Every day, our modern culture erases more and more reminders from our Nation’s past, however the past remains unaltered. History can be rewritten, monuments and markers removed, and names on buildings, roads, bridges, schools, and even military bases and vessels replaced with different names, BUT the past remains unchanged. Only our interpretation of the past changes.
Whether our Nation’s past offends or encourages us today, it took place in the time and circumstances of those who lived it and shaped it. The good or harm we perceive from the events in our Nation’s history is a healthy discussion we should be free to engage in, but first we should acknowledge that our current society is a product of our past. We should take care when picking what portions of history to erase or alter.
This is the discussion I dove into after I first wrote my historical novel. Author-friends questioned my decision to publish a story that involves enslaved workers on Southern plantations at the breakout of the Civil War. But, sometimes a story comes to light from a controversial period in our Nation’s history that outweighs any risk in writing it. For that reason, I am pleased Koehler Books saw the value of the story and published the story I wrote.
What follows is how I went from writing my contemporary Shiloh Mystery Series to investing three years to write and publish, The Last Laird of Sapelo.
I quote a portion of A Land Without Ruins by Abram Ryan, a noted 19th-Century American poet (1838-1886), in the story’s opening.
“A land without ruins is a land without memories — a land without memories is a land without history. A land that wears a laurel crown may be fair to see; but twine a few sad cypress leaves around the brow of any land, and be that land barren, beautiless and bleak, it becomes lovely in its consecrated coronet of sorrow, and it wins the sympathy of the heart and of history. Crowns of roses fade — crowns of thorns endure. Calvaries and crucifixions take deepest hold of humanity — the triumphs of might are transient — they pass and are forgotten — the sufferings of right are graven deepest on the chronicle of nations.”
The rest of Ryan’s famous poem did not make it into the novel, but is worth sharing to remind us today of the value of never letting loose of the past.
“Yes, give me the land where the ruins are spread,
And the living tread light on the hearts of the dead;
Yes, give me a land that is blest by the dust,
And bright with the deeds of the down-trodden just.
Yes, give me the land where the battle’s red blast
Has flashed to the future the fame of the past;
Yes, give me the land that hath legends and lays
That tell of the memories of long vanished days;
Yes, give me a land that hath story and song!
Enshrine the strife of the right with the wrong!
Yes, give me a land with a grave in each spot,
And names in the graves that shall not be forgot;
Yes, give me the land of the wreck and the tomb;
There is grandeur in graves — there is glory in gloom;
For out of the gloom future brightness is born,
As after the night comes the sunrise of morn;
And the graves of the dead with the grass overgrown
May yet form the footstool of liberty’s throne,
And each single wreck in the war-path of might
Shall yet be a rock in the temple of right.
Ryan’s powerful poem reminded me how we should not just cling to the memories of the victorious but likewise the vanquished. Both fought and spilled blood for a cause they felt worth fighting to preserve. We should always remember that the victors are the ones who write history. This means we must dig beyond the written history to uncover the facts where truth lies.
After attending a writer’s conference on Saint Simon’s Island, June 2019, my wife and I traveled to Darien, Georgia, to consider it as a setting for my next contemporary Southern novel. We fell in love with the history of Darien, the second oldest town in Georgia, bowing only to Savannah. After Oglethorpe founded what they had originally named New Inverness, the early Scottish settlers chartered the settlement as Darien in 1736.
We drove through the quaint live oak lined neighborhoods and walked along the docks filled with shrimp boats and pleasure craft of all sizes. After we left, I learned Darien had once been a thriving seaport at the mouth of the Altamaha River, and that the Altamaha split further inland into the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers, connecting Darien with Macon and Milledgeville. During Georgia’s antebellum period, riverboats hauled bales of cotton and other crops from inland plantations to Darien. They then loaded the valuable cargo onto merchant ships headed to Savannah and Charleston and even across the Atlantic. By the 1850s, the rapidly expanding railway transported much of the cotton directly to Savannah. However, riverboats continued to transport cargo and passengers upriver to cities and towns unreached by the railroad.
August 2020, we returned to further explore Darien and to visit Sapelo Island. We stayed at Open Gates Bed & Breakfast in historic Darien. Our excursion to Sapelo Island changed everything. Our tour guide and host, JR Grovnor, a Geechee descendant, shared how Thomas Spalding had brought his ancestors to Sapelo at the beginning of the 19th-Century. He then told us how following the Civil War the freed Geechee population returned to the island and bought land. But after Howard Coffin of Hudson Motor Company fame bought the island in 1912, and subsequently sold it to R. J. Reynolds, Jr., the changes they instigated affected the Geechee communities. Of the four hundred Geechee residents on Sapelo at the beginning of the 20th-Century today there are only about three dozen descendants still living on the island. The children no longer attend school on the island but take the ferry to school on the mainland. After the State of Georgia gained the island from R. J. Reynolds’ widow in the 1970s, only parcels of land in the Hoggs Hammock community remain privately owned. Between a lack of jobs and rising taxes, most of the Geechee families at Hoggs Hammock have sold their land to outsiders and moved away.
While in Darien, Zachariah and Carrie Rath, innkeepers of Open Gates Bed & Breakfast, handed me a copy of Buddy Sullivan’s book, Early Days on the Georgia Tidewater, The Story of McIntosh County & Sapelo. Scouring through Buddy Sullivan’s book, I learned more about Thomas Spalding and his family’s legacy on Sapelo, in Darien and throughout Georgia. I then discovered the overshadowed and mostly overlooked story of Randolph, Thomas Spalding’s youngest son. Newspaper accounts recorded Randolph as a revered politician, a successful planter, and a heralded patriot who parlayed his inherited fame and fortune on Sapelo Island in the decade following his father’s death in 1851. Further, as a testament to Randolph and his father, following the Civil War, virtually all the displaced Geechee enslaved workers and their families returned to the only home they knew: Sapelo. The question of “why?” led me to writing The Last Laird of Sapelo. Though a work of historical fiction, I anchored the novel around actual people and places and events.
In August 2021, my wife and I returned to Darien and ventured to Brunswick and Savannah as well. At Ashantilly, now a restored history and visitor center in Darien, we met with Buddy Sullivan and Harriet Langford, Director of the Ashantilly Center, before we drove to Randolph Spalding’s house, built in 1857 near the historic homes on The Ridge. Subsequent trips led me to Milledgeville, Columbus, and Russell County, Alabama, where we found the plantation home where Mary Bass Spalding grew up a scant twelve miles from Columbus. When not on the road, I researched the internet and read books about Randolph Spalding and the other characters and events and places in the story.
The lone notable exception in this fictional work, I chose not to depict actual Geechee slaves. Bu Allah (Bilali Mohammed) was the only real Geechee person mentioned—Thomas Spalding’s famous black overseer. I contend he had an influence upon young Randolph Spalding as an adolescent growing up on Sapelo Island. All the other slaves depicted in the story are fictional, but representative of those who lived on the island and served the family at Randolph Spalding’s mainland farmstead in 1860.
The biggest discovery occurred when I met Miriam Lukken and her husband, Peter. She is a direct descendant of Elizabeth Spalding Wylly, daughter of Thomas Spalding. Her family’s collection of journals, paintings, books, artifacts, and photos belonging to the Spalding/Wylly family took my breath away. She and Peter have since built a home on Sapelo Island and support the historical connection of the Geechee community there, as well as preserving the legacy of the Spalding family.
I hope The Last Laird of Sapelo offers a thought-provoking story that reveals the hard choices and hardships everyone faced in the early months of the Civil War. Likewise, neither did I intend this historical novel to defend any of the wrongs of yesteryear, but to help us navigate the present.