Martha McCullough shows off a photo of her grandfather, Christmas Moultrie, who was born on the Mulberry Grove Plantation before Gen. Sherman's army burned it down ahead of the capture of Savannah in 1864. Both McCullough and Hugh Golson, a descendant of the plantation's owner, knew Moultrie as children.
Carl Elmore/Courtesy Savannah Morning News
On Dec. 21, 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman captured the city of Savannah, ending his March to the Sea.
In the days leading up to Savannah's surrender to the Union, Sherman's troops burned the nearby Mulberry Grove Plantation. They also freed hundreds of slaves, including a baby boy who would grow up on the land as a free man.
Now, 150 years later, the descendants of some of the people living on that plantation still share a special connection to that man.
Hugh Golson, a retired history teacher, is a wiry white man in his mid-60s with bright blue eyes.
Martha McCullough, 87, is a former grade-school teacher. She's African-American, wearing a festive red sweater and hat at Golson's Victorian home in downtown Savannah. The house is filled with antiques, bookshelves and richly painted green walls covered in old photographs.
Hugh Golson stops next to the steps of what was once the main house of Mulberry Grove Plantation. His ancestor, Zachariah Winkler, once owned the plantation and watched as Gen. Sherman's army burned the house down.
Steve Bisson/Courtesy Savannah Morning News
Golson holds up a small photo of a white man decked out in a gold watch.
"This is my ancestor that owned her grandfather," Golson says. "This is Zachariah Winkler, the master of Mulberry, the second-largest rice planter on the Savannah River."
It was taken, he says, in the studios of the famed photographer Matthew Brady. Another, larger snapshot depicts an older, African-American man, with a line of trees behind him, wearing a corduroy cap. That's McCullough's grandfather, Christmas Moultrie.
Golson says Moultrie was born on Christmas Day, 1863, a year before Sherman's men arrived. Some accounts, though, say he was born in the late 1850s.
"But this is the man that owned him and owned his parents. So I like to keep them together, and I like to have Christmas in the larger frame," Golson says.
Growing up in the 1930s and '40s, McCullough visited her grandfather at the old Mulberry plantation, where he'd been born in slavery. He stayed on and worked there much of his life, living mostly off the land.
'That Fascinating Man' — Caretaker, Moonshiner And Judge
"Oftentimes he would go hunting and fishing, and he was the caretaker," McCullough remembers.
McCullough and Golson say Moultrie also made a little money on the side, distilling and selling illegal moonshine on the property. Even after so many years, McCullough is still a little bashful about discussing it.
"You know, I might could say it now," she says. "I was a little girl taking moonshine liquor to the judges in the courthouse. I was this little black girl — "
" — bringing her granddaddy's wares," Golson says.
"Moonshine, in the courthouse," McCullough laughs. "How illegal!"
Moultrie mostly tried to keep his distance from the legal system, however. Growing up among the first generation of former slaves, Moultrie told his neighbors to work out disputes on their own, without involving white judges, McCullough says.
"Everyone had their problems," she says. "Any type of family problems, my grandfather was the judge. Christmas Moultrie [would] solve the problem."
As a young child, Golson also knew Moultrie, until Moultrie's death.
"He was an iconic figure to me," Golson says. "He was that fascinating man that lived right there at the gate, taking care of everything."
Moultrie was too young to remember it, but Sherman's arrival at Mulberry Grove in December 1864 is described in Savannah River Plantations, a book published in 1947 as part of the federal Works Progress Administration employment project.
Golson keeps a copy on his bookshelf. He says the account, which describes Sherman's troops burning down the plantation in front of Winkler as a slave stood guard, is similar to stories handed down in his family about the war.
"But Martha can tell us what was really happening at Mulberry," Golson says. "Her grandfather told her that those war years were hard, that they were hungry, that they didn't have much food. You better believe they held a gun on the man that made that happen."
'Trouble Don't Last Always'
McCullough says her grandfather also told her about moving on after hard times.
"I'm very grateful to God, that I let problems roll away like water off a duck back," McCullough says. "I say, 'Trouble don't last always.' That's my theme with my grandfather."
Though McCullough and Golson both grew up knowing Moultrie, and knew each other through their work as teachers, they didn't always know of their connection through him.
"We were sitting at the table together for probably a dozen years before we realized we had this old connection between us," Golson says.
In the early 1990s, they ran into each other at a meeting of a group trying to preserve Mulberry Grove as a historic site. That's when they connected the dots.
"It was fantastic to know that Hugh knew my grandfather," McCullough says. "I said, 'You knew my grandfather?' "
"That is the man that kind of bound us together," Golson says.
That bond, which began on a plantation near the end of the Civil War, is one they say they'll share for the rest of their lives, and beyond. Before McCullough leaves Golson's home, she has one request: "I'm going to ask Hugh to please ... have something to say at my funeral."
"Anytime," Golson replies, "but Martha, you're presuming that I'm going to outlive you. It might be the other way, [the way] you're going. You might have to speak at my funeral."