Columnist: South Carolina’s poet laureate, Archibald Rutledge
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 31, 2016
McCLELLANVILLE, S. C. — A brief sojourn into South Carolina’s low country offers much. If you should make a list, you begin with hospitality, charm and history. You’ll find that everywhere. A recent trip began with a stopover in Isle of Palms, the barrier island, connected to Charleston geographically like being joined at the hip.
If you have been to Charleston before, you likely are a kindred spirit of those who profess that they can’t get enough of the Holy City. My hand, as we speak, is raised in confirmation that I belong to that fraternity. Founded in 1670 as Charles Towne, Charleston has experienced as many ups and downs as a cotton farmer in the boll weevil era.
When you travel, it is nice to be a favored guest. Bobby Johnson, the former football coach at Vanderbilt, and his lovely wife, Catherine, were our hosts at the appropriately named Bobcat Inn on our excursion to the low country. Bobby’s skill on the Green Egg and Catherine’s touch in the kitchen resulted in a meal worthy of several stars.
Good wine and dining alfresco, while monitoring cruise ships and tankers ply their way out to sea in slow motion, raised the spirits. Sagging palms, oleander, wax myrtle and sea oats, thrive with a glint of freshness as if they, the sea oats in particular, know that they can’t be disturbed without legal recourse. Then sundown segued into the silver showers from a full moon.
Emotional fulfillment accompanied the humility of the setting. Such an ambient setting enveloped by an arousing and inspirational atmosphere made one wish he were keeping a diary. The scene remains affixed in the mind’s eye, however.
The next day, there was a tour of Charleston by Bobby’s boat, “Gridironsides.” This was a new experience, seeing Charleston from the water, gliding by Ft. Sumter with flashes of regrettable history in the forefront of your thoughts.
Bobby allowed Gridironsides to drift aimlessly at the Morris Island lighthouse. The sea was slapping ferociously about the rocks of its foundation, counter punching as if it meant to topple the imposing structure with sea gulls squawking loudly and incessantly as if they were competing for a prize, making no sense but to them—like the stockbrokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
There was no agenda organized for our stay at the Bobcat Inn, but a side trip from Charleston to McClellanville, a community of 525, allowed for a glimpse in the past when rice production was an important cash crop, made so on the backs of poor men, mostly black.
At the Village Museum, the curator handed over a pamphlet that proclaimed McClellanville now is the “seafood capital of the world.” Bet that comes as a surprise to countless seaport villages in New England.
The Atlantic is more than arms length, but not much so, from the village which is best described by South Carolina’s poet laureate, Archibald Rutledge, who grew up in these parts and is about as highly regarded as the Revolutionary War Gen. Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion. His words about McClellanville have endeared him to local residents.
“The village faces n the wide
Green-waving marsh that fronts the sea
There in the coastline’s curving side
It nestles white and tenderly.”
We have come here to see the Hampton Plantation State Historic Site, mainly because a friend, Coleman Hood, gave me a book, “Home by the River,” a story of life on a plantation where Archibald Rutledge grew up, resettling on the property late in life where he made do, hunted and fished to his heart’s content and wrote about it. His writings are not only popular among natives of the Palmetto State, but at large.
His book, “Life’s Extras,” has such demand that it causes perpetual reprinting. Only 44 pages long, it has vignettes that bring about the greatest aftertaste when you put it down.
When he was a young man, fresh out of college, Rutledge settled in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, teaching at a preparatory school for boys. He discovered three Confederate graves in the local cemetery.
Rutledge wrote about the Confederates for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which elicited a response from Hallie Quaintance, the widow of one of the soldiers, who wanted to come visit the grave of her husband who had left her soon after they were married, never to return. She was apprehensive, wondering if she would be welcome.
The town, Union to the hilt, turned out en masse to welcome her. Union Army veterans, flower girls, all citizens of the town — and, of course, a band. Widow Quaintance was the guest of honor and a musical tribute ensued following her laying of a wreath on her late husband’s grave.
Archibald Rutledge’s title for that chapter in “Life’s Extras” was “When the Yankee Band Played Dixie.”