned after his first term. In 1855, he began work on his new mansion home, fashioning it in the Greek Revival style of most wealthy homes of the time. Situated on this sprawling acreage, the home was a peaceful retreat into the countryside for the Bragg family.

Bragg Mitchell 3The porch is supported by sixteen white, fluted columns with the southern traditional “haint blue” painted ceiling. Inside, guests are given the chance to marvel at the sweeping mahogany staircase and floor-to-ceiling windows (some with jib access to be made into doors). To the right is the dining room with its fine china and silver serving dishes. To the left is something I haven’t seen often in plantation homes of the south. A fifty-foot ballroom with sixteen-foot ceiling. Parties weren’t uncommon amongst southern gentility, but the usual setup is a twin parlor separated by a pocket door. But the Braggs needed more space for hosting their elaborate parties and the conventional designs were thrown out the window. Highlighting the party space are original mirrors that were recently returned to the home from New York. Two are 900-pound pier mirrors at either end of the hall and two set above the mantle. Gilt-wood and Louis XVI revival-styled, they added the perfect touch to Bragg’s grand home. John filled it with oil paintings and furnishings from New York, much of which was lost to the coming war. Bragg Mitchell 4Through a little turning hall at one end of the ballroom, one can find the repositioned twin-parlors. One for the women and one for the men, the guests could enjoy the company of their own gender. A servant’s staircase led to the second floor and the private bedrooms and Bragg’s office.

Picnics and parties were regular on the Bragg estate, but all of that changed as the Civil War cast a dark shadow over the southern way of life. Especially for John and his family. Two of his brothers would join the war effort. William died of his wounds received at Chattanooga in May of 1863 and most famous is Braxton, general of the Army of Tennessee (I helped to fill in

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Braxton Bragg (I can see the family resemblance)

some details about General Bragg during my tour at the home). It was the reputation of John’s political leanings and Braxton’s rank that drove the family to seek refuge at Mrs. Bragg’s plantation far away from Mobile. They packed up their belongings and left, unaware that they might have been much safer in the port city. Wilson’s Raiders tore through Lowndes County toward the end of the war and burned the plantation to the ground, along with the priceless items that filled it. John Bragg, too, would suffer life threats at the hands of the Yankees. They did survive and came back to Union occupied Mobile. Their house, to their great astonishment, was still standing. The oaks that had once stood tall and proud around the illustrious home, however, had been cut down so Confederate artillery would have a clean shot at the invading enemy toward the bay. John, looking to rebuild the life that had been destroyed by the war, took the acorns that were left from those original trees and replanted them. The oaks that guests see today were those salvaged by the Bragg family.

Mary Bragg would suffer an early death in 1869 at the age of 42 and her husband followed her in 1878. The home was passed to his children, but was sold in 1880 to William Pratt, a man whose life closely paralleled Bragg’s. He, too, left North Carolina around the time that John had and did well for himself in Mobile as an entrepreneur. He even lived a few houses down from the Braggs and had owned land that Bragg would later buy to build his home. After a lot of moving around, the Pratts had settled down after the Civil War in Louisiana on a sugarcane plantation, only to return to Mobile to help save the bank after the Crash of 1873. He became president of the bank and his wife became a close friend of Mary (Mollie) Bragg, one of John’s daughters, thus furthering their connections. A year after his wife died of meningitis, Pratt bought the Bragg home and all that was contained within, but he wouldn’t enjoy it for long. He died tragically at the Birmingham train station in 1883 while attempting to pass under the coupling of two train cars as they were about to pull away from the station.

Bragg Mitchell 5The estate and its belongings were liquidated to pay off the Pratt family debt five years after the patriarch’s death. Annie Pratt, William’s daughter, bought the home in 1888 but left the keys with a neighbor and absconded to France where she then sold it to Georgianna Upham for $8,000. Edward and his wife christened their new home as “Portland Place” in honor of their hometown, but like the Pratts, they didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy the mansion. Edward passed away from Bright’s disease three years after the purchase. Georgianna continued to manage the place until 1902 and the home began to gather its character as an appealing wedding venue as her daughters were married on these very grounds.

Franklin Davis became the next owner in 1902 with his wife Corrine and their five children, the only natives of Mobile to ever own the home. The Davis family was steeped in Mobile tradition, participating in Mardi Gras celebrations and founding the “Flower Club” of Mobile. Frank also contracted blueprints of the estate, something the place had been lacking for a while. After Frank’s death in 1908 (there seems to be a pattern of men dying quite soon after moving in), Corrine moved to New York and rented the place outright.

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Minnie Mitchell

This brings us to the last owners and those who share a name with the home as we know it today. In 1931, the industrious and street-savvy Minnie Mitchell bought the home with her own money earned from investing and meticulous saving. The family came to Mobile from Mississippi in 1925 when Alfred Mitchell, Minnie’s husband, was transferred by his job with the Ingram-Day Lumber Company. They rented the home from Corrine at first and even during the Depression, Minnie had the know-how to acquire the home and make sure it was preserved for future enjoyment. Part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal incorporated the Historic American Buildings Survey, of which the Bragg-Mitchell House could be included. Under the HABS program, photographers came to visually document the home. Minnie, a strait-laced community-driven woman, worked tirelessly to stock the home with period furniture and décor. She showed off the home during fundraisers to help raise money for local causes, such as keeping the public library open.

Her preservation efforts and dedication to education carried on after her death in 1862 with the Mitchell Foundation. The home was originally going to be used as a science museum, but the community saw better use for tours and functions such as weddings and private parties.

Bragg Mitchell 2Today, the home is open Tuesday through Fridays, 10am to 3pm with a tour running every hour, on the hour. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children and there’s a discount for seniors and active military. The tour, led by one of their knowledgeable docents, is well worth braving the traffic. The tour mostly highlights the lives of the first and last tenants of the home and for which the estate is known today. I was fortunate enough to arrive before the hour and was able to enjoy the peaceful grounds (besides the roaring traffic) in one of their gardens. It’s not hard to see why couples want to get married here. I’m kicking myself for not checking it out seven years ago for my own wedding! For those who want to experience a small piece of wealthy antebellum living in Mobile, the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion is a perfect stop.

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