Preview Readings from The Last Laird of Sapelo
Next two clips reveal a little about Randolph Spalding as the story unfolds.
PREVIEW the Foreword & Chapter One of The Last Laird of Sapelo
FOREWORD By Lawrence W. Reed
When I first saw the title of T. M. Brown’s latest novel, I thought, I know what a laird is, but what is a sapelo?
I was born and raised in Pennsylvania and lived in Michigan for thirty years. A little less than 20 percent of my seventy years have been spent as a resident of a Southern state—specifically the town of Newnan in north Georgia—so forgive me for knowing so little about an area just a few hundred miles southwest of me. But now, thanks to Mike, I know that Sapelo is a coastal island—and not just any coastal island, but one rich in history and fascinating people.
Before this book, I thought tabby was one of the more common names for a house cat. Now I know it’s a kind of concrete made with oyster shells.
What took me so long to learn this? The best answer to that question is another one: What took Mike Brown so long to write this wonderful novel?
As an accomplished author of historical fiction, Mike knows how to tell a story from the past and bring real but long-dead figures to life. This novel does not read like an aerial view of an island through the clouds from 30,000 feet. As any well-told story should accomplish, you’ll feel as you read along that you’re on the ground, in the very midst of the challenges, joys and travails of Randolph Spalding, his family and acquaintances. You can’t help but empathize with the main characters, warts and all, and find yourself asking, “What would I do in a similar situation?” As a result, the further along I journeyed through The Last Laird of Sapelo, the more I became emotionally caught up in it. And when I got to the end, I wished there was even more to read.
Though this is a work of historical fiction, the fiction aspect amplifies the historical part, much more than the other way around. Readers will finish it with a much-improved understanding of what plantation life was like (albeit on one of the more enlightened such places) in mid-19th Century coastal Georgia during one of the most turbulent times in American history. You will appreciate the character of a good man because the author provides indispensable context—the cultural, economic, and political background—that framed Spalding’s decisions and behavior. Perhaps if everybody read The Last Laird of Sapelo, we would be a more understanding, thoughtful, reflective, and introspective people. Smarter too.
The famed Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Southern tales, Eudora Welty, explained the powerful magnetism of a good book. In One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), she wrote:
It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them—with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.
I know now what she meant by that, and because of The Last Laird of Sapelo, more great works of historical fiction are in my future.
There is resolution to the story that Mike Brown tells here so well. No reader will feel he’s been left hanging in mid-air. Perhaps it will elicit reactions that won’t entirely match mine. But I can say as a very satisfied reader that it brought forth a wide range in me, from a whiff of nostalgia to a renewed appreciation for how remarkable individuals deal with difficulties most of us can only imagine.
To the pantheon of excellent works of historical fiction, we can thank Mike Brown for bringing us The Last Laird of Sapelo.
Lawrence W. Reed
President Emeritus, Foundation for Economic Education
“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 history. 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 chronicles of nations.”
~ A Land Without Ruins by Abram Ryan
26th of May, 1861
“Momma, we just can’t gather up our belongings and desert our home,” sixteen-year-old Sallie screamed. She flailed her white-knuckled, clenched fists above her head while stomping her heels into the pristine, sun-drenched sand on Nanny Goat Beach. Two nearby sea terns minding their own business at the water’s edge flew off as tears cascaded down Sallie’s flushed cheeks.
Fighting back tears of his own, thirteen-year-old Tom dashed down the sandy shore the instant he grasped the news his father shared. He plopped down just beyond the encroaching surf with his head slumped between his knees.
Randolph’s wife, Mary, took their ten-year-old son, Bourke, by the hand. He appeared far more befuddled by what his father had told them than saddened or flustered like his older brother and sister.
They strolled hand-in-hand just beyond the water’s edge while Sallie sloshed through the warm, ankle-deep surf mumbling to herself.
Randolph Spalding felt at a loss for what more he could say or do to lessen the sting inflicted upon his children. His bare feet felt imprisoned in the loose, sugar-like sand as growing pangs of powerlessness overwhelmed him. His eyes focused upon his oldest son flipping fractured shell fragments into the dissipating waves lapping at his feet.
With the sun to his back, he stared beyond the incoming surf to the distant horizon where the sparkling aquamarine ocean greeted the crystal blue sky. A bevy of towering, cotton-like clouds cast shadows as they floated high above the glistening Atlantic. The latest news of Lincoln’s naval blockade, hell-bent on throttling the South’s lifeblood—its cotton trade—captured his thoughts. He knew with each new dawn, the undaunted flotilla sailed farther south. It was only a matter of time before shallow-water merchant schooners and steamers, laden with Sapelo’s cotton, rice, and sugar bound for markets in Charleston and Savannah, would run into the blockade.
He likewise feared both Northern and Southern blood would soon stain the land. Leaders in Georgia, like its neighboring Southern states, had ordered well-armed state militias to seize undermanned federal forts and armories throughout the state. Days after South Carolina’s artillery assault on Fort Sumter, the call to arms resounded throughout the North and the South. War appeared inevitable.
Randolph recalled his last speech before stepping down from Georgia’s esteemed state assembly in Milledgeville. As last fall’s cotton harvest approached, he’d acknowledged the unstoppable political sway steering Georgia toward secession. His heartfelt speech that day affirmed his readiness to bear arms to preserve his family’s legacy and livelihood. Though, he did offer one last plea for restraint over rebellion to his colleagues.
“I rise before this august body one more time as the elected voice for my beloved McIntosh County, but today my heart burdens my conscience. Many of you in this hallowed hall may well recall my father, the Honorable Thomas Spalding. After decades of exhaustive service to Georgia, he presided over the state convention tasked with deciding Georgia’s position regarding secession in 1850. He urged Georgia to remain committed to our expanding nation at that critical time. Georgia’s resultant decision disappointed other Southern states but appeased the rising fears among the coalition of northern states who sought to legislate their moral indignation against slavery. However, my father also remained steadfast regarding Georgia’s constitutional right to self-determination to protect and preserve its economic lifeblood.”
Randolph recalled the gravity of his appeal that regurgitated his father’s similar speech a decade earlier: “Gentlemen, I can never stand before you in my father’s stead, but I am an heir to Thomas Spalding’s celebrated legacy. Therefore, I beseech your indulgence while I read his last words before this noble assembly. His admonishment ten years ago staved off secession, garnering Georgia’s support of the Great Compromise of 1850. Whereas today, Georgia appears destined to join our neighbor states in favor of secession.”
Before he’d continued, he had gripped the speaker’s lectern as he sought his father’s apparition among the imposing, ornate rafters and carved corbels overlooking the storied assembly chamber. Instead, he’d glanced upward at his older brother, Charles, likewise a former legislator from McIntosh County, seated in the gallery. His brother offered an unmistakable wink and encouraging nod moments before Randolph steeled himself and read aloud his father’s succinct words:
“Gentlemen of the Convention: I thank you for the honor you do me in the chair of this memorial occasion. It is perhaps an appropriate—I feel it is a graceful—termination of my long life. From a small people, we have become a great nation under our Constitution—and rather than that Constitution shall perish, I would wish that myself and every human that has a drop of my blood in his veins should perish.”
Randolph had ended his farewell address that day with his own portentous diatribe. “Like Thomas Spalding before me, I stand unwavering before you. Georgia has the Constitution-protected right to determine its own course and destiny. Yet, I say, let us be mindful. Secession will dissolve us from the Constitution’s protections and doom us all to accept, like our forefathers, what could become a red-stained course of action. Therefore, bearing in mind my father’s foreboding admonishment, I will support whatever fate this assembly of leaders decides in the coming days.”
Like his father, Randolph had become one of the most successful planters along the southern coast, yet he wondered about the South’s economic future. Though cotton remained the predominant cash crop on Sapelo, sugarcane, corn, and rice were also cultivated. Over the past decade, he understood how the tyranny of cotton subjugated Southern planters unless deposed through agricultural diversity. As cotton’s golden demand grew, so too did the cry for more laborers in the fields. Insatiable English and Northern textile mills craved all the cotton the South could produce. Indeed, Randolph embraced the prosperity he inherited and even parlayed over the past decade since his father passed. But, like his father, he grew disquieted over the paradox that arose because of the South’s unrelenting reliance on slavery to harvest its crops while also sensing the wrongs the institution of slavery afflicted.
His older brother, Charles, and he wrestled with their father’s ingrained solicitudes about the country’s westward sprawl—an expansion that pursued the setting sun and provided new fertile lands to plow. By 1860, planters as far south and west as Texas pursued wealth by harvesting endless sunbaked fields of white gold. In but a few short years, cotton had deposed indigo, rice, and sugarcane as the supreme cash crop. As Thomas Spalding had forewarned, though, in cotton’s wake the uncompromising, deplorable institution of slavery became like a millstone around the necks of planters throughout the sprawling south.
Now abandoned on the beach, Randolph dismissed further thoughts of a history he could no longer alter. He looked for his wife and children on Sapelo’s pristine shore. They too now struggled with the unfathomable prospects of leaving their home and property with the winds of war blowing southward along the Atlantic seaboard. An icy shiver shook Randolph as though a mysterious anathema’s dark shadow veiled his family’s foreseeable future. Could he count on remaining for one more harvest on Sapelo? The question remained unanswered.
Though he had gained his father’s South End plantation and its imposing mansion, Big House, filled with fond memories while growing up there, Randolph and his young family lived there only briefly after their home at Chocolate on the north end of Sapelo had burned down. In his heart, Randolph never felt his father’s renown estate became his family’s home. For that reason, they moved out of South End’s grand tabby residence with its maze of genteel garden-lined walkways and lush green grounds.
They settled into a modest farmhouse estate he had built near The Ridge, a prominent residential community above Darien, where wealthier planters, merchants, and businessmen lived in lavish homes. Unlike many of the other coastal planters who only lived far removed from their vast lowland plantations during the sweltering, insect-infested months from June to September, Randolph’s family lived year-round in their modest farmhouse overlooking the tidal creeks and marshes. Of course, as the celebrated master of Sapelo, Randolph continued to host grandiose social affairs and family retreats at South End, whenever such gala opportunities arose.
In recent months, Randolph and Mary had hoped the family could live unscathed by the harsh political realities, but Governor Joseph E. Brown’s letter dashed their hopes. Randolph received a commission in Georgia’s burgeoning militia like his brother and other prominent businessmen and landowners.
A scarcity of competent military officers hampered the state’s rush to increase the ranks of its volunteer militia. Thus, Governor Brown reasoned that commissioning prominent men to lead their local militias would encourage the enlistment of volunteers.
Randolph’s commission included orders to report to Brigadier General Alexander Lawton, commander of Georgia’s coastal defenses, by June 7. Randolph welcomed being commissioned as a colonel and assigned as an aide-de-camp to General Lawton in Savannah.
Only time forestalled Northern blockade vessels from cresting the horizon Randolph glared at from Sapelo’s sandy shore. He reasoned that before long, Sapelo Island and the busy port of Darien at the mouth of the Altamaha River would soon experience a Union blockade. With the governor’s orders in hand, he and Mary decided they must tell their children what neither Randolph nor Mary fathomed themselves but deemed paramount to share.
Planters up and down Georgia’s tidewater coast recognized the vital importance of the outcome of their upcoming harvests of cotton, rice, corn, and sugarcane to clothe and feed the burgeoning Confederate Army. On Sapelo, field hands continued to plow and sow acres upon acres of alluvium-rich sandy soil just as they had worked each springtime for decades, unaware of events unfolding.
Mary returned from her sobering walk along the water’s edge, rejoicing in Sallie’s playful laughter. “Randolph, please bring Tom up with you. Dinner will be ready shortly.”
Sallie hollered, “Come on, slow poke,” as she playfully corralled her younger brother, herding him up the path between the sea oat-topped sand dunes, and headed back to Big House.
Randolph abandoned his solitary spot on the beach and kneeled in the sand beside Tom. He picked up a piece of driftwood and flung it into the approaching waves. The splash broke his son’s glum stare at the wet sand between his bare feet.
“Son, I’m sorry. God alone controls what the future holds. I’m just a mortal made of flesh and bones like you. I don’t relish the idea of our family leaving here anymore than you. Your grandfather charged me to take care of this beautiful island. Whatever happens, I promise I will do everything I can to make it possible for you to become the Laird of South End like your grandfather wanted. And, when I am gone, you and Bourke will one day be the masters of Sapelo from South End to High Point.”
“Pa, I understand why you have to leave us, but why can’t I go with you?” Tom arched his back and sat two inches taller. “I’m fourteen, and—”
Randolph arched a brow.
“Well, I’m almost fourteen. Besides, I’m a sight taller and stronger than others my age.”
“Yes, you are, son. All the same, don’t be in such a hurry to grow up and leave your mom, sister, and little brother. I need you to take care of them. Besides—” Randolph stood and pulled Tom to his feet. He then pointed up and down the beach with outstretched arms. “South End will soon be all yours. Never forget that your grandfather chose you to preserve the Spalding heritage for future generations to come. Your uncle and I, along with the more than capable help of your older cousins, have sworn to do whatever it takes so you can fulfill the legacy promised you.”
“But Pa,” Tom blurted, gazing at the incoming white-capped waves.
“Listen to me, son. Let’s pray President Lincoln realizes the Confederacy is very willing and capable of fighting for its independence. For the time being, let’s stop bellyaching about what tomorrow might bring. Right at this moment, let’s catch up to your mother. I bet Alma and Cecile have supper ready for the table, and they’re just waiting on us.”
Randolph then took off running. He yelled as he ran as fast as his thirty-eight-year-old legs could muster, “Come on, slowpoke. I’m hungry.”
Tom hollered as he chased after his father, “Hey, no fair.”
* * *
Mary was waiting on the top step of the tabby mansion’s recessed portico seated between Bourke and Sallie by the time Tom raced up the walkway several strides ahead of his father. Sallie burst into an uncontrollable bout of giggles as she applauded the apparent winner of the race.
“Well, my dear, it appears Tom here has gotten a sight faster since you two last raced,” Mary shouted with a whimsical smile as Randolph trotted up to the mansion’s front steps.
Randolph nodded without looking up, hands on his knees to catch his breath.
“Father, is it true?” Sallie inquired, stifling her boisterous exuberance for her brother’s feat.
“Is what true, Sallie?” her father said between gasps.
“Momma says Uncle Charles and Cousin William are not leaving? Neither are Aunt Elizabeth and her family leaving their home.”
Randolph righted himself and glanced at Mary. “Yes, I guess it’s true. Uncle Charles and Aunt Evie appear intent on remaining at Ashantilly, leastways for the time being. Besides, he’s the commander of Georgia’s First Cavalry Battalion stationed in McIntosh County, and your cousin William rides with Uncle Charles and refuses to leave Sutherland Bluff now that your Aunt Jane is dead.”
“What about Aunt Elizabeth?” Tom asked as he sat on the step just below his sister.
“Your Uncle A.W. is the head of the Wylly family. He feels their home at The Forest will remain safe enough where they are located. Besides, the Wylly brood is darn near its own militia detachment with all them Wylly boys eager to join up. Your cousin Thomas is already a captain with the Berrien militia and will join me in Savannah. Why?”
Tom grumbled, interrupting his father and sister. “Pa, why should we get ready to leave our home if they’re staying?”
“First, ’cause your mother and I believe it’s the best decision for our family. Second, your uncle’s and cousin’s homes lie far removed from town. And third, Sapelo Island will be one of the first places the Yankees will want to occupy once their ships sail beyond Savannah. I’ve talked with your Aunt Katherine and Uncle Michael, and they will vacate the island when we leave. Uncle Michael has family in Milledgeville and already knows of a house for his family. He also arranged for a lease on a plantation with a house for us when the time comes.”
“Why can’t we stay in our own house? Uncle Charles and Aunt Evie live closer to town than us,” Sallie begged with forlorn eyes.
Mary draped her arm around Sallie. “Let me add another excellent reason. They don’t have irreplaceable, precocious children like you and your brothers. Your father and I will feel much better knowing that we can live far removed from any threat of Northern ships and guns when the time comes. Besides, your father is about to leave us for God knows how long. We chose Uncle Michael’s offer to travel with them to Baldwin County when we all decide to leave.”
“Here’s one final and very pressing reason.” Randolph huddled with Tom and Bourke and took hold of Sallie’s hand. He looked each square in the eye. “I’d feel a lot better if I didn’t have to worry about my family’s well-being while I am away mustering soldiers to defend Georgia. Look, no one’s going anywhere until it becomes vital. Your mother and I just wanted the three of you to be aware of what might happen.”
“I guess it makes sense, but what about the workers and their families on Sapelo Island? Are we going to leave them behind if we have to go?” Sallie asked.
Randolph squeezed Sallie’s hand. “Don’t you fret. Your Uncle Allen knows, should that time come, what tools and equipment to bring along with our workers and their families. You’ll see.”
“What if those Northern blockade ships arrive before the harvest?” Tom blurted.
“Don’t you worry about that either. We’ll make sure everyone evacuates the island in plenty of time. Besides, Uncle Allen will make sure everything and everyone heads up the Altamaha River, even if a little earlier than we expect.”
Sallie turned to her mother. “What about Cecile and her momma? Will they come with us to the new house if we leave before everyone else?”
“No. When the time comes for us to leave, they’ll be busy shutting down and packing up South End’s Big House and tending to their own family needs before they can leave.” Mary launched a broad, reassuring smile. “Now quit your fussing. They’ll join us soon enough.”
None of this made telling his children any less taxing, especially after Sallie learned Cecile and her family would remain at South End and join them later. Though Cecile, like her mother before her, was born a slave on Sapelo, she and Sallie had grown up together and had always enjoyed each other’s company. Alma, Cecile’s mother, had served as the housekeeper and cook at Big House during Thomas Spalding’s later years at South End. Alma’s own two children, Cecile and Jeremiah, had remained close to Sallie, Tom, and Bourke, even after Randolph’s family had moved off Sapelo three years earlier. Josephine, an elderly widowed slave, became the family’s cook and housekeeper after they left Big House to live in the farmhouse on the mainland.
As hard as it had been to leave Alma and her family behind on the island, Randolph honored his father’s tradition of keeping his workers and family together on the land they lived and worked on.
Thomas Spalding’s deep-seated belief of permanence and place remained enshrined in South End’s sprawling mansion and barns, as well as in the duplex residences that comprised the island’s slave communities near the fields where they worked. That practice remained engrained in how his sons, Charles and Randolph, managed their affairs and property. Randolph nudged all three children up the steps and into the large, central hall. Mary pointed to their bedrooms.
“Now, run along and change for supper. Alma and Cecile are setting the dining room table, so no dillydallying!”
Randolph barked, “You heard your mother. Now, scoot. I’m hungry, and supper smells mighty good.”
“What did you tell Sallie?” Randolph asked Mary while in their bedroom changing his shirt.
Mary inspected her hair while seated at her dressing table. “Why do you ask?”
“Her tears had disappeared, and her inquiries sounded far more rational—a far cry from those foot-stomping outbursts on the beach earlier.”
“When are you going to realize Sallie’s a budding young woman? It’s a young woman’s prerogative to be victimized by capricious mood swings.”
“Oh my dear Randolph, Sallie is not a little girl anymore. Your sixteen-year-old daughter loves you and fears for you and the changes that the future is stirring. Remember, in the past few days she went from contemplating her first cotillion to being uprooted with no say in the matter.”
Randolph walked behind Mary, who remained seated at her dressing table, staring into the mirror as they talked. He put his hands on her shoulders and kissed the back of her neck. “I can’t change what the future holds, by God, but I can make sure she’ll experience a proper and most memorable first cotillion. Why don’t you tell her right after supper?”
“What about your orders? Don’t you have to report to General Lawton in Savannah?”
“You let me worry about that. You get the word out to all our kith and kin in the county that the cotillion for Miss Sarah Spalding will take place at South End just as we planned on the first of July. Trust me. All this bombastic rhetoric and aggressive posturing is sheer poppycock. Mister Lincoln dispatched his navy to prove a point while testing the South’s resolve and mettle. The spilling of blood in an all-out war comprises a price far too heavy to restore any hope of unity. A diplomatic resolution is still possible. There is ample room for two brotherly nations to coexist on this great American continent.”
After the Preview are you ready to order The Last Laird of Sapelo?
Visit Koehler Books website where you can order, or pre-order, if prior to August 15. Available in soft cover and hard cover printed editions, as well as digital eBook. Or go to Books by T. M. Brown’s page.
Please support your local independent bookstore and order through them or go to BookShop.org to order your book–your local bookstore will benefit from your order. Beginning August 15th, Mike will be on tour at various locations, including many of the leading independent bookstores throughout the South. Visit the events page for the latest schedule of appearances near you.