Pictured on a balcony above Savannah, Georgia’s historic riverfront is Patti Callahan, author of the soon to be released “Surviving Savannah,” a historical fiction novel based on the true story of the Steamship Pulaski wreck. BUD JOHNSON PHOTOGRAPHY
MARCH 07, 2021 06:30 AM
They call it the “Titanic of the South.”
A sleek new steamer named Pulaski was loaded with the elite of Savannah as it ripped north to Baltimore in the black Atlantic Ocean, a marvel of modern technology and safety.
Suddenly, a late-night boiler explosion blew the whole thing apart. In 45 hellish minutes, it sank 100 feet into the sea. More than half of the 200 or so people aboard were killed.
Some survivors clung to debris for five days and five nights 30 miles off Wilmington, North Carolina.
In that June of 1838, Savannah wept. Businesses closed in a citywide day of mourning, and church bells pealed over her quiet squares.
This week, a solid gold pocket watch from that wreckage will be displayed for the first time in Savannah.
The watch still says it’s 11:05 p.m. on a tragic day now all but forgotten by time.
Patti Callahan first heard the story from one of Bluffton’s best storytellers, Boo Harrell.
Boo comes by his storytelling naturally. His mother is award-winning Bluffton columnist Annelore Harrell.
He runs boats for a living, exploring the magical world of the May River with the people of Palmetto Bluff, where Callahan lives part time.
Callahan is an elite writer, with many of her 15 novels on the New York Times best-seller list.
After three years of research and writing, she has turned the Pulaski story into a historical fiction novel that launches Tuesday at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum in Savannah.
“Surviving Savannah” will debut virtually, online at 6 p.m., in conjunction with E. Shaver Books. Relics found in the Pulaski wreckage in 2018 will be shown for the first time.
Shortly after hearing Boo tell the tale, Callahan noticed a marker at Palmetto Bluff about the Pulaski. It tells of Samuel Parkman, who perished that night along with four of his children. He loved the May River, where his wife’s family had the Octagon Plantation, now part of Palmetto Bluff.
“It’s like this hidden story,” Callahan said. “And I decided I wanted to tell it, and about three weeks into my research, they found the ship.
“While I was trying to find the lost story, they were trying to find the lost treasure. It was the craziest thing.”
She would become forever marked by the story, and what it tells us about humankind.
MEANT TO BE
Gazaway Bugg Lamar represented all of Savannah’s gentility as he boarded the Pulaski with his wife and six children.
His wife, five of those children, and a niece would not live to tell it.
Callahan uses that family under a different name as her “door” into the story.
We now get to hear it like children at bedtime, and she tells it with this wonder: What happens to us when we survive tragedy?
“People reveal who they really are in times like that, when tragedy strikes,” she said. “There’s the man who helped someone else get on a lifeboat, and there’s the man who throws people overboard to get on a lifeboat.”
The first thing to explode in her face was this notion that some survive because they were meant for a higher purpose.
In real life, the Lamar son who survived was called “The Noble Boy” for his heroism in the madness after the ship sank.
But 20 years later, he was called “The Red Devil” for his role in illegally importing slaves aboard a ship called the Wanderer. A long look into his sad character is revealed by another Beaufort County writer, Jim Jordan of Callawassie Island, in his nonfiction book, “The Slave-Trader’s Letter Book.”
“It’s this idea that things are meant to be,” said Callahan, the child of a Presbyterian minister who has spent a lifetime pondering the human soul.
“That because Charlie survived, it was meant to be, and what he did with his life tossed that whole idea into question for me — that fate and destiny and meant-to-be — because he lost some siblings. Would they have done beautiful things with their life while he did harmful things? What does ‘meant-to-be’ even mean? I can’t answer that. I’ll leave that to people like my dad. The preachers, the theologians, the philosophers.
“But it is interesting to address in the story, this idea of fate and destiny and meant-to-be.”
Callahan tells the story through three women of different times and different stations.
The last time we talked to Callahan, her book on the wife of C.S. Lewis, “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” had just come out, and in a talk in Bluffton, she took on the cliché that behind every successful man stands a woman. She proved in her award-winning best-seller that the woman stands beside, not behind, the successful man.
And here she finds a story told by men running a failed ship, but it didn’t have to stay that way.
“So there’s the story of the shipwreck, but there’s the story, and then there’s the fuller truth,” Callahan said. “And you don’t get the full truth of the story unless you get all the points of view.”
It’s the same thing our county and nation are wrestling with today, trying to address, or even acknowledge, the Black point of view that was obliterated from history.
“These women had no idea what was happening, and all they cared about was saving their children, their nieces and nephews, themselves and their family,” Callahan said.
She found their voices and the voices of their peers, in writing, at the Georgia Historical Society, the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, the Telfair museums and the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace.
“The women’s voices were those other voices, especially in the 1800s, that get buried,” she said. “It’s like the flotsam that floats up now, in 2021, and now all of sudden we want to hear that side of the story.”
David Lauderdale may be reached at LauderdaleColumn@gmail.com.