More Important: Why Sapelo Island?
Why is Sapelo Island the setting for my historical novel, “The Last Laird of Sapelo: The Randolph Spalding Story”?
This 16,000 acre feral, time-lost barrier island remains pretty much cut off from the mad-rush of progress. It remains as it was for centuries long ago except for a few relics of man’s cultural attempts to tame the island.
By 1861, the Spalding family owned most all of Sapelo. Though Randolph and his famous father before him argued against Secession during the decade before the South voted to leave the Union, by spring of 1861, the Spaldings found themselves in the crosshairs of Federal warships sailing south to throttle the South’s merchant ships. Savannah, less than 50 miles up the coast, became a prime target of the blockade while gunships threatened all of Georgia’s barrier islands. Facing the final cotton harvest in the fall of 1861, Colonel Randolph Spalding answered the call to defend Georgia. Robert E. Lee ordered militia to man the barrier islands and built earthen fortifications (redoubts) with gunnery crews ready to discourage federal ships from reaching the mainland. Colonel Spalding became the regimental commander of the militia sent to Sapelo and found himself caught between protecting his plantation interests, his family, and nearly 400 slaves, along with commanding four companies of raw militia troops bivouacking around his family’s famous South End mansion. Sapelo’s miasma and untamed environs took far more lives than enemy fire.
Spalding moved his family to Baldwin County, along with nearly all his slaves and their families, by January 1862. In the meantime, Robert E. Lee ordered the withdrawal of all militia from the barrier islands after the fall of Port Royal in late 1861. Randolph left Sapelo Island and served as an aide-de-camp staff officer in Savannah by early 1862 and never saw Sapelo again. March 1862, he received a hero’s funeral and his body placed beside Colonel Francis Barlow, the first celebrated Georgia casualty of the war, killed at Manassas, July 1861.
What makes this a story of significance?
What makes this a story of significance? It neither condones nor justifies the institution of slavery. History records virtually all the Spalding family’s freed slaves found their way back to deserted Sapelo by the end of the war. The Spalding family had promised them the right to live on the land, so they returned and settled the only land and homes they knew. By 1868, Randolph’s widow and family returned to Sapelo—not as masters but co-inhabitants alongside the Geechee descendants. Randolph’s daughter and her husband were the last of the Spalding family on the island when a wealthy automobile magnate purchased Sapelo in the early 1900s when the census recorded 450 Geechee ancestors lived on Sapelo.
Sadly, 100 years later, less than fifty Geechee ancestors remain on Sapelo, and the State of Georgia has owned and managed most of the island for the last fifty years. Access remains by boat.
Historical records reveal enough to show that although the Spaldings brought the original slaves to Sapelo between 1800 to 1865, Sapelo’s Geechee community suffered far greater harm over the course of the last century. Yes, the institution of slavery left an indelible dark stain on America’s legacy, but racism continues to stain Sapelo’s legacy. Though we all regret the institution of slavery ever existed, history reveals not all plantation owners treated their slaves cruelly and inhumanely. The Spalding story is one that has been worth over two years of research and writing. Watch for news when the book comes out.
In the meantime, this video offers a timeless taste of Sapelo Island and its story.
Enjoy and please subscribe to get the latest news about when The Last Laird of Sapelo will be launched in 2023.
I am headed to St Simon Island to attend the Southeastern Writers Conference this weekend, and to enjoy some well-deserved, overdue family time, before we cruise Sapelo Island once again. I want to give my grandkids a firsthand telling of the history that surrounds Sapelo Island before we soak up the sun on the beaches during our weeklong vacation.
Thank you for joining me on this journey through history… For you Shiloh Mystery lovers: Who knows what new escapades Theo, Liddy and their Shiloh friends may find themselves enthralled? News coming for book four in the coming months.
In the meantime, please visit the bookstore page to order, read and review any of the three current Shiloh novels still outstanding on your to-be-read list. Thank you.