In my prior blog, I wrote about inspiration. Today, the subject is plot.
The Home Guard, a Novel of the Civil War, is a coming-of-age story that begins on the day the war arrives in Beaufort: November 7, 1861. On that day, an armada of Union warships overwhelmed the two Confederate forts guarding the town, rendering Beaufort defenseless. When news of the battle’s outcome reached the town, the white population fled in what became known to history as the Great Skedaddle. But Martha “Missma” Gibbes Barnwell is 80 years old and has no intention of joining the exodus. “I was born in Beaufort. I will die in Beaufort.” To put an exclamation point on her decision, she barricades herself in an alcove as the rest of the town “skedaddles.”
Her daughter-in-law, Anna Barnwell, is blindsided by Missma’s resolve, calling the idea “insane.” After all, Anna reminds her mother-in-law through the blocked alcove door, the Yankees will occupy the Barnwell home in a matter of hours, making Missma’s continued residence there impossible. “I never said I wouldn’t leave this house,” Missma counters. “I said I would never leave Beaufort.” Missma plans to relocate to the family hunting lodge on Cane Island. When Anna demands to know how she expects to eat and live, she learns that Missma intends for Anna’s twelve-year-old son, Carter, to stay with her. Carter is, like his mother, blindsided by his grandmother’s seemingly impractical scheme.
Carter is a child of the Lowcountry. Hunting and fishing are as natural to him as his fingerprints. Because he is so skilled as an outdoorsman, it is unlikely he and Missma will starve, but it is certain the lives they will lead bear no resemblance to the ones before November 7. And when he agrees to spy for the Confederacy, starvation becomes the least of his worries.
The Union army and navy occupied Beaufort for the duration of the Civil War and for several years thereafter, which is one factor that explains Beaufort’s uniqueness. The antebellum homes here are so well preserved today in part because Beaufort was spared the ravages of war suffered in Atlanta, Vicksburg, and Fredericksburg. Sherman burned Columbia, but he bypassed Beaufort on his way north.
The fleeing of Beaufort’s white population left approximately 10,000 blacks free literally overnight. Most of them lived and worked on cotton plantations on Lady’s, St. Helena and Parris Islands. Carter and his grandmother, both Confederates and guilty of treason as far as the Union was concerned, find themselves surrounded by thousands of Union troops and newly freed slaves, cut off from the world they had known. What must that have been like? The Home Guard explores that question, and when a 14 year old missionary girl arrives with her mother to teach the newly freed slaves, the war takes on a whole new meaning for life at t