SAVANNAH
 DR. THOMAS HOWARD
Armstrong Atlantic State University

 

Savannah is approached from the north through pine woods and marshlands that are in reality abandoned rice plantations.  There is little development on the low-lying South Carolina side of the river, and the modest office towers of downtown Savannah appear rather suddenly in the distance east of a high suspension bridge over the Savannah River.

Known locally as "the new bridge" or "the no-name bridge," it replaced the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge in 1991 to allow the port of Savannah to handle larger container ships.  Disagreement has raged since about what to name it.  Talmadge was too closely associated with segregation to be acceptable to many Savannians.  the name of Jimmy Carter has been proposed, but there is a growing movement to commemorate Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief who welcomed Colonel James Edward Oglethorpe here in 1733.  The crest of the bridge is the highest accessible point for many miles around, and it is regrettable that the design did not include an observation deck.

 

SavTybee nav chart.JPG (53572 bytes) Savannah was founded as a result of the convergence of two rather different currents of events.  The British government wanted to establish a forward position along the coast to provide a measure of protection for Charleston against the Spaniards in St. Augustine, and Oglethorpe was interested in founding an ideal society that would provide a fresh start for impoverished subjects of the king.  In June 1732, George II granted Oglethorpe and his associates a large tract of land along the coast south of South Carolina and graciously allowed it to be named after himself.

 

Oglethorpe and a shipload of colonists, chiefly recruited among the London poor, reached Charleston without incident on January 13, 1733, and recuperated there before going on to Beaufort.  Leaving the Colonists there, Oglethorpe sailed along the coast in a small boat with Col. William Bull (later to be lieutenant governor of South Carolina), seeking a site for his new colony.

Oglethorpe found what he was looking for about ten miles upstream on the Savannah River, the largest stream flowing out of the backcountry between Charleston and St. Augustine.  The river's lowest reach is a watery landscape of low islands and marshes, and Oglethorpe picked the first high ground he came to, a dry sandy bluff rising 40 feet above the river for a mile or so on the south bank.

 

In a letter to the trustees of the colony in London he described his choice as follows:

I fixed upon a healthy situation about ten miles from the sea.  The river here forms a halfmoon, along the South side of which the Banks are about 40 feet high; and upon the top a Flat, which they call a Bluff.  The plain high ground extends into the country five or six miles, and along the River Side about a mile.  Ship that draw 12 foot of water can ride within ten yards of the Bank.  The River is pretty wide, the water fresh, and from the hey [quay] of the town you see its whole course to the sea, with the Island of Tybee, which forms the mouth of the river; and the other way you see the river for about six miles up into the country.

After rejoining the rest of his party in Beaufort, Oglethorpe led the entire expedition to this location on February1, 1733.  Oglethorpe's tent, at the top of the bluff where the Hyatt Regency Hotel now stands, became the center of activity.  Wielding supreme authority, Oglethorpe actively involved himself in the creation of the new town.  The main north-south axis of the city, perpendicular to the river front, was named for Col. Bull, who assisted Oglethorpe in the street layout and in construction of the first buildings.

On his first visit Oglethorpe was received in a friendly manner by Tomochichi, the head of the Yamacraws, a small band of Creeks who had run afoul of the a larger polity in what is now southwest Georgia and moved east to the coast.  Oglethorpe formally acquired the site of Savannah from Tomochichi in an agreement that reserved nearby land for the Yamacraws.  Oglethorpe later took Tomochichi to England, presented him to George II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and brought him back to savannah in good health.  The rest of the Yamacraws were not so lucky, however.  Disease thinned their rank, and they soon disappeared from Savannah's history.

Oglethorpe recruited, in addition to the English poor, contingents of Scottish Highlanders, Moravians, and Salzburgers (Austrian Lutherans). In Savannah's first year a group of about 40 Jews showed up unannounced and soon founded the third Jewish congregation in the Thirteen Colonies, now housed in Temple Mikve Israel on Monterey Square.

John and Charles Wesley cam to Savannah in 1736 for a year or so as Anglican missionaries, held frequent discussions with the Moravians, and returned home in a state of spiritual ferment that led eventually to the development of Methodism.  For 20 years Georgia was governed under its original utopian charter.  Oglethorpe himself remained much involved with the affairs of the colony, making several trips from England, and spending a considerable amount of time and fortune there.

The colony had been expected to pay for itself by producing such non-English crops as wine and silk.  a kind of agricultural experiment station, the Trustees' Garden, was created on the bluff on the east side of the town, but most of the attempted introductions were not successful.  The hoped-for exotic crops gave way to more mundane but necessary foodstuffs.  In time Savannah developed a more realistic export trade.  Deerskins and furs were brought down from the interior and along with timber products, such as barrels, staves, shingles, and planks, loaded onto ships at the foot of the bluff.

Oglethorpe had intended Georgia to be a colony of yeoman farmers. Consequently slavery was excluded 9as was strong drink).  Some of the early settlers, such as the Salzburgers upriver from Savannah, had no problem with the ban on slavery.  But others looked longingly across the river at the plantation system developing in South Carolina, on the backs of slaves, of course.  Pressure grew for slavery to be legalized, and slaves were smuggled across from South Carolina in spite of the law.  Eventually, after some twenty years, Oglethorpe's dream was abandoned, slavery was established in Georgia, and the trustees turned the colony over to direct royal control.

Rice was on of the leading plantation crops in these early years.  Hutchinson Island, now a somewhat derelict dock and industrial area across from River Street, was once green with rice fields, as were low-lying areas on the south bank that are now part of the city.  In 817, the city took the unusual step of paying landowners on what was then the edge of town to take land out of rice production, in order to reduce the miasmatic vapors that were thought to cause malaria and yellow fever.  The measure apparently did some good, because of the elimination not of the vapors but of mosquito habitat.

The glory days for Savannah as the nation's second greatest cotton port (after New Orleans) began only towards the end of the eighteenth century when visiting Yankee Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin at Mulberry Plantation, an area now just a few miles upstream from the container facilities of the Port of Savannah.  The cotton gin revolutionized agriculture in the southern Coastal Plain and Piedmont, and revived slavery, then considered by many a moribund institution.

Savannah remained an important cotton port for over a century.  Oglethorpe's bluff disappeared under a complex of buildings devoted to the grading, packing, and shipping of cotton.  Visitors remarked on the degree to which cotton monopolized conversation in this part of town.  The businessmen who specialized in the buying and shipping of cotton, as well as the provisioning, on credit, of isolated plantation owners upcountry were known as "factors." Their buildings are one or two stories high on the inland side (still called Factor's Walk) but loom four or five stories over River Street where the ground floors have been recycled into a tourist complex of shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, and a museum.

Savannah's other concentration of such attractions, attracting locals more than tourists, is a City Market, a short walk to the southwest.  Separating the waterfront along River Street and Factor's Walk from the rest of the city was a broad street known originally as The Bay, now called Bay Street.  Though this is the oldest part of town, little of the architecture seen today along dates back before the mid-nineteenth century.  Travelers' accounts make if clear that the Savannah of the trusteeship period, and indeed through most of the rest of the eighteenth century,  was comprised of rather simple wooden building, and almost none of these have survived the ravages of time and fire.

What has survived from Savannah's founding may be its most famous design feature: the pattern of "squares," small commons at even intervals throughout the old part of town.  The squares were part of an urban design promulgated by Oglethorpe himself.  Each square was the center of a "ward," intended to be as self-sufficient as possible.  A ward was divided into four "tythings," each consisting of 10 house lots.  The four lots facing the east and west ends of each square were designated "trust lots," and reserved for public buildings.

To a remarkable degree this ideal plan was actually carried out, and even more remarkable, much of it survives to this day.  There are 26 squares in the "historic district," which extends from the river south to Gaston Street with Bull Street at its center.  The destruction of three squares, to speed up car traffic, helped launch a preservation movement in the 1950s, and squares are now landscaped and carefully tended parks.  This city plan has guaranteed Savannah's place in books on the historical geography of cities in America.  The Massie Heritage Center, on the south side of Calhoun Square, provides an excellent introduction to the plan and the city's architectural heritage.

One deviation from Oglethorpe's original plan was the eventual use of many trust lots for grand private houses rather than public buildings, which, perhaps predictable, tended to cluster more towards the center of business activity on the river.  Today Johnson Square, one block up Bull Street from the river, is the heart of what might be called Savannah's financial district, the obelisk in the middle marks the grave of the Revolutionary general Nathaniel Greene; its cornerstone was laid by Lafayette in 1825.

The next square south of Johnson Square is Wright Square, named for Sir James Wright, named for Sir James Wright, third and last royal governor of Georgia. At the center of the square is a monument to W. W. Gordon, a founder of the Central of Georgia Railroad.  In the southeast corner is a large boulder inscribed to the memory of Tomochichi.  Native American activists claim that the Gordon monument usurped the site of Tomochichi's grave at the center of the square, and are agitating to have the monument removed.

Further south along Bull street, Chippewa Square, made famous by the movie Forrest Gump, is dominated by a statue of Oglethorpe.  Madison and Monterey Squares, still further south, mark the center of the more purely residential southern half of the historic district.  It is in this area that Savannah's mix of Georgian, Regency, Federal and Greek and Gothic Revival architecture can be seen to best advantage.  Madison Square was named for James Madison, and has a statue of Sgt. William Jasper, who died heroically at the siege of Savannah in 1779.  Monterey Square memorializes an American victory in the Mexican War, which occurred just before the square was laid out, but its central monument commemorated Casimir Pulaski, another heroic casualty of the siege of Savannah.  Mercer House, the principal   setting of the best-selling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, faces on Monterey Square.

Gaston Street is the southern edge of the historic district.  The Bull Street spine of the city is interrupted here by Forsyth Park.  The northern half of the park is laid out as a formal garden around an elaborate fountain.

 

The southern, more open, half was originally a military parade ground, and is now used for informal sports and outdoor concerts.  Between the tow halves is a monument to Confederate war dead, one of the few prominent reminders of the Civil War in the city.  General William T. Sherman's famous march to the sea was aimed directly at Savannah, but the city surrendered in December 1864 without resistance.  This prudent decision is doubtless one of the reasons for the state of preservation of the historic district enjoys today.

On either side of Forsyth Park the residential architecture becomes more Victorian in style.  Though in many American cities, "Victorian" has become a synonym for "historic," in Savannah it means fairly old, but not old enough to be truly historic.

 

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