As Hurricane Matthew moves up the coast of South Carolina,
more of my favorite locations become targets. Just across the bridge from
Beaufort lies Lady’s Island. In “The Road to Frogmore,” It was the real-life
home of Frederick Eustis, a Harvard-educated abolitionist, who had inherited
the huge Eustis Plantation from his step-mother. In “Yankee Reconstructed,” the
fictional young horse-enthusiasts, Eli Moreau and Mary Sue Grenville, purchase
the plantation from him to turn it into a stable dedicated to raising the local
wild marsh ponies.
The next bridge leads to St. Helena island, scene of most of
the action in “The Road to Frogmore.” Today it is the home of the Penn Center,
dedicated to preserving the Gullah culture of the Low Country. Among its
landmarks dating to the Civil War are the ruins of the White Chapel, where the
early abolitionists held patriotic celebrations to teach the former slaves
about citizenship, The Brick Church (shown above), where Miss Laura Towne started her first
school for slave children, the general store at the crossroads, and Frogmore
Plantation, which became Miss Towne’s home for 40 years.
A few miles north of Beaufort lie the ruins of the Old
Sheldon Church, featured on the cover of “Yankee Reconstructed” and used in
that book as a symbol of the Old South. With luck, the Old Sheldon Church will
escape the direct wrath of the hurricane, but it will still be vulnerable to
winds and torrential rain.
The hurricane’s path will take it over Edisto Island, where
ex-slaves once built an island community all their own and where Jonathan and
Susan Grenville’s old plantation house once stood. Then it will pass over James
island, site of the Battle of Secessionville, where the Confederate forces
soundly defeated the Union invaders, and where my Uncle James was killed in the
battle and buried in a mass grave in front of the fort at Secessionville.
Then, of course, there’s Charleston, center of most of my
books. In “A Scratch with the Rebels, it is the real-life home of Gus Smythe,
Confederate soldier, and his family's house still stands on Meeting street just a
block or so from Charleston Harbor. And Charleston is the family home of the fictional
Grenville family of the “Yankee Trilogy.” Landmarks that appear in my books
stand on nearly every street—the hotels, the churches, the meeting halls of
life in the 19-century city. As i write this, the floodwaters are
rising in those streets.
I’m hoping to make a trip to this storm-ravaged region
before the end of the year to do some research for my next book. The new story
requires some familiarity with the dock and warehouse area of Charleston, the
section of the old city now called “The French Quarter,” and the safe harbors
of northern South Carolina and the southern coast of North Carolina. I’m hoping
they will be accessible by then.
I don’t think I’m going to get much done today, except for
listening to weather reports and watching the hurricane coverage on the Weather
Channel. Matthew is reported to be moving onto Hilton Head Island as I write,
and my heart breaks as I think about what lies directly in its path. Of course
I think of the people in danger and the losses they are bound to suffer, but
when i close my eyes, what I see are scenes from my books --- places where I’ve
walked and said, “Oh, what a perfect setting for my next chapter.” I’ve always
been grateful that so many of the old buildings from before the Civil War have
survived. I hope they will survive again. But let me remind you of some of them.
On Hilton Head, you
have to get beyond the gates of exclusive housing communities and expensive
resorts to find traces of the Civil War, but they are there. Port Royal Sound
is where the fleet of the Great Atlantic Expeditionary Force swooped down on two
tiny Confederate forts and blasted them into the sand. My great-uncle James
McCaskey was a part of that force. He camped on that beach and wrote about
digging a trench and building a wall around their new military base. His words appear in “A Scratch with the Rebels,”
and in the woods all over HHI, you can see that dirt “wall” – an unnatural hump
that runs through the trees.
That beach and battle also appears in “Damned Yankee” as the
place where Charlotte Grenville’s newlywed husband was killed. Another spot I
love on HHI lies off Union Cemetery Road, where the first Union soldiers to die
of disease were buried. Today they lie in
the middle of an old ex-slave burial ground, amid roughly-scratched markers and
Move a few miles up the coast to the “top” of Port Royal
Sound, and you find the towns of Port Royal, where ex-slaves were trained to
become Union soldiers, and Beaufort, once a resort town for wealthy plantation
owners. Beaufort is full of reminders of my research. The National Cemetery
holds the bodies of black soldiers from the 54 Massachusetts
Regiment, which you may remember from the movie, “Glory, ” and from an incident in "The Road to Frogmore."
From there, if you drive in toward town, you come to the
Point, a neighborhood of beautiful antebellum mansions barely above the high
tide mark. Movie-goers may recognize the sets of “Forrest Gump” and “The Big
Chill.” I look at those same houses and remember that they once housed the
Gideonite missionaries who came to Beaufort in 1862. Their detailed stories
appear in my “Left by the Side of the Road.” This picture shows several of the ladies standing in front of the Hamilton House.
In town, head down Bay Street and you come to the Tabby
Manse, once the home of Rev. Thomas Fuller but commandeered by the Union Army
to serve as a military hospital. Nelly Chase and Rev. Robert Browne from “Beyond
All Price” were often there carrying out their duties as nurse and chaplain.
And even more important, the Leverett House next door served as the military
headquarters of the 100 Pennsylvania “Roundhead” Regiment – the centerpiece
setting of both” A Scratch with the
Rebels” and “Beyond All Price.” The people who own it now allowed me to explore
the inside, where there were still nail holes in the floor from the winter carpets
used to keep the parlor warm. This picture shows some of the officers who lived in the house in 1862, along with the butler and Nelly Chase.
The Beaufort harbor that can be seen from the Leverett front
porch was also the site of Harriett Tubman’s victorious arrival after rescuing
some 700 slaves from the plantations along the Santee River. That story appears
in “Left by the Side of the Road.”
The Leverett House
also reminds me that the Leverett family was the original inspiration for what
eventually became the Grenville family of my “Yankee” series. Just a couple of blocks away, you can also
find the house where the first decision was made to secede from the union—a house
that later became the home of General Rufus Saxton, who plays a major role in
both “The Road to Frogmore” and “Yankee Reconstructed.”
All of these literary landmarks lie in harm’s way this
morning. They’ve survived other hurricanes and earthquakes, too, but each
assault on them weakens them and brings their loss closer. So I’m watching and
holding my breath. Later today, I’ll do
a second round of locations further up the coast that also play important roles
in my books.