Smoke and spirit driven words fill the air as the Parson stared directly at the audience. Parson John, standing before the crowd with his large burly frame, firmly commands the guest’s attention, offering salvation by the name of Christ Jesus.
Drawing from the book of Matthew 1:21 he has taken spiritual charge of the ethers all about him, delivering a galvanized sermon on the importance of the coming of the Savior and the role each of us plays in celebrating Christmas. Bowing our heads we all gave thanks and rejoiced for the gift of the Christ child, offering prayers for peace on earth and goodwill toward all men and women.
Parson John continues on, pressing forward, reciting words from a sermon given by George Whitefield, a renowned figure and voice of faith that lived from 1717 to 1770.
As Parson John carried on with his calling, preaching the word with all passion and purpose, smoke drifted more densely across the yard, concentrating heavily around and over the crowd. The smoke filled air, laced with the natural sent of hickory incense added to the surreal scene with Parson John making the ground before his congregation and the sky above his head a natural cathedral. Cherokee ladies draped in colorful blankets stood about in the background looking on at the spectacle of this white man and his God. The smoke filled atmosphere throughout the sermon and these ladies reminded me of Native American practices where smoke was used to carry ones prayers to the spirit realm.
Small paper pamphlets written in Old English were handed out prior to the sermon and everyone was invited to join in the hymns with the Independent Company of South Carolina leading the way.
The pamphlet was written in Old English so I had to follow the troops to know what some of the words were, such as bleffings flow (blessing flow) or His righteoufnefs (His righteousness) and curfe took me a while to get. Authentic to the detail is what this 18th century event is all about.
On a side note concerning the history at Fort Loudoun, I not sure that an appointment for a Army Chaplin ever existed at the fort, though actual documents report that two missionaries, Rev. John Martin and Rev. William Richardson visited the fort for a short time during December of 1758 and delivered a Christmas Day sermon to the garrison from the Book of Luke 10: 10-11.
“And the angel of the Lord said unto them. Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
One week later on January 1, 1759, the two Reverend’s baptized a baby born to one of the soldiers. This was a very significant time, not only was this, the first organized Christmas celebration at the fort but most likely this was the first white child born on the frontier of Tennessee.
After the scheduled Christmas Church Services ended the crowd disbanded and the authorized mingling with guests were ordered for the troops, the officers, the blacksmith, the goods trader, the physician, the laundress and camp followers; re-enactors always remain in character, demonstrating for the public, life on the frontier. The Cherokee Sisters, as they are known, came to the fort to enjoy and celebrate the holy day with the British and to share with the visitors of the fort their knowledge of the Cherokee way.
There was peace throughout Fort Loudoun and good relation between the British and the Cherokee in the Year of Our Lord 1758. The residents at the fort were quite jolly and festive. Keeping the garrison troops sharp was a daily assignment for Ensign John Boggs as he rallied the troops for a
Musketry Drill, ordering at the conclusion of the drill a display of full firepower. Throughout the drill the Ensign encouraged the troops with strong words and playful criticism, urging the lads to work hard and drill longer. Ensign Boggs’ use of needful yet sharp remarks during the drill, cut to the bone of some of the career soldiers who longed for the Ensign’s favor and confidence.
Pushing the garrison troops around the parade grounds, the Ensign ordered his next in command to organize the troops into two columns forming both front and rear firing lines. "Load…Lock…Fire…" were the commands, one volley after another with Ensign Boggs critiquing each move, voicing discouragement, demanding greater results, displaying concern for his men’s readiness and personal welfare, “shoot straight and live longer” was the command. All this performed with a comical air about it, for the amusement of the crowd. The garrison troops marched away in two columns towards the barracks murmuring under their voices, “Nothing ever pleases this guy!”
The second in command dismisses the troops as the cast interacts with the guests, greeting each visitor with a smile, sharing the ways and thoughts of 18th century life at the fort. The blacksmith Jacob Raugh stokes his fire stirring an uplift of hot, gold and red cinders into the air, working and folding iron, heating metal and shaping tools forged from red-hot ore. Jacob demonstrates his skills, talking of times past and the importance of his role in the fort’s daily needs. He reveals to the others, the knowledge of his craft and tells the ways of the alchemist, who sought to better the metal and their secret ambitions to change iron into gold by the “philosopher stone.”
A visit to Physician Maurice Anderson who resides in one of the more spacious buildings which likely acts as a hospital if need be, offer insight into the ways of 18th century medicine. The walls were full of herbs and tinctures, the room lined with cots; comfort wasn’t part of the treatment. We listened to the camp’s physician as he shared his wisdom with other guests…purging and bleeding, sawing and burning. Hearing that along with seeing primitive surgical tools that were regarded high-tech in the 18th century, throw in no anesthesia and great discomfort …all I could think of was…stay low and stay healthy.
Duties around the fort during the Christmas holiday continued as normal as they decorated modestly, baked pies in the clay oven, putting them on window sills to cool; preparations for the evening event goes right along as scheduled.
With his animated gestures and his impressive 18th century frontier attire, Trader Samuel Benn draws onlookers into his personal audience with tales of furs and other goods being traded between the Cherokee and the British. Reliving tales of life at the fort and his close association with the Overhill Cherokee people. Benn was an independent contractor of trade goods in the region, likely contracted by the British.
Existing out on the open frontier required a trader to possess special personal skills that were essential to survival. Trader Benn’s knowledge of the times, revealed a wealth of information about historical events. His personal relationships with both the British and Cherokee placed him right in the heart of their conflict, an unfortunate conflict that the Overhill Cherokees were destined to struggle with for generations against the European countries who tried to tame them and their land dating back to the Spanish explorer DeSoto in the 1550’s.
The garrison troops at Fort Loudoun offered insight into their daily lives in and outside the fort, providing examples of the knowledge and training it took to survive on the original western frontier. The soldiers enjoyed demonstrating their weaponry, showing off their uniforms and kits as they offered guided tours of the enlisted men’s barracks and its no-frills accommodations.
The one thing you don’t want to do is bring up the French to these loyal countrymen. The French are the proverbial thorn in the side of His Majesty King George II of England and the direct cause of these valiant, brave and heroic servicemen baring the hardships of frontier duty and their longing for home and family so far away; mentioning the French to these guys would put you in the front seat to witnessing a 250-year-old, bitter…disgruntled…belligerent Monte Python type skit. They don’t care much for the French, their pastries or their wine list.
The officers of the fort quickly snap to and call the men to order as Ensign Boggs once again took charge and informed the guest of the upcoming Christmas Carols. Scripts were handed out to the troops as well as other residents of the fort and any guest wanting to join in on the caroling. The script contained alternate lyrics to the popular “12 Days of Christmas.” The messmates at today’s Fort Loudoun have penned the unofficial, “13 Days of Christmas,” with those nifty mid-18th century lyrics like, Wampum for the Wenches, Salve for the Pox, Freshly Boiled Drawers, Laudanum for all Humors and Everlasting Chelsea. I’ve recently learned that a top ten favorite for the troopers Christmas wish list is a long stay at Chelsea, the Old Soldiers Hospital in London.
The garrison troops sang in unison by direct order and command of Ensign John Boggs; this is where an issue of rum rations for the garrison lads could have smoothed out the melody, but then there are those park ordinances prohibiting such folly. All the residents of the fort joined in as well as some of the guest, uniting in holiday harmony and spirit, laughter was optional.
The melody rolled along joyfully as Ensign Boggs and the fort’s laundress wench Elizabeth McKay joined in, combining their voices and commanding presence to the performance, pushing the volume up a notch. The group rendition of 12 Days of Christmas was amusing and all in fun, a joyous part of the celebration, with the 21st century guests enjoying every moment. Ensign Boggs thanked the Company and dismissed the men, who murmured lowly as they walk away, “so that’s what pleases this guy?”
After a short break in the event, their suddenly appeared out one of the cabins the man of the moment. Scurrying down a flight of stairs from the upper grounds of the fort and wearing a long red coat while clutching in his hand a large cloth bag, it was, no, not Santa, but none other than…Ensign Boggs.
We have now come to that part of the program where we as guests partake in the traditional Wassail Tasting. Acting as commander at Fort Loudoun Boggs situates himself before the guests, with his troops gathered behind and around him, looking over his shoulder as he performs his ladle to cup duty, dispensing that mouth-watering concoction known as “Wassail.” Ensign John Boggs goes on to state that, “with great regret he must report to his guests that due to adolescents amongst the guests along with the poor display of firepower during the Musketry Drill (the visitors and guests thought the drill went just fine and loud) that the missing ingredient to the popular elixir of choice amongst the enlisted men, being the ancient demon “rum,” has been withheld from the holiday Wassail brew. Plus possible charges are being considered against the men due to their unsavory conduct directly associated with the personal actions that have permanently influenced the fort’s official, naughty or nice list.” “Nothing ever pleases this guy!” murmurs a garrison trooper under his breath.
Unintentionally, I personally overheard the other officers discussing the proposed charges the Ensign is considering against the men such as, insubordination, insurrection, indecent behavior, malicious malingerers and most offensive of all, their total disregard for the Ensign’s personal feelings during the Holiday Season.
Obviously the garrison troops were waiting till later in the day to present their gift as a token of appreciation to their beloved leader, grand master, fearless countryman and most generous keeper of the rum locker key. After some fictitious discussion, (just improvising here) all was forgiven and the troops rallied with some cheers and favorable regards for the big guy, after all he had the keys to the locker.
With one last Artillery Drill left on the day’s schedule the garrison troops had a chance to prove themselves to their meticulous taskmaster. Manning the bastion overlooking the lake the men prepared to fire a charge to one of the fort’s cannon, rocking the palisade walls with thunder. A second round is promptly fired sending another roar and a white cloud of emission from the cannon’s inner chamber.
Command to cease fire is given and to secure the weapon. No comment by the officer in command is made concerning the gunnery crews performance, leaving the troops confused and uneasy, “Nothing ever pleases this guy,” became the fort’s mantra of the day.
Mrs. Highlander and I continued our tour talking to many who lived on either side of the history veil at Fort Loudoun. As we watched the visitors around us interacting in various ways, the simplicity of this holiday event stood out even more, upholding the true character of what likely took place that first official Christmas Day at the frontier fort. The sun slowly began it departure in the western sky, the day is closing and the “Lowering of the Colours” will soon come.
The Highlander party of two, made its way out the fort’s gate passing thru the veil of history’s timeline. We walked past the park’s visitor center and museum where in the present time; the hall was being prepared for the day’s reception and celebration, sharing refreshments and holiday spirit with their guests and visitors. It was rumored that re-enactors who were brave and secure in their personal abilities to transcend time and space will be joining the festivities.
Mrs. Highlander and I journeyed on to the parking lot and climbed into our horseless carriage to retrieve the picnic dinner we brought. There are no food concessions at the fort during this particular event. The town of Vonroe is a couple miles up the road with local eateries to enjoy, although we didn’t want to get too far from the veil with the Candlelight Tour of the Fort coming up soon. After enjoying our dinner and reviewing the events of today’s park program we made our way back to the visitor center.Guest Reception at
The reception was in full swing with punch and coffee, cookies and candy laid out in the museum’s hall. The special entree of the evening was Chocolate Covered Rats. “A must go to food,” when rations are low and a true delicacy when sugar and cocoa are added. Actually, on this side of the veil these chocolate covered rats were concocted by using a piece of a chocolate kiss with little eyes and ears placed in the appropriate locations, the candy kiss head is then adjoined to a chocolate covered cherry which conveniently has an exposed red stem resembling a rodent tail. I must say the chocolate rats went quick, amazing what you’ll eat on the frontier.
This was also a good time for Mrs. Highlander and I to catch the 15-minute film presentation on the history of Fort Loudoun, which we found to be entertaining and worth the time spent.
Once the film ended we rejoined the main group and enjoyed the conversations of the helpful and friendly Park Ranger Will Kinton. Decked out in full ranger gear and uniform, he answered our questions concerning the fort and the history of the park and off the record informed us that several of the re-enactors also acted as official Park Rangers when they were on this side of the time veil.
Ensign John Boggs (a.k.a. Park Ranger and Manger Jeff Wells,) once again takes command of the audience providing information and taking questions from the guests, answering each question with experienced wisdom and precise knowledge, other times he would slip through the time veil and no telling what he would say.Candlelight Tour at Fort Loudoun
At approximately 6:00 p.m. on the chilled December night after receiving the direct orders given by Ensign John Boggs, we left the warm confines of the visitor’s center behind and entered the dark outer world of Fort Loudoun. Assembling outside in a large group we were herded, or rather guided along a candlelit trail, absolute darkness caused the group to bunch tightly together in formation.
The nightly overcast left the stars and moon light totally void of expression as we marched forth through the darkness led by the keen eyes of our fearless leader Ensign Boggs, backwards in time we pressed on thru history moving ever so steadily towards that very special date, December 25, 1758.
Silhouette walls of spiked timbers on either side of the portholes entrance are the last things seen before stepping through the gate at Fort Loudoun. Once again, challenged by the laws of time travel we find ourselves in an adjacent universe somewhere in one of history’s footstep. Flickering lights from candles and torch flames lit trails throughout the fort and parade grounds, leaving the 21st Century behind in order to partake in a Christmas celebration set in a much simpler time.
Several cast iron torches seven to eight feet tall with flame like red tongues lapped at the night sky eating at the darkness like fuel, shedding a bit more light. The torches where posted just outside the structures within the fort. Light from these torches reflected a dim orange wavering glow onto the outer front walls of each entrance beckoning you inside.
It’s Christmas Night within the quarters of these 18th century structures. Troops to their barracks, family men to their homes with their wife and children. Officers reside together or alone in their given quarters while the commandant retires to his most prestigious house on the upper grounds of Fort Loudoun with a commanding view of the fort’s interior grounds.
With all natural light disappearing at 6:00 or earlier and the sun not rising till late in the morning, winter nights at the fort are not very eventful. Evening time was a great time to listen, learn and interact with people of the garrison. Curious visitors migrated from cabin to cabin gathering where light was made available, capturing with their eyes and senses a scarce commodity of 18th century life. Plenty of time for socializing and celebrating, it’s Christmas Night and all is well at Fort Loudoun.
A group has gathered around a campfire on the grounds between the blacksmith shop and the fort's well, over near a lonely section of the palisade wall. Light from the campfire's roaring flames followed Parson John’s every motion, with and unyielding and impassioned voice he moved about preaching across the crowd; that same cloud of smoke covering him by day now lingers over him thru the night…“but deliverance and salvation are of the Lord. A Light, born out of the heavens to the east has shined and broken the hold darkness has had upon this earth, and has set man free from the curse that has condemned him to everlasting torment and damnation. This gift of Light, of renewed life through the Son, we celebrate each and every year with joy and thanksgiving, that we may share together as one a holiday conceived in love for all mankind, A Son is born, Praise the Lord.” Amen.
A strong Christmas message on a darkened night, just the same I think I’ll move over across the yard and look for a little more of that good Christmas cheer, Amen.
Down at the blacksmith shop “the smithy” Jacob Raugh toils away before the flame, charging his heat source with dry fuel and rushing air, creating a light show of flying sparks and cinders, hammering the red-hot iron as if he were ringing a bell. People gather around the door and windows just to watch a natural holiday light show set in the mid-1750’s, minus the Christmas decorations of course.
Trader Samuel Benn wandered the grounds. Moving about the shadows of light occasionally disappearing into the darkness. Chatting with folks along the way, as he shared tales of old, all the while drawing steadily on an old worn ivory pipe, creating an amber glow from its small bowl that reflected against his white hair and beard.
Off duty garrison troops confined themselves to their quarters laughing and joking, celebrating the holiday with songs containing witty limericks, while accompanied by the festive play of the garrison’s fiddler. It had appeared as though they gave up on their ambitions concerning that rum locker key.
Passing by the Physician Maurice Anderson’s cabin I saw the light flickering inside thru the open door, summoning me again like a pied piper’s call. I’m reminded of the tools, instruments and practices of the time, I stuck my head in the cabin door anyway and take a shot or two; the cabin is filled with curiosity hounds. Not wanting to remain long and wear out my welcome, I tried to make quick haste in my departure but was seen deserting and was promptly and graciously offered the services of a holiday blood letting by the fort physician, on the house I presumed. I could only hope it was a traditional 18th century holiday gift offering and nothing personal. I on the other hand, felt it necessary to decline the generous offer and move on.
The aroma of the pies drew me into the yard and ever closer to the outdoor oven where these homemade morsels of oral delight are being taking out of the oven and set aside for a private group party for the redcoats and the fort’s entire crew after the Candlelight Tour of the Fort comes to a close. The pies are the deserving reward for the re-enactor's efforts throughout the year. Don’t get any fancy ideas about those pies, this is a fully armed camp and those pies in particular are a highly prized commodity, much too important to those deprived and homesick boys in uniform.
From the lower parade grounds I climbed up the outer stairs to the officer’s quarters on the high ground, I stopped in one cabin to witness tables being set, pots heating over a roaring fire and the final preparation for the after hour’s party being concluded. A variety of pies differing in flavor and aroma, recipe and size covered the officer’s tables filling the air with the comforting scent of fresh baked goods.
On the other end of the officer’s quarters were the very nice private quarters and the personal effects of the Royal British officer, Ensign John Boggs. Here in these dim lit quarters lived Fort Loudoun commandant’s personal right hand man, or so says Boggs. Within these walls the Ensign holds private court before his guests, discussing life at Fort Loudoun and revealing it’s past and current history. Ready to answer questions and provide any current news regarding the British position within the French and Indian War. Sharing with all who would listen, his pearls of wisdom and personal military experiences as a dedicated and loyal subject of His Majesty King George's army. Demonstrating his leadership skills, his underlining political ambitions in the new world and being the true showman…I mean the statesmen he was meant to be. After all he was there braving the wild Tennessee frontier long before Buffalo Bill, the popular showman of the Great Plains was ever born. I’d better leave before he recruits me and has me aiding his campaign.
Seated at the crowned head of the courtyard grounds, are the commandant’s quarters at Fort Loudoun. This structure is set apart from the other structures and more spacious. The obvious class distinction in size and furnishings were evident once you entered the doorway. The large fireplace, dining table and four-poster bed would have been the envy of anyone in the 18th Century Overhill country. The laundress at Fort Loudoun, Elizabeth McKay showed us around the quarters and offered insightful information.
Visiting Elizabeth McKay at the commandant’s quarters for the Christmas celebration were the Cherokee Sisters. These delightful ladies graced the fort’s presence with their native charm. Moved by the tale of the Christmas Story, the sisters offered insight into some of the customs and beliefs of their own people. The sisters praised the Christmas decorations and admired the finery of the Commandant’s home, little did these Cherokee Sisters know that one day in the near future they would have the opportunity to change the curtains in the commandant’s house for themselves.
The final curtain echoed throughout the air as “Christmas at the Fort” called its final retreat. A blast in the night was a warning to the guests that the time veil was soon closing to those currently within the fort, those who normally reside in the 21st Century. "Move quickly before the gates of the fort close," roars the command of the cannon. All 21st Century visitors strolled slowly towards the gates, bidding a warm fair-the-well along with holiday wishes as the garrison at Fort Loudoun called for candles out.
With kind words and gentle motions, Ensign John Boggs thanked his guest warmly and repeatedly for taking part in the program, it was now time for the Independent Company of South Carolina to enjoy their own time together, eating homemade pies, exchanging presents and sharing poems. Tonight Wassail will be sipped and songs will be sung, the night is for giving, peace and joy for everyone.
With all strays leaving the fort, the porthole thru history time veil was now closed, sealing the occupants of the fort inside for the night, reliving a time so long gone by.
Merry Christmas from Fort Loudoun…
A Highlander Fictional Tale
After the gates were tightly closed and firmly bolted on December 25th, 1758, the inhabitants of Fort Loudoun settled in for the night. The day was long and preparations for the day’s events took even longer, and were well worth the effort. The Holiday Spirit brought everyone together drawing friends as well as Cherokee guests from neighboring villages.
All the unofficial residents of the fort have departed and only the garrison personnel and their families remained in the fort as Christmas Day turns into Night, fading with each passing hour. After all the fort’s nightly celebrants had their fill of pies, exchanged poems and sang songs, final roll call was conducted. “Merry Christmas and a good night,” was pronounced and the men were dismissed.
With rounded shoulders and shallow expressions the men returned to their barracks. Within moments a familiar yet unappreciated Ensign presses into the tight quarters and slams a small keg of rum on the middle of the table and yells, “grab your tins lads and lets have a toast to the garrison.” Frowns turned to smiles, shoulders snapped back and three cheers went out to the generous Ensign. “Such a dear lad,” they boasted, “never hard to please.”
Singing and laughter from the garrison’s barracks didn’t keep those retired for the night awake, the deep stillness of the night couldn’t be pierced; peace was in the land, as they cherished what they had in the moment.
Standing sentry with only the dancing flames of a torch to keep him company, an enlisted man stares into the darken night. It’s Christmas and he’s a long way from home; family and friends invade his every private thought, he can’t seem to free his mind from the sweetheart he left behind. A sudden break in the clouds above makes way for a star to shine through, the first star he’s seen tonight. An unexpected tap on the shoulder startled the lad as his relief took over the next watch, its was time for him join the after hours Christmas celebration.
As the keg became lighter, so did the men as they sat leaning back on their stools propped up against the wall, relaxing over the table or huddling close to the fire's warmth. The fiddle music of an old familiar homeland melody lured the men into peaceful state. Letters from home, began to unfold around the room, some arriving as recent as the latest relief supplies from the Up Country in South Carolina. Some letters that were presented were old and worn, sentimentality was all that now held the lads together this Christmas night. Those who could, read for those who couldn’t, the room grew quieter with each passing line.
One of the young British officer’s drew a letter from his inner coat pocket and began to read a letter written by Captain Raymond Demere, commandant of Fort Loudoun 1757. The letter was to remind the men of the garrison to stay the course…stating it is by decree that, “The great King George… has ordered his children, the Cherokees… and the English… to love each other as Brothers… and to live together as one people.” “For King and County,” replied the men.
With the keg now empty and the hour approaching midnight, one of the officers produced a rarely seen bottle of wine. Pulling the cork from the bottle he called to men to bring forth their cups and share a small taste of vintage wine in a toast to a fallen soldier. "To our hero, who gave his body and shed his blood so that others may live." Seated by a lamp, the Parson opens the good book and reads from Mathew 2: 1, 2 & 11.
…behold there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying,
“Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”
for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother,
and fell down and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures,
they presented unto him gifts; gold and frankincense, and myrrh.
Our special thanks to the staff at Fort Loudoun State Historic Site and the kind folks of the Independent Company of South Carolina for their help and cooperation in making this Blue Ridge Highlander featured project “Looking for Christmas Past,” so special.
We hope you all enjoyed “Christmas at the Front,” and will turn to the Blue Ridge Highlander for more information concerning the historical preservation and events at Fort Loudoun.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the Blue Ridge Highlander