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Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War

Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War

5.0 1
by Jacqueline Jones

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In this masterful portrait of life in Savannah before, during, and after the Civil War, prize-winning historian Jacqueline Jones transports readers to the balmy, raucous streets of that fabled Southern port city. Here is a subtle and rich social history that weaves together stories of the everyday lives of blacks and whites, rich and poor, men and women from all walks


In this masterful portrait of life in Savannah before, during, and after the Civil War, prize-winning historian Jacqueline Jones transports readers to the balmy, raucous streets of that fabled Southern port city. Here is a subtle and rich social history that weaves together stories of the everyday lives of blacks and whites, rich and poor, men and women from all walks of life confronting the transformations that would alter their city forever. Deeply researched and vividly written, Saving Savannah is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the Civil War years.

Editorial Reviews

Kevin Boyle
[Jones's] meticulous recreation of the Civil War in Georgia's rice kingdom…Jones, who teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin, traces this tragic story with the thoroughness and sophistication that have marked her distinguished career.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

MacArthur fellow and Bancroft Prize-winning historian Jones (Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow) combines comprehensive research and evocative prose in this study of a Southern city where complex rules of social and economic hierarchy blurred the lines between slavery and freedom well before the Civil War. The prosperous city and labor-intensive rice plantations depended as much on white workers, who tended to be fractious, as on black slaves. At the same time, some blacks, free before the war or emancipated by it, were determined to live on their own terms, economically, socially and, after 1865, politically. But the Civil War brought Northerners into the mix-soldiers, teachers, missionaries, businessmen-motivated by varying combinations of morality and enterprise. After the war, they colluded with Southern whites to keep blacks from attaining full self-determination through conflicts waged in streets and courtrooms, churches and schools and workplaces. Violence and chicanery sustained traditional forms of power, though that power now came through the ballot box and the jury box. With penetrating understanding Jones describes and analyzes the complex processes that impoverished black society but never succeeded in destroying it. 16 pages of photos, 5 maps. (Oct. 9)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Jones (American civilization, Brandeis Univ.; Labor of Love; Labor of Sorrow) interweaves the daily lives of ordinary people, political leaders, and powerful landowners into a fascinating narrative of the African American experience in the city of Savannah during the second half of the 19th century. In spite of the Civil War's prominence in the subtitle, the wartime experience of the city takes up less than a third of the book. The rest is given to the years before and after the war. Jones posits that slaves and freedmen created complex social systems that aided their own survival and the survival of the city, that African Americans in Savannah were not merely victims alternately oppressed by southerners and pitied by northerners. Jones relies heavily upon primary sources and succeeds in showing the creative contributions of African Americans facing intense racial hatred. However, the story feels incomplete, leaving one wishing that more primary material existed on the protagonists. Jones assumes a basic familiarity both with the Civil War and with southern society before and after the war, which could lose readers without this familiarity. Nevertheless, this is worthwhile for those with an appreciation of narrative histories of cities and an interest in the Civil War. The extensive selected bibliography will be helpful for those interested in further research. Recommended for public libraries and academic libraries with related collections. (Illustrations and index not seen.)
—Michael Farrell

Kirkus Reviews
Sturdy history of the Southern port city and its relationship to the "curious institution" of slavery. As Bancroft Prize-winning historian Jones (American History/Brandeis Univ.; Creek Walking: Growing Up in Delaware in the 1950s, 2001, etc.) notes, Savannah, like most ports, was cosmopolitan compared to the interior. Its white inhabitants included Protestants, Jews and Catholics from many European nations, most recently arrived from the Old World, and almost all members of a vigorous Democratic Party, which served as "testament to the mutual if wildly unequal dependence of the planter-merchant-lawyer elite and large numbers of teamsters, dockworkers, and sawmill hands." No matter how different, though, white Savannah was insistent in its defense of slavery. Jones opens with an account of a slave, Thomas Simms, who escaped via the port and traveled north to Boston, where his pursuers discovered him and forced his extradition, despite the protestations of abolitionist Northerners. Upon returning to Savannah, Simms received the maximum punishment allowed by law, 39 strokes with the lash, which, Simms later said, would have been more "but for the sympathy manifested for him in the North." Drawing on a trove of documents and firsthand accounts, Jones depicts the ordinary life of both whites and blacks. When the Civil War arrived, Savannah's secessionist fervor gave way to pragmatism, and, like those of Natchez and other Southern cities, its leaders surrendered quickly rather than let their city be attacked. The arriving Federals, Jones observes, were none too evolved in their view of the African-American populace (one colonel called them "perfectly childlike . . . no more responsible fortheir actions than so many puppies"), and Reconstruction was no more generous to most of them, replacing slavery with other forms of indenture. An important addition to the literature of slavery and African-American history, complementing the now-standard work of Eugene Genovese, Kenneth Stampp and other chroniclers. Agent: Geri Thoma/Elaine Markson Agency
From the Publisher
“A meticulous re-creation of the Civil War in Georgia’s rice kingdom. . . . Jones traces this tragic story with thoroughness and sophistication.”
The New York Times Book Review

“An intimate look at a city battered by the tides of history. . . . Few historians have been able to offer such a comprehensive account of how the men and women of a single city could survive such stormy waters.”
The Atlanta Journal Constitution

“A history rich in social detail and written with deep insight. . . . [The] story of how Savannah and the South was lost to a century of repression and segregation.”
The Boston Globe

“A compelling social and political history. . . . Jones introduces the voices of numerous slaves, citizens and soldiers as she explores a trove of original sources to create a people’s history of emancipation and the vast social changes it wrought. . . . The guiding insight of Jones’s work is an appreciation of how fully the various stories of the disinherited inform the American narrative.”
Washington Post Book World

“An important book. . . . Jones tells this story with humanity and precision, giving us a finely wrought, multidimensional portrait of a vanished civilization.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Excellent. . . . Jones covers every conceivable story in her volume. . . .[Saving Savannah] should be on the bookshelf of every student of the Civil War South.”
Civil War News

“Jones draws on diaries, letters, newspapers, and military records to paint a compelling portrait of antebellum, wartime, and postwar Savannah.”
National Geographic Traveler

“Captures a complex, fascinating society in stunning period detail.”
Atlanta Magazine

“Full of complex characters. . . . Jones charges a familiar abstraction—the failures of Reconstruction—with specific, dramatic life.”
Garden & Gun

“A profound examination. . . . Stands out from many that carry the label of Civil War–era studies. . . . A wondrous work that doesn’t just dip its toe into the . . . humanity of antebellum and postbellum Southerners of both races. It takes you there, and makes it seem more than worth your time.”
The Anniston Star

“A sweeping history of Savannah (and environs) before, during, and after the war, with an emphasis on race relations and the black struggle for freedom.”
Providence Journal

“A detailed, compelling portrait of Georgia’s port city from the decade that preceded the Civil War to the decade that followed it. . . . [A] dramatic panorama of everyday life in Savannah.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Well-written and well-researched. . . . Its real contribution is chronicling the progress and setbacks of Savannah’s slaves.”
Civil War Book Review

“Moving and meaningful. . . . In this superb study, Jacqueline Jones mobilizes a remarkable cast of characters—black and white, rich and poor, men and women, military and civilian, insider and outsider—to provide a much bigger, richer, and more compelling saga than any we’ve seen before.”
—John C. Inscoe, editor, The New Georgia Encyclopedia

“Penetrating. . . . Jones combines comprehensive research and evocative prose in this study of a Southern city where complex rules of social and economic hierarchy blurred the lines between slavery and freedom well before the Civil War.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Magnificent in its scope, marvelous in its detail, moving in its telling, Saving Savannah is the art of history at its finest. It is a remarkable, wholly compelling study, one with which historians of the American Civil War simply must engage.”
—Mark M. Smith, author of How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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In early September 1854, Savannah was diseased, dying. At dusk, tar fires kindled in the public squares threw a plume of acrid smoke into the air, an immense black shroud that settled over the desolate, oppressively hot and humid city. The lush, tree- lined thoroughfares were nearly deserted, the hush broken only by the muffled sounds of a horsedrawn hearse plodding through the sandy streets. The usually raucous marketplace was empty, stately homes were abandoned, schools and hotels shuttered. Many people had fled, most to the interior of Georgia or
to the North. Behind closed doors, the ill, unattended, lay side by side with the dead, and in poorer areas of the city, human corpses mingled with refuse piled in back alleyways. Deprived of supplies from either the surrounding countryside or from arriving ships, the river port risked slow starvation. “How changed is our beautiful, growing, healthy city, lately full of enterprise, noise, and business,” despaired one of the city’s clergymen, exhausted from ministering to the ill. Racked with fever, chills, and convulsions, hundreds of all ages were succumbing to the “black vomit,” more commonly known as yellow fever.

Savannah was dying, and Richard Arnold, M.D., could do nothing to stem the plague. The stricken city was in fact playing unwilling and unwitting host to Aedes aegypti, the carrier mosquito for yellow fever. Breeding most freely in manmade receptacles such as barrels and culverts, the insect proved the bane of commercial ports from the West African coast to New Orleans. The illness spread rapidly, not because it was contagious but because infected mosquitoes carried it from victim to victim. When the epidemic hit, Arnold was still mourning the death of his thirty-five- year- old wife, Margaret, from tuberculosis four years earlier. Nevertheless, beginning in August 1854, the doctor spent his every waking hour with patients, crisscrossing the city in his carriage and losing all sense of time. Trying not to panic in the midst of so much misery, he wrote on September 2, “my mind is calm, for I have a duty to perform in staying here.” Under these conditions, he believed, the physician was akin to a soldier, albeit one denied the requisite glory: the doctor “goes into the very dens of infection, he inhales the reeking effluvia of filth & disease, he is most exposed to catch disease himself in those very cases which will bring him neither money nor credit.”

For forty-six- year- old Richard Arnold, the yellow-fever epidemic of 1854 represented a crisis of multiple dimensions— a crisis destructive not only of the physical and fiscal health of the city he loved, but also of his own good name as a man of science and as an exemplar of civic virtue. Born in Savannah, the son of a Rhode Island merchant, Arnold had graduated from the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University) and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Settling in the place of his birth, he served in a variety of elected and appointed posts related to municipal governance and education. Like other elite Savannahians, Arnold well understood that the river port thrived to the extent it could attract not only investors and merchants, but also hundreds of seasonal, unskilled northern workers annually. Yet the city suffered from a stubborn reputation as an unhealthy place plagued by fevers bred in rotting vegetation and polluted water, and by a vaguely defined but lethal form of “miasma,” or poisonous air. Savannah’s booster were always on the defensive; some blamed the high mortality rate on large numbers of northern invalids dying an untimely death in the city en route to their final destination in Florida. Now the “yellow jack” epidemic of 1854 threatened not only Savannah’s good name, but also its very survival.

Arnold and Savannah’s other physicians did well financially in their everyday business. As a group they helped ensure the “soundness” of the enslaved rural coastal population in Chatham, Bryan, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn, and Camden counties—thirty-five thousand blacks who planted, harvested, and processed vast quantities of cotton and rice each year. Arnold also served as the physician for the region’s largest industrial slaveowner, the Central of Georgia Railroad. At the same time, his doctor’s salary seemed chronically insufficient to afford him the gracious life of a wealthy merchant, banker, or lawyer, a constant irritant given his appreciation for fine wines, champagne, sherry, sauterne, and Madeira. And now in this disease- ridden city Arnold could not help but wonder
why he was putting himself in mortal danger day in and day out, coming face-to-face with failure as he left the home of each dying patient— for“neither money nor credit.”

In early August, the sickly cast of yellow fever had made its first appearance in Yamacraw, the northeastern neighborhood that was home to many Irish immigrants (70 percent of all foreigners living in Savannah). At the first sign of the outbreak, Arnold and other physicians had joined with politicians, businessmen, and newspaper editors in a public relations campaign that was part wishful thinking and part cynical manipulation. As in past epidemics, they feared that rumors would give way to hysteria, which in turn would lead to a quarantine of all vessels leaving Savannah. The city’s trade would be crippled, its archrival Charleston enriched. A correspondent for the Savannah Morning News tried to reassure readers with the claim that northeast winds had carried the disease exclusively to newcomers living on the edges of the city in wretched wooden tenements. These were presumably men, women, and children “who do not enjoy the comforts of life, and have no regard for cleanliness.” On August 10, Mayor John E. Ward, a former U.S. attorney and prominent Democrat, ordered the board of health to cease listing yellow fever as the cause of death on its mortality reports; the mayor’s aim was to protect “the reputation and interest of the city.” Richard R. Cuyler, president of the Central of Georgia Railroad and Banking Company, published a letter in the New York Times maintaining that of the 392 whites employed by the railroad, almost all continued to “go out and come in, in the night, and many are exposed to the burning sun” without contracting the illness. Like others, Cuyler assumed that both night air and direct sunlight were causes of yellow fever.

Yet the mounting death toll spoke louder than the bland pronouncements uttered by businessmen and parroted in the city’s newspapers. By the last week in August a full- blown exodus from the city was under way. The sight of dozens of Savannah families crowded in mail packets going south and in steamer ships headed north laid bare the deep fear that had overtaken the city. Prodded by the outrage spread in whispered street conversations and in newspapers of nearby towns, authorities began to react. Dominick O’Byrne, an alderman and lawyer of Irish descent, offered a resolution authorizing the committee on health and cemeteries to spend a largely symbolic $1,000 for the alleviation of suffering among the city’s poor. Meanwhile, the mayor and other leaders found themselves gratefully accepting cash donations from cities as far away as Boston. Contingents of physicians and nurses arrived from Mobile and New Orleans.

Above all else, Savannah’s leaders prized prosperity and public order, and on both counts the epidemic was devastating. Not until the late nineteenth century would the medical- scientific establishment link mosquitoes to yellow fever. Still, physicians did know enough to associate deadly illnesses with weed- choked rice- field ditches and with undrained city streets. Indeed, as early as 1817 the city council had established a dry culture committee; its purpose was to pay the owners of private lands adjacent to the city to drain their fields of scum- covered stagnant water. The city also funded a board of health charged with monitoring conditions in each of the city’s thirty wards, a health officer to inspect incoming ships for signs of infectious disease among crew members, a scavenger department of black men who cleared the streets of refuse and animal carcasses, a pest house to segregate impoverished ill people from the general population, and a dispensary to distribute medicines to the ailing. Nevertheless, the 1854 epidemic eventually claimed the lives of more than 6 percent of the city’s total population— a loss comparable to that of 400,000 lives in New York City today.

Savannah was dying, and whites were its chief victims. To a large degree, lowcountry blacks did not contract mosquito- borne illnesses; the paired genetic trait that made West African groups vulnerable to sicklecell anemia also provided them with relative immunity to yellow fever and malaria. In caring for the ill, Arnold probably relied on the assistance of black nurses such as forty-three- year- old Georgiana Guard, a free woman of color. Over the previous few years Guard had helped the widower Arnold care for his daughter, Ellen, and he had served as the black woman’s guardian. (All free blacks in the city were required to have a white male “guardian” to represent them in legal matters.) During the epidemic, black men and women left food at the doorstep of infected households, and otherwise attended to those bereft of other caretakers. Throughout the ordeal, few Savannahians, enslaved or free, could escape the conclusion that this scourge afflicted primarily white folk.

To add to the city’s distress, on September 8 a ferocious hurricane slammed into coastal Georgia. With its fierce winds and torrential rains, the gale was the region’s most destructive storm in three decades, ripping off roofs, smashing windows, and leveling the city’s exotic mix of jasmines, Spanish daggers, magnolias, palmettos, and Pride of India trees. The streets of the elegant Forest City were now virtually impassable, littered with tree limbs, tin, shingles, and pieces of slate. Disrupted gas service snuffed out the lamps in the two dozen grassy, shaded public squares that dotted the city. On the riverfront, floodwaters carried off whole lumberyards, drove vessels into the wharves, and tore the city’s dry dock from its moorings. Across from the city, in the Savannah River, Hutchinson’s Island was submerged under twelve feet of water, a watery grave for an estimated one hundred enslaved men, women, and children. Along the Ogeechee River, a center of Georgia’s rice industry, the force of wind and water destroyed the intricate systems of embankments, ditches, and dams that regulated irrigation of the fields. Much of the entire region’s rice crop was lost, the small amount already harvested carried off by swollen rivers and creeks, the maturing plants choked by rising seawater.

On the morning of Sunday, September 10, throughout the lowcountry enslaved workers slowly emerged from their quarters, small cabins mad of wood or tabby (a mixture of oyster shells, lime, and sand), to survey the damage. Up and down the 118-mile coastline, men and women found that their year’s worth of work had been destroyed by the storm. On the Elizafield rice plantation in Glynn County, the “Dreadful Gale” had drowned whole fields and “blown and washed away” the entire recent harvest of six thousand bushels of rice. Under dark skies still heavy with heat and moisture, the slaves there and on other plantations spent the day not in their customary way, holding worship services and tending to their own gardens, but toiling in the fields. At Elizafield, Scipio, Frederick, London, and other men labored to repair breaks in the dikes, while Nancy, Matilla, and Mary Ann and other women waded through the boggy soil to salvage what rice was left.

The storm obliterated not only the cash crops of the master class, but also the slaves’ vegetable gardens, livestock, and stores of staples— the product of their own strenuous labors in the quarters after they had completed their daily tasks in the fields. Pushed to the limit of human endurance, enslaved families were forced to grow their own rice and corn in order to survive. Some rendered their own lard, kept turkeys and hogs, and crafted quilts, wooden utensils, and baskets. Rainwater and floods carried away beehives, jars of honey, pots, and other goods displayed in neatly swept yards in front of the slave cabins. On many plantations, then, the storm brought a double load of grief to lowcountry slaves— longer days of toil to repair the fields and rescue the rest of the rice and cotton, but also the ruin of their own stores of food and household goods.

Over the next few days with clearing skies came blistering heat. In Savannah, people continued to die. Four days after the storm, a group of prominent men formed the Young Men’s Benevolent Association (YMBA). The association set up soup kitchens for the city’s poor whites, dispensing bread and serving medicinal teas brewed from snakeroot and flaxseed. Like other private charity groups, the YMBA ignored the black population, on the assumption that masters would care for the city’s 7,500 slaves, and that the 900 free people of color were by definition unworthy of aid of any kind. In any case, the fact that relatively few blacks contracted the disease seemed to confirm the notion that they could fend for themselves.

By the end of September, only 12,000 residents remained: an estimated 4,000 whites and almost all of the blacks. Among those who fled were the city marshal, the city constable, and Mayor Ward. An alderman, Dr. James P. Screven, physician, planter, and president of the Savannah, Albany and Gulf Railroad, assumed the position of mayor pro tem. Many of the wealthiest left their slaves behind. Because enslaved men and free men of color formed the core of the city’s fire department, few whites objected to the new black majority in their midst. Reeling from the combined effects of illness, floods, and high winds, this city of lumber mills, cotton warehouses, and wooden boardinghouses could ill risk fire as well.

Meanwhile, Richard Arnold stayed at his post, worked twenty-hour days, treated hundreds of patients, and managed to survive. But his triumph was bittersweet at best. The unseemly manner with which some of his colleagues suffered from “Stampede Fever” brought disrepute on the whole profession, he thought. In mid-September, he mourned the deaths of “two noble young men,” his protégés. The weekly interment reports and obituaries featured names of a cross section of the white population— Burroughs, Sheftall, Hannemeyer, Gallagher. The city’s three cemeteries, for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, were daily engorged with fresh corpses: “Death has had a full harvest,” mourned the doctor.

Arnold and his colleagues at Savannah Medical College considered themselves scientists; they dissected cadavers, recorded observations of their patients, and published their findings in journals such as the Savannah Journal of Medicine and the Charleston Medical Journal and Review. Yet these white men hardly dominated the medical business in Savannah. The city board of health authorized burning tar fires at night and pine fires during the day in an effort to “purify” the sickly air; beyond these measures there existed little agreement about cures for yellow fever. Some people advocated sniffing camphor, taking cold baths in the morning, and lining shoes with garlic. Arnold watched in disgust as a relative newcomer to the city, Dr. Philo H. Wildman, founder of the upstart Georgia General Hospital, prescribed twenty to sixty drops of tincture of iron administered every two hours for his yellow-fever patients. A local paper endorsed Wildman as “a great enemy to quackery in all its forms”; but after he contracted the disease, medicated himself, and then died, his “specific” fell into disfavor.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Jacqueline Jones teaches American history at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America. Among her numerous awards are the Taft Prize, the Brown Memorial Prize, the Spruill Prize, the Bancroft Prize (for Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow), and, in l999, a MacArthur Fellowship. Saving Savannah won the Georgia Historical Society’s 2009 Malcolm Bell, Jr. and Muriel Barrow Bell Award.

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Saving Savannah 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As an avid nonfiction reader, I have been eagerly awaiting this book. I'll say from the outset that I can be quite critical of books, especially those that fail to keep me engaged. This will probably be the most positive review I have EVER written! It's simple. Saving Savannah is brilliant. I can't remember the last time I read a book that was at once exciting and compelling and also deeply intelligent and thoughtful. The stories stand alone for their entertainment value - you'll get into it no matter who you are. The complex issues of race and politics really got me thinking, so I think this book will appeal to even the most discerning of intellectual readers. Personally, I devour books on the civil war it's fascinating to read the individuals stories and think about the nuances. This really added something new to the story for me. And thats hard to do. I felt compelled to write something because I so enjoyed this book. It might just change the way you think about the civil war, or slavery, or how communities rise and fall, or our nation on a broder level. I'd put this on a list of must-reads for american history. It's very Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Better, in my opinion!