Christmas, 1861, in Charleston
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Christmas, 1861, in Charleston

While the Union Army was trying its best to celebrate a festive Christmas in the Hilton Head/Beaufort area of South Carolina, the atmosphere was quite different in Charleston.  The war had not yet impacted the citizens directly, but another tragedy had done its best to wreck the holiday spirit. On the evening of December 11th, a random spark from a foundry set off a fire that traveled rapidly through the wooden buildings of the slave market and spread throughout the city. By the time firefighters managed to corral the blaze by blowing up buildings in its path, the devastation was unthinkable.

The blasts continued until the fire reached from the Cooper River to the Ashley River and burned itself out. When it was over, some 540 acres had burned, 600 buildings, most of them private residences, had been destroyed, and five churches had collapsed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were homeless and destitute.  The local papers estimated that the losses would exceed eight million dollars in the currency of that time.

For the Grenville family, whose story fills the pages of my upcoming novel, Damned Yankee, all was lost.  their house on Logan Street collapsed into piles of embers, and Jonathan's place of employment as a history teacher had disappeared as well.  They took refuge with Susan's mother, whose house stood unharmed behind one of the firebreaks, but their losses were unimaginable. Here's the scene as mother-in-law Elizabeth Dubois tries to pull the family together for the holidays.

Without preamble, Mrs. Dubois launched into her agenda. “Christmas is one week from today.  The rituals and holidays of our world arrive on their own schedule without regard for our troubles, or anger, or inconveniences. Your small children have a right to believe that Christmas will come without fail on its appointed day and that Saint Nicholas will arrive with his rewards for good behavior. Our slaves also have a right to expect that they will be given a few days of relief from their duties and that they will receive their semi-annual provisions of clothing and food stores. We are not going to disappoint them.”

Taking the silence for agreement, she went on, ticking off the items for consideration. “First, we must let the slaves know when they can celebrate their Slave Yule. I propose that their holiday start after lunch on Saturday and continue through Monday.  That will put them back to work by Christmas Eve. That will also give the cooks time to prepare some cold meals for us that will carry us through the weekend. But more important, we must be sure that they receive their due allotments.  I have already laid aside two sets of winter clothing for each of my slaves, plus provisions of sugar, salt, flour, salt pork, molasses, and cornmeal for each family. But what about our newcomers?”

“You taught me well, Mother.  I had our provisions and clothing set aside long before the fire. I brought with me the bundle of clothes, and the foodstuffs went into your own larder when we arrived. All our slaves will have something to celebrate.”

“And celebrate they will.  We have always allowed them to build a large bonfire in the slave yard in the evenings, and to hold a ritual Stomp, even if it goes on far into the night. They are also accustomed to holding wreath-making parties in the yard and decorating both their own cabins and the main house, so be prepared for pine boughs and winter flowers everywhere, starting almost immediately. The children will have their Christmas tree, too.”

“They always love the tree, but there won’t be much under it, I’m afraid.”  Susan’s smile faded. “Saint Nicholas is on short rations, and there’s almost nowhere left to shop.”

“Leave that to me,” Mrs. Dubois said.  “You haven’t been up in our attic for years, but you’ll find that it is stuffed with the remnants of your childhood. When you and Robert and Annaliese tired of your toys, I stashed them away in hopes of someday having grandchildren who would love them again.  It’s time to drag out those reminders of Christmases Past.”

At that reassurance even Jonathan began to look pleased. “Thank you, Mother Dubois. It may be hard to ignore the circumstances all around us, but we will make the effort for the children’s sake.”


Christmas dinner, too, exceeded everyone’s expectation. The tablecloth was nearly hidden by platters of ham and roast turkey, fried fish, oysters, corn pudding, sweet potatoes, green beans, field peas, and rice with gravy. Wine for everyone over the age of sixteen and sweet tea for the children helped wash down second helpings.The sideboard featured blackberry pie, a tall coconut cake, a trifle, gingerbread men, and fruitcake.

“Mother, this was truly a feast.”

“This is perhaps the last we shall have together, so I wanted Cook to make it special. But I don’t want to think of that now.  I peeked into the parlor a short time ago, and there were several mysterious boxes under the tree.  Shall we adjourn there and see what Saint Nicholas may have left?”

The children, well-schooled in containing their excitement, sat cross-legged around the tree, with the adults drawing chairs up behind them.  Mrs. Dubois suggested they begin with the youngest and move upward. Little Jamie beamed and then squealed as he pulled wrappings off a set of wooden blocks, a top, and a hobby horse. “Your mother played with those when she was your age,” Mrs. Dubois told him.  “She kept them in very good condition, so you will have to do the same.”

Next came Robert, who sat puzzling over a tube-shaped package, trying to guess the contents before opening it.  Mrs. Dubois squirmed with impatience. “Please be careful with it, Robbie, and open it before you drop it and break it.” 

“I . . . I don’t know what this is,” he stammered.

“It’s a spyglass, dear, one that belonged to your Uncle Robert.  Here, let me show you.  You look through this end and it brings distant objects much closer.  You can use it to look out over the harbor and watch passing ships, or point it at the night sky to study the stars, or look into the trees and watch birds up close.”

“Just don’t point it at the neighbor’s windows,” young John laughed.

“And don’t you go giving him ideas!”

Next it was Becca’s turn.  “Your present comes in two packages,” her grandmother told her.  “Open the smaller one first.” Becca looked into  the box and carefully lifted out a small doll and dozens of pieces of furniture. Her brow furrowed as she looked at them.

 “What. . . .?”

“Now just lift up that huge box.  You’ll have to stand to do it.” As the top came off, the little girl gasped and fell to her knees. “It’s a house! It . . It looks just like this house.”

“Yes it does.  Your grandfather built that dollhouse for your mother.  He carved the furniture, too, while I sewed tiny curtains and rag rugs and bedspreads.”  

“Oh, I adored that dollhouse,” Susan said. “Becca, you may have to let me help you play with it.”

“That would be fun!”

“Now Mary Sue. You have only one package to open.”

“It feels like a book,” she said, trying to hide her disappointment.

“So it is.  Open it.”

The Care and Feeding of Horses,” she read. “Why . . . ?”

“You’re going to need all of that information as you raise your new foal.”

“My foal? You mean . . .? Oh, Grandmother! I’m getting a baby horse?”

“Mother!” Susan looked horrified.

“Now don’t fuss at me, Susan.  “This young lady has been asking for a pony for years.  She didn’t get one, and now she’s getting too old for one. She needs her own horse, but I wanted her to have the experience of raising the animal.  So . . . Mr. Dickenson down at the livery stable has a brand new foal.  She’s too young to leave her mother just yet, but as soon as she is weaned —and as soon as you are settled somewhere—he has promised to deliver her. In the meantime, you can visit her every day and let her get to know you.  In fact, we may be able to walk down there tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, I can’t wait! But I’ll start reading right away.”

Eddie’s gift came in an even smaller box.  He jiggled it carefully and then opened it to reveal a key. Holding it up, he turned to his grandmother.  “What does it open?”

“The rest of your present. In the library, there is a glass cabinet. Behind that locked door is your grandfather’s huge collection of agricultural books, explaining everything from raising cotton to fighting rice weevils and setting chickens to hatch.  He valued that collection more than almost anything else in his possession — said it had made him a successful planter. I thought you might feel the same way.”

“Can I go and look now?”

“Not quite yet. We have a few gifts left. Young John, so dapper today in your cadet uniform, you are missing one important item—your ceremonial sword.” From behind the sofa, Mrs. Dubois pulled a carved leather scabbard holding a shining steel sword. “This blade was first used in the Revolutionary War by your great-grandfather.  I trust you will use it sparingly but well.”
Johnnie was speechless as he strapped it to his belt.

“And Charlotte. You have a special position in our family, since you were the first of a new generation and have been the first to give us a second generation. And so I am entrusting you with the family Bible.  It carries the birth, marriage, and death dates of your Dubois ancestors, going back to Martinique and before that to France.  I have entered the names of Georgie and Annie for you, but from here on, I entrust you with keeping the family history. And to go along with it, this box contains two hand-embroidered baptismal gowns, one worn by your mother and one by her brother Robert.  I would be honored if Georgie and Annie could wear them when they are christened.”

Charlotte clasped the Bible to her chest. “I am the one who is honored.  Thank you.”

“Now can we . . .”

“No. You may think of your parents as old, but to me, they are still my children, and I have an envelop for each of them. Susan, this contains the deed to this house. It is yours to do with as you will.  And Jonathan, this is the deed to Pine View Farm outside of Aiken, South Carolina. If the two of you choose to stay in Charleston, the farm will provide you with a steady outside source of income.  My attorney will continue to administer the land and its sharecroppers. But if you decide to leave Charleston, I hope you will at least visit the farm and consider the opportunities it may offer you to start over.”