Neptune Small

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Over the past few weeks, our community has welcomed many visitors, whether on Spring Break vacation or Easter weekend.  Nobody can blame folks for longing to be in the Golden Isles.  There’s just something reflective about Easter here – in the peace and quiet of the grassy marsh, the blinding beauty of the ocean sunrise, the rejoicing call of the birds on the wind – all shared warmly with family and good friends.

One of the most popular attractions for both visitors and residents alike is Neptune Park, oceanfront and adjacent to the St. Simon’s pier and village.  I have countless fond memories of pushing my children on the swings at the playground, enjoying family picnics under the oaks, and throwing the football with my sons on the lawn.  Last week, I was blessed to make more family memories at the park with my two young grandchildren as well. 

As hundreds of visitors daily stroll that path by the pier, they may unknowingly walk past a dedication marker summarizing the story of the park’s namesake.  Despite what some may consider a logical reference, this beloved location is NOT named after some ancient mythical god of the sea.  Instead, it is named in honor of a real-life hero, one whose notoriety came not from his own strength and self-promotion, but rather from the depths of his heart and his selfless service.

Neptune Small was born into a slave family at Retreat Plantation, owned in the mid 1800s by Thomas Butler King and his wife Anna Page King, who primarily managed the estate in her husband’s frequent absence. When Neptune was a young boy, Anna assigned him to work in the main house as a helper, friend and playmate to her son, Henry Lord Page King, also known as “Lordy”.  Lordy and Neptune were about the same age, and in those early days before the Civil war, the two boys became inseparable friends.  They hunted, fished, and schooled together at Retreat, growing up affectionately much like brothers. 

When the Civil war broke out, Lordy King enlisted in the Confederate Army, and his friend Neptune accompanied him as a personal attendant.  At the battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1862, Lordy King was killed while completing a dispatch mission.   When King did not return to camp at the end of the day, Neptune put his own life at risk and painstakingly searched the battlefield that night until he found his friend.  Although at that point Small was legally absolved from his service and could rightfully pursue his own personal freedom, he instead carried Lordy’s lifeless body off the field, fashioned a wagon for transport, and traveled all the way from Virginia back to Georgia for King to be respectfully buried at his family’s cemetery plot at Christ Church, Frederica. 

After all this, Small voluntarily accompanied Lordy’s brother Cuyler back to the battlefield, where he continued to serve through the end of the war.  Upon his return, in appreciation for Neptune’s incredible faithfulness, the Kings gifted Small with a tract of land that was a part of the original Retreat Plantation. Part of that property is the location now enjoyed by many as Neptune Park, named to forever memorialize Small’s exceptional love and devotion to his friend.

Several years ago, I was invited as a descendant of the King family to a ceremony at the Sea Island Lodge dedicating a beautiful, bronze sculpture of Neptune Small carrying the body of his beloved friend, crafted by talented local artist Kevin Pullen.  The event was attended by several local political dignitaries as well as descendants of Neptune Small and Henry Lord Page King.  Mr. Pullen was inspired to create this life-like sculpture after learning the story of Neptune’s loyalty, courage, and sacrificial service.  During Mr. Pullen’s moving presentation of Neptune’s story, there was a palpable sense of brotherly love in the room, resulting in heartfelt applause and shared hugs between members of two families bonded forever by Small.

Reflecting upon the Easter celebration of last weekend, I am reminded of the greatest of all friendships and I find a parallel.  Jesus proclaimed and then personally demonstrated for us: “Greater love has no one than this:  to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)  Neptune Small surely lived out this Christ-like, sacrificial love for his friend; forsaking his own needs, his rights, even his freedom—in essence, his very life itself.  As brothers and sisters ultimately united by the same great Love,  may we all consider ways in which we can do likewise.  And the next time you are enjoying Neptune Park with your family, be sure to stop by Neptune’s plaque and tell your children the story told here—that as we share sacrificial love with others in small and larger ways, we are reflections of the light of Christ, and bring forth the goodness of  His Kingdom to our families, friends, and community.