Chapter 20 – Spalding Family Christmas
25th of December, 1861
After breakfast, Allen climbed aboard a mule-drawn wagon with Tom, Bourke, and Charlie. The three youngsters appeared impervious to the damp chill reddening their cheeks amid puffs of adolescent laughter and chatter. Randolph goaded the team of horses pulling his family’s carriage onto the wooden bridge. Mary and Sallie snuggled close, sharing a gray and blue flannel blanket across their laps in the carriage’s rear seat. Allen and the boys followed close behind as they drove across the wooden bridge. Once across the rushing frigid waters of the Oconee, they entered Milledgeville.
Families dressed in their finest crisscrossed bustling Statehouse Square in the center of the city, exchanging pleasantries and well-wishes as they walked to either the Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, or Presbyterian churches. Since Christmas fell on a Wednesday, the capital’s otherwise teeming thoroughfares and tree-lined walkways appeared far more congenial than usual. This Christmas, the Spaldings and Kenans ambled into church like all the other folks in Milledgeville, hoping to listen to a holiday message about peace and joy. Like the other churches, the Presbyterian pews overflowed.
Inside the Gothic red-brick place of worship, Michael Kenan stood at the end of a pew box where Katherine, Clifford, their teenage daughter. Eight-year-old Owen sat beside his older brother Spalding Kenan while Evelyn glowed next to him with a look of peace, even though they expected the birth of their baby any day now. Michael directed Randolph and his family to the empty pew behind his family. Somber processional music hushed the congregation as the solemn holiday service began. Randolph squeezed Mary’s hand when they realized their nephew, Spalding Kenan, had arrived unexpectedly from Darien.
Charlie held a boyish smile, his eyes fixated upon his father’s grizzled beard. Allen, his son’s small arm wrapped around his own arm, latched the pew box’s door after they squeezed in beside Randolph.
Randolph held a modest grin while he watched the acolytes in their black and white gowns walk up the aisle. The white-haired pastor in matching vestment watched the acolytes light the ceremonial candles one by one. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Allen’s head arch upward, his lips moving and his thankful eyes welling.
At that moment, Randolph failed to recall an instance when he had looked at his father and received such an endearing grin. He cherished few memories of his own father ever expressing paternal fondness to him.
He glanced at his two sons and then saw Sallie lost in her own thoughts while Bourke and Tom squeezed their lips tight, stifling their boyish silliness. Mary held Sallie’s hand while she intently watched the service unfold. Randolph and Mary ignored their two sons squirming in the bare hardwood pews ill-suited for young boys.
The pastor’s Christmas homily failed to compete with Randolph’s ruminations of Christmases long ago when he, too, no older than Tom or Bourke, squirmed in stiff wooden seats with feet dangling. He peered at Katherine, the youngest of his older sisters, nestled beside Michael. He struggled to visualize any of his siblings sitting next to their mother and father during church services. All his older siblings had either passed away or left home before Randolph turned ten. Even Katherine, the closest to Randolph in age, was twelve years old by the time he was born.
Their famous father took advantage of his well-earned celebrity and traveled extensively as a politician and acclaimed agriculturist. He had turned fifty by the time Randolph learned to walk. His mother, Sarah Spalding, celebrated her forty-fourth birthday right after the birth of Randolph, her fifteenth and last child.
Randolph felt empty at moments like this, feeling ill-prepared to become the father he yearned to be. Yet, he bore no grudge toward his parents. His older siblings adored and idolized them but experienced different, yet also the same, father and mother.
The Christmas sermon ended with an impassioned prayer seeking God’s judgment to fall upon the North’s intruding army and a swift end to this war for Southern independence. The pastor’s voice hardened. “Lord God Almighty, I beseech you to smite our enemies and return peace to our families, our homes, and our land once again. Until then, may the righteous indignation of Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah, lead and protect our sons, husbands, and fathers as they enter the battlefields against our enemy. Amen!”
After church, the Spaldings, along with Allen and his son, drove their carriage and wagon two blocks to the Kenan’s house on the corner of Green and Liberty Streets. Two teenage mulatto servants scurried from a carriage house behind the two-story house where Michael’s father had lived until he passed away. Since returning to Milledgeville, the Kenans had obtained from Michael’s brother, a prominent lawyer in town, two younger servants along with Augustus, a gray-haired manservant and a cook.
A sprawling wraparound porch stretched across the front of the elegant, but not garish, two-story house, making it appear grander. Sleek black shutters framed every window of the stark white house. Yellow, orange, and green decorative stained glass side panels adorned the large black front entry door. A bronze cast gavel served as the door’s knocker, a reminder of Mister Kenan’s tenure on the bench.
The governor’s mansion towered above the surrounding neighborhood made up of the city’s well-to-do families. The other nearby stately homes, mostly built long after Mister Kenan constructed his house, overshadowed the unassuming, original Kenan family home. Yet, it suited Michael and Katherine and held many cherished memories of Michael’s boyhood years. In many respects, the house reminded them of their home on Sapelo Island.
While the boys remained preoccupied on the porch, Clifford led Sallie upstairs to her bedroom. Evelyn, with her husband, disappeared after the young surgeon said, “Please pardon us. My expectant wife needs to follow her doctor’s advice and get some rest before dinner.”
Harmonizing aromas of a lavish Christmas dinner filled the Kenan household by the time Augustus walked around the parlor with a tray of elegant crystal glassware filled with warm Christmas punch. Michael stood in front of his armchair. “To my dear family. May this Christmas bring love, joy, hope, and peace into each of our new homes. May we also toast our brave Georgia boys who have joined their South Carolina brothers to send the Yankee intruders back from whence they came, or to perdition if Mister Lincoln persists in his folly.”
Michael stepped beside Randolph with his glass still held high. “Likewise, let us toast to my brave brother-in-law, Colonel Randolph Spalding. He will soon return to Savannah and offer his wise counsel to the generals leading Georgia’s army.” He then turned to his son, “And to Doctor Spalding Kenan and all the surgeons called into service, may their skilled hands and sharp minds save lives in the coming days.” His thoughtful mood fell silent as he closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, they sparkled with a jubilant, celebratory guise. An uproarious laugh ensued, and he said, hardly containing himself, “What am I saying? Enough of such thoughts. This is Christmas Day. Let’s toast to God’s gifts of love, joy, hope, and peace on this most sacred day and to our family gathered here today.”
Randolph rose from his seat beside Mary and raised his glass.
Michael walked over and stretched his arm around Randolph. “I want to make sure you have my good ear.”
Randolph looked at Michael with a huge grin. “To you, Michael, and my charming sister, Katherine, thank you. Mary and I are eternally grateful.” He looked at Allen, who nodded his affirmation. “We all have left lands and houses we hold dear in McIntosh County, but God willing, we’ll gather there again to celebrate many more Christmases with all our family. Until then, Baldwin County is our home this Christmas, thanks to you. Merry Christmas, Michael and Katherine.” After gulping down his punch, Randolph looked at Augustus. “May I have a refill?”
After the family enjoyed the succulent Christmas feast, Spalding Kenan asked his uncle to join him for a walk. During their stroll around the grounds, he handed Randolph a letter. “Uncle Charles said this letter was important and I should give it to you at the earliest convenience. He also said to tell you, ‘Merry Christmas.’”
Randolph opened the sealed letter.
22 December 1861
I received word the missing Ochlocknee soldier involved in the killing of Jeremiah and rape of Cecile is under arrest and facing court-martial on desertion charges in Savannah after confessing to leaving Sapelo with the other two Ochlocknee soldiers found dead on St. Catherine’s. He claimed a slave he knew as Hector from South End attacked them, and he escaped by hiding in marsh grass while the slave bludgeoned one with his own rifle and drowned the other. A fishing boat found him and brought him to Sunbury where they arrested him. The crew said they found him delirious and half-starved on the beach.
I knew you would want to know about his arrest. His claim that Hector followed them off Sapelo and then killed the other two soldiers on St. Catherine’s strikes me as dubious. I will get word to you if I learn more.
Zapala awaits your return before you report to Savannah. See you soon. Your negroes are safe and among those I sent to Brooks County.
Randolph tried to mask his pent-up emotions, but on their return to Beulah that evening, Mary asked why he returned so glum for the rest of the afternoon after talking to his nephew. He shared what Charles told him and said he needed to leave right away.
Christmas trivia in The Last Laird of Sapelo
Fact: James Pierpoint wrote, Jingle Bells or One Horse Open Sleigh. William McKinley’s daughter plays it on their parlor piano while the Spalding and McKinley family members join in and sing…Chapter 19, Christmas Eve celebration at Barrowville.
“Oh, fiddlesticks! It’s Christmas Eve. No more talk of such things tonight. Sarah, please play us a tune on the piano, a Christmas carol we all can sing.” Anne set her toddler son down and cackled aloud with Mary as the younger children gathered around the piano and, one by one, joined in the singing of One Horse Open Sleigh.
James Lord Pierpont, though born in Massachusetts, spent most of his life in Savannah, and his grave is located in Mt. Laurel Cemetery, Savannah, not far from where Colonel Randolph Spalding’s grave is located.
Did you know Christmas is celebrated in three of my four novels?
Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!