Savannah is a city whose unique personality springs from both idealistic and opportunistic roots in England. These paths of loss and liberation give the town its shape, its color…and its fair share of ghosts.The city is named for the Savannah River, which got its name from an immigrant band of Shawnee Indians known as the Savana, who ultimatley settled near what is now Augusta. Savannah is aptly nicknamed "Hostess City of the South" and the residents are proud of their warm and friendly attitudes.
James Edward Oglethorpe is noted for founding Savannah, and thereby, the Colony of Georgia in 1733.
Before this, however, he briefly attended Corpus Christi College, served in the British military, and worked as an elected member of English Parliament. It is during this time that Oglethorpe became disillusioned by the number of hard working citizens being imprisoned for bankruptcy and debt. Even more discouraging were the inhumane living conditions of the prisoners. By exposing this condition, Oglethorpe gained recognition as a humanitarian. He continued these reform efforts by pushing to relocate the poor to America. Ultimately, none of the jailed poor were chosen for early colonization, but these considerate efforts do reveal that Oglethorpe aspired to accomplish more than just plant another flag in the ground for his mother country.
By 1732, King George II was ready to grant the original charter for Georgia to a group of twenty-one Trustees, many of whom were friends of Oglethorpe’s, now ready to begin a new life in a New World. Furthermore, the colony would become a home for persecuted Protestants, as well as provide a buffer between Carolina and the Spanish in Florida. The Charter was licensed for twenty one years; after that time, Georgia would become a Royal Colony. Until then, the Trustees would administer the colony, unsalaried and in no personal possession of land.
Yet Savannah was hardly unoccupied at the time of its founding. Tomochichi, a Native American, and his accompanying tribe of Yamacraws also called the area home, prior to the arrival of the galley ship Anne and its thirty-five families. Locating high ground, Oglethorpe and his settlers began construction of the 13th colony in accordance with the charter.
Families were each given a town lot around one of the four initial squares, a garden area, and fifty acres of land to farm. (England would receive goods quid pro quo.) Mary Musgrove, a Creek, and her English husband John, were already in the area as well, working as traders. Befriending the two enabled the settlers to better communicate with Tomochichi and the Indian tribes. A useful assortment of trade’s people filled out the city. Carpenters, lawyers, tailors, an apothecary, an engineer, a wheelwright, five farmers, cloth workers, a stocking-maker, merchants, a baker, a gardener, and servants all planted roots in the new colony.
Six months after the English settlers arrived, Portuguese landed at the new port. William Cox, the colonists' only doctor, was also among them. Despite the Trustees instruction to turn Jews away, Oglethorpe allowed for them. (Savannah is now the home to the third oldest Jewish congregation in the United States.) German Protestants followed in 1734, and Moravian pacifists in 1736. Evangelists John and Charles Wesley also arrived that year, but the two of them eventually left disappointed. A company of Scots Highlanders also settled at what is now Darien to provide a further buffer against the Spanish.
Oglethorpe finally eradicated the Spanish threat in the Battle of Bloody Marsh and returned to England in 1743. (Today his statue in Chippewa Square faces south, keeping watch on the Spanish threat.) By the time the Trustees relinquished management of the colony in 1753, the slavery ban had been overturned and slaves accounted for one-third of the colony's population. Silk production waned, and the colony struggled to support itself. While rice production helped stimulate the economy, the dream of a perfect world gave way to reality.
Even before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, many Savannahians resisted British authority. The corner of Bull and Broughton, where tourists can stand today, was the site of Tondee’s tavern, a focal point of rebellion. Declaration of Independence signee Button Gwinnett, buried today in the Colonial cemetery, became governor. This was a formal sign that Georgia would stand against the English rule, although it would take many years—and many more lives lost--before Savannah realized full independence.
In fact, Savannah is the site of the second bloodiest battle of the American Revolution. This battle, known as The Siege of Savannah, took place October 9, 1779. Fighting alongside the French, Americans lost more lives this day than at Bunker Hill. Sergeant William Jasper died trying to save his unit’s battle flag. Casimir Pulaski, a Polish patriot, also lost his life fighting for the Patriots’ cause. Hundreds of French and American soldiers, many of them black troops from the French reserve, were buried en masse in the area where the Savannah Visitor’s Center now operates. Despite ongoing efforts by men like Colonel Francis Marion, Savannah was occupied by the British until General “Mad Anthony” Wayne drove them out in 1782.
Exemplifying the adage that necessity is the mother of invention, Eli Whitney introduced his cotton gin, returning a means of wealth to the area. Classical Revival architecture replaced Colonial, and architect William Jay erected stunningly elegant mansions. The new century also saw the SS Savannah become the first steamer to cross the Atlantic. With King Cotton, the slave trade, and tobacco, prosperity increased until the Civil War.
On January 3, 1861, in the first aggressive act of the war, 134 members of three militia units, the Chatham Artillery, the Oglethorpe Light Infantry and the Savannah Volunteer Guards seized Fort Pulaski. However, within 30 hours, Fort Pulaski’s “impenetrable” walls were cracked, dangerously exposing large amounts of gun powder. Not wanting to see his men wiped out entirely, Colonel Charles Olmstead quickly surrendered to the Union Navy.
In December of 1864, many fled Savannah fearing the advance of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman’s triumphant telegraph to President Lincoln has become well known in the south: “I beg to present you as a Christmas Gift, the City of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition; and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”
Science and technology would rapidly change the face of war—and life-- in the coming century. Fortunately, Savannah’s history remains preserved at nearly every square, river, and cemetery. Nothing haunts a city like its past.