The History of Savannah

Savannah Cotton Exchange

Is there a city in America that has been more blessed throughout history than Savannah, Georgia?

Or more cursed?

The first U.S. city midwived by urban planning also is the birthplace of American higher education and the industrial movement, not to mention the Girl Scouts. Savannah’s incomparable Old South beauty has gained the favor of presidents, generals and artists. Its acquired lore is the equal of any city’s.

But it also has been ravaged by war, epidemic and catastrophic fires.

Still, Savannah has stood up to those heartbreaks, rebuilt when necessary, and today is rapidly ascending the list of cities Americans want to visit. More than 12.1 million tourists made Savannah a travel destination in 2011 after 11.4 million the year before. In June 2012, U.S. News and World Report rated Savannah No. 3 on its “Best Affordable U.S. Destinations” list.

A Vision, an Experiment and Ultimately a Failure

The bluff overlooking the Savannah River is, as inscribed on a stone memorial there, “where the Colony of Georgia was founded, February 12, 1733, by General James Edward Oglethorpe.”

Oglethorpe and 114 colonists had sailed from England aboard the Anne. Most of the colonists were debtors who entered indentured servitude or farmed imperial crops to escape prison in England. The colony would serve the dual purpose of strategically buffering the prosperous Carolinas from England’s enemies to the south and west, the Spanish and French.

Savannah Historic District StatueOglethorpe immediately formed an alliance and friendship with Chief Tomochichi and the Yamacraw tribe that welcomed him—the original example of why Savannah today is known as “Hostess City of the South.”

Oglethorpe’s vision of a utopian community resulted in the outlawing of rum and African slaves. It took shape in the construction of a city divided in grids and featuring 24 beautified public squares. All but three original squares remain intact. Other cities have since followed the “Oglethorpe Plan.”

Eventually hard times hit. Savannah’s population grew but the experiment ended. Outsiders once barred from the colony were overrunning the colonists. The Crown took control. Oglethorpe went back to England. As cotton replaced silk and rice as the main economic driver, the ban on slavery was lifted.

Control of Savannah changed sides twice in the Revolutionary War before the British abandoned it near the end of the war. The Second Battle of Savannah in 1779, a failed attempt with the French to recapture city from the British, was among the bloodiest setbacks for the American side in the war.

First in Education, First in Cotton

Two events distinguished Savannah soon after the war.

Savannah Historic DistrictIn 1785, the University of Georgia, later opened in Athens, was chartered in Savannah. Predated only by Harvard University (1650) and the College of William & Mary (1693), the University of Georgia charter was the first granted by a state. The school began admitting students in 1801.

And in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin just outside Savannah. Whitney’s revolutionary device made the mass production of cotton possible. Soon Savannah was almost unrivaled in the cotton industry and its already prosperous seaport was dominant. Eventually Savannah traders set world cotton prices. The Savannah Cotton Exchange building became the capitol building of cotton. Opened in 1887, the building still stands—just blocks from The Studio Homes at Ellis Square—and now is home of another Savannah institution, the oldest Masonic Lodge in America, founded by Oglethorpe in 1734.

A Little Too Much Editorializing?

Savannah prospered despite disasters. A Yellow Fever outbreak killed 666 residents in 1820. A second outbreak in 1854 took 1,040 lives, and a third, 22 years later, depleted Savannah’s population by 20 percent—1,066 of 28,000 residents died, and another 5,000 fled.

Disease wasn’t the only scourge of early Savannah. Fires devastated the city in 1796 and 1820. In 1820, the year of fire and fever, a bitter, failed newspaper editor named James M. Harney wrote this poem as a parting shot on his way out of town:

Savannah Historic District Monument“I leave you, Savannah, a curse that is far worst of all curses—to remain as you are!”

The curse now resides among other possible explanations for Savannah’s emergent reputation as one of the most haunted cities in America. Ghosts of leading figures from the Colonial and early Industrial eras are said to haunt Savannah to this day. So are ghosts of the sailors and sinners who frequented the colorful waterfront in the days of piracy.

Ironically, Savannah was spared what might have been the biggest disaster of all. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union troops reached Savannah in December 1864 in their Civil War-changing “March to the Sea.” They had burned down Atlanta and other cities, but because Rebel troops had fled and the city surrendered, the general—supposedly taken by its beauty—occupied Savannah intact. The Yankees even allowed churches to open for Christmas worship.

George Washington was similarly moved by Savannah on a presidential visit in 1791. In gratitude, he sent the city a gift of two cannons, now known as Washington’s Guns, captured from the British at Yorktown in 1781. The bronze guns are on display to this day—again, mere blocks from The Studio Homes at Ellis Square.

A New Vision, a New Approach, and Ultimately a Success

Savannah Historic District BridgeSmaller fires notwithstanding, the 20th century was kinder to Savannah than its predecessor. Savannah native Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts in 1912. The seaport became a national leader in the building of transport ships during World War II. And a decade later, city figures began to play key roles in the advancement of civil rights.

Savannah rebuilt, reinvested and renovated. It has capitalized like few other American cities on its positives—and even what some might consider its negatives. TV super chef Paula Deen proudly promotes her Savannah roots (and restaurants) and movies such as Forrest Gump have been set in Savannah. But sensationalist TV series like Ghost Adventures and Southern Haunts were taped there, too.

Savannah also can attribute some of its growing popularity to capitalizing on the latest technology. It was one of the first cities to master marketing through Facebook and other social media. Not coincidentally, the average age of visitors is lowering. Smaller percentages are on fixed incomes. More have spending power.

Savannah Historic District FountainAs The Studio Homes at Ellis Square guests continue to discover, Savannah is a city ever-changing yet ever-charming. If history is a predictor of the future, as some folks say, then count on Savannah to continue its almost 300 years of resourcefulness, resiliency and responsiveness to adversity. Count on Savannah, in the words of James N. Harney, to remain as you are.

If that’s someone’s idea of a curse, then every city should be so cursed.