Founded in 1733 by colonists led by James Edward Oglethorpe, Savannah is the oldest city in Georgia and one of the outstanding examples of eighteenth-century town planning in North America.
Colonial and Revolutionary Eras
Savannah was, by
Oglethorpe and the Georgia Trustees originally conceived Savannah, and the new colony, as a philanthropic endeavor. It was the Trustees' intention to provide a refuge for English debtors who could establish the basis for an agrarian class of small, yeoman farmers working in concert with a business and mercantile class in Savannah, thus providing a commercial outpost to the neighboring colony of South Carolina.
The early history of Savannah is remarkable for the sheer diversity of its people. Religious observance played an important role in the early life of Savannah. In addition to its founding English settlers, Jews arrived from London in the summer of 1733; they later founded the Congregation Mickve Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the South. In the spring of 1734 came Evangelical Lutherans from Salzburg, known as Salzburgers, who settled on the Savannah River at a town they named Ebenezer. Scottish Highlanders and German Moravians came in 1736, followed by Dutch, Welsh, and Irish settlers. John Wesley and Charles Wesley conducted Anglican services. In 1737 the Reverend George Whitefield arrived and soon after founded Bethesda, colonial America's first orphanage.
Savannah citizens played prominent roles in the cause of American independence, although Georgia, as a general rule,
British forces captured Savannah in 1778 and reinstalled James Wright as colonial governor of Georgia. In October 1779 a combined force of Americans and Frenchmen, commanded by General Benjamin Lincoln and Count Charles Henri d'Estaing, attempted to retake Savannah from its British occupiers. The allied army sustained heavy casualties and were repulsed on the outskirts of Savannah by British defenders led by Colonel John Maitland and the Seventy-first Highlanders. From this encounter, regarded as one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution (1775-83), emerged two of Savannah's most notable military heroes, Sergeant William Jasper and Count Casimir Pulaski, both of whom were killed during the unsuccessful assault on the British lines.
The S.S. Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Europe, sailed from Savannah in May 1819, arriving at Liverpool in twenty-nine days. In 1833 the Central of Georgia Railway (originally the Central Railroad and Canal Company of Georgia), in which the city of Savannah was the largest stockholder, received its charter from the Georgia legislature. This line, from Savannah to Macon, was completed in 1843, allowing more cotton to be shipped from the interior of the state to the coast.
Savannah, like many coastal cities in the nineteenth century, suffered its share of cataclysmic disasters associated with fire, water, and disease.
The census of 1860 certified Savannah as Georgia's largest city (a distinction it had held since the birth of the colony), with 14,580 free inhabitants, including 705 free blacks, in addition to 7,712 slaves. By the time of the Civil War, Savannah's free black population was among the most entrepreneurial in the South, with established interests in small businesses, agriculture, land ownership and, in some cases, even slave ownership. By this time Savannah was regarded as one of the most beautiful and tranquil cities in America, particularly after Forsyth Park was laid out in 1851.
Civil War and Reconstruction
Fort Pulaski, on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River, was constructed between 1829 and 1847
Savannah fell to Union general William T. Sherman at the end of his army's march to the sea from Atlanta. On December 22, 1864, Sherman transmitted his famous telegram to U.S. president Abraham Lincoln in which he presented "as a Christmas gift, the City of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition; and also about 25,000 bales of cotton."
After being spared destruction from Sherman's forces, Savannah struggled through the chaotic years of Reconstruction. The city's population swelled with the influx of thousands of freed slaves following the Civil War. The majority of Savannah's new black citizens lived in squalid conditions and were subjected to exorbitant rents and prices for goods by resentful whites. Two separate social cultures evolved for blacks and whites, and distinct racial lines were drawn, particularly in education. Teachers from the North came to Savannah to provide education for blacks, but progress was slow; it was not until 1878 that a public school for blacks was established. In 1890 Georgia's first public institution for higher learning for blacks, Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, was established in the city. In 1936 the school became Georgia State College, then Savannah State College in 1950, and Savannah State University in 1996.
In the 1920s the southern cotton industry was devastated by the boll weevil, and Savannah port activities turned to new industries to fill the void.
The development of Hunter Army Airfield within the city, along with the sprawling training base at nearby Fort Stewart, enhanced Savannah's growing reputation as a military town. These bases, with the shipping facilities of the port, enabled Savannah to play an important logistical role in the successful projection of U.S. military power during the Persian Gulf War (1990-91).
In the 1950s and 1960s Savannah played a central role in the civil rights movement. The Savannah effort developed around a strategy of nonviolent protest implemented by local African American citizens. Ralph Mark Gilbert, a leader in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1940s and 1950s, is regarded as the father of the Savannah civil rights campaign. Gilbert launched a massive voter-registration drive for Savannah's black residents and led the way in 1947 for the integration of local law enforcement—the Savannah police department was one of the first in the Deep South to hire African American officers. Another important Savannah civil rights leader was W. W. Law, a longtime activist and visionary who headed the local NAACP branch. The Savannah civil rights effort during this period was a training ground for key NAACP leaders, including Hosea Williams, Earl T. Shinhoster, Mercedes Arnold, and Carolyn Q. Coleman.
The expansion of streetcar suburbs south of Victory Drive after World War I (1917-18) signaled Savannah's first significant growth outward from the city's historic and Victorian districts. By the early 1960s the city had attained most of its present area of sixty-five square miles with the development of the suburban midtown and southside commercial and residential sections—areas that remain under development in the twenty-first century.
According to the 2010 U.S. census, Savannah, the seat of government of Chatham County, has a population of 136,286, with 347,611 persons in a three-county metropolitan area (Bryan, Chatham, and Effingham counties). The
Savannah continues to be a national leader in the processing of paper pulp and related products through International Paper Corporation (formerly Union Camp) and is also the home of Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, one of the world's leading manufacturers of corporate aircraft. Tourism has become the city's leading industry.
During the twentieth century, several new colleges opened their doors in Savannah. In 1929 the Opportunity School, known
Historic Preservation and Tourism
Savannah, not surprisingly, is uniquely in touch with its extensive, varied history and has long been a center of historical research and preservation. Toward this end, in December 1839 the Georgia legislature chartered the Georgia Historical Society, which was founded earlier that year by three Savannah residents. The society has been headquartered in Hodgson Hall, located at the northwest corner of Forsyth Park, since 1875.
Present-day visitors enjoy Savannah's elegant architecture and historic ironwork featured in such structures as the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America; the Telfair Museum of Arts, one of the South's first public museums; the First African Baptist Church, one of the oldest black Baptist congregations in the United States; Congregation Mickve Israel, the third oldest synagogue in America; and the Central of Georgia Railway roundhouse complex, the oldest standing antebellum rail facility in America.
Other significant structures include the Richardson-Owens-Thomas House, which, with the Telfair Academy, is a prime example of Regency architecture attributed to the English designer William Jay from the
Another interesting site for visitors is the Bamboo Farm and Coastal Gardens, which features more than 140 varieties of bamboo. Operated by the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the center conducts research, primarily on ornamentals and turf, and provides education for the public.
Patrick Allen, ed., Literary Savannah (Athens, Ga.: Hill Street Press, 1998).
Walter J. Fraser Jr., Savannah in the Old South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003).
Whittington B. Johnson, Black Savannah, 1788-1864 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996).
Jacqueline Jones, Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2008).
Mills B. Lane, Savannah Revisited: History and Architecture, 5th ed. (Savannah, Ga.: Beehive Press, 2001).
Alexander A. Lawrence, A Present for Mr. Lincoln: The Story of Savannah from Secession to Sherman (Macon, Ga.: Ardivan Press, 1961).
Preston Russell and Barbara Hines, Savannah: A History of Her People since 1733 (Savannah, Ga.: Frederic C. Beil, 1992).
Derek Smith, Civil War Savannah (Savannah, Ga.: Frederic C. Beil, 1997).
Buddy Sullivan, Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.