As you know, almost all of the songs we write tell stories. We want to share those stories with you. We’ll post the story behind the story for each song on 13 here for you to read. The plan is to feature one song each week for the next 13 weeks.
Here is the story behind Fall of the Rice Kingdom as related by Clark Hansbarger.
The song “Fall of the Rice Kingdom”
About a year ago, I began work on a novel that involves some study of Gullah slave culture in the sea islands of South Carolina. Fall of the Rice Kingdom grew out of one of my research trips south.
Last Spring, as Ginger and I kayaked down the Combahee River near Beaufort, South Carolina, we discovered the hidden history of the Rice Kingdom. What appears now to be a vast, wild wetland of birds, turtles and alligators was once a complex agricultural infrastructure. Beneath the surface of the tidal marshes lie a thousand miles of submerged dykes and canals, straight walls of earth built by slaves to control the fresh water needed to flood the rice fields.
Before the Civil War, slaves cultivated over 100,000 acres of rice on low country plantations from Jacksonville, Florida, to Charleston, South Carolina. Some of the richest men in America were rice planters, and Beaufort was a town of mansions and great wealth.
This song is about the beginning of the end of the pre-Civil War Rice Kingdom.
In the first week of November, 1861, 47 Union warships under the command of Admiral Samuel Dupont, arrived off of Port Royal Sound to take what was then considered one of America’s finest deep water ports. Two Confederate forts guarded the mouth of the bay, Fort Walker on Hilton Head to the south and Fort Beauregard north on St. Helena’s Island.
Following a strategy he had used successfully in capturing Hatteras Inlet a few months prior, Dupont sent his ships into the sound very close to Fort Walker. The ships moved in a circle, firing each time they passed. Overwhelmed by the never-ending barrage, the rebels abandoned both forts.
In Beaufort and the surrounding plantations, white planters and their families fled inland, leaving thousands of slaves behind. When the Union soldiers landed in Beaufort, slaves had taken over the empty town and were celebrating in the streets.
The entire area became a base of operations for the Union from that point on. Under the newly formed Freedman’s Bureau, thousands of escaped slaves found refuge and began new lives in what we now know as “the Port Royal experiment.”
I chose a Confederate narrator in hopes of catching the irony of his perspective. He tells of his experience with hopes of returning—of fighting another day—yet realizes in part that it’s all over, that his world is no longer the same, and that it will never again be the same. While I intend no sympathy for the Southern stance whatsoever (good riddance to that dunderheaded nonsense), I wanted the voice in this song to be human, filled with the confusion and sadness any of us would feel witnessing such tumultuous change.