Part Three: Wealth and Prosperity – History of Savannah, GA

Wealth and the Antebellum Period

Mercer Williams HouseThe nineteenth century arrived with grandeur upon Savannah. Cotton exports left the international shipping port en masse, returning only scads of wealth and prosperity to overzealous plantation owners. Capital could only be limited by the efficacy of transportation throughout Georgia, which gave way to the development of the Central of Georgia Railway, running from its chief investor, Savannah, through the vast cotton fields of the upland, and into Macon.

Nothing could stop Savannah from becoming the eighteenth largest city in America by 1820, just short of a century since its colonization. Savannah suffered two devastating fires in 1796 and 1820, destroying the commercial district, which made up nearly half of the city. Mid-century saw a major hurricane,damaging the shipping port and flooding the local rice and cotton plantations. Yellow fever also ran rampant in Savannah, killing 700 in 1820 and over 1,000 in 1854.

Savannah persevered, however, managing to maintain its rank as Georgia’s largest city with nearly 15,000 citizens. Over 7,500 made up the slave population, at the time, but were not considered part of the general population. The city did have a small free black population, averaging about 700 persons. Interestingly, many of the free blacks invested in Savannah small businesses, agriculture, and land ownership, while a few even owned slaves.

During the years leading up to the Civil War, Savannah was already considered one of America’s most beautiful and peaceful cities. The wealth from the lucrative cotton trade was evident in the city’s homes, businesses, and parks. The lush Forsyth park was added in 1851. Its elaborate fountain, now popular with locals and tourists alike, was added later, in 1858.

The Civil War Era

Before the first shots of the Civil War, Confederates overtook Savannah’s only fortification, Fort Pulaski, then considered impervious, at the mouth of the Savannah River. Like much of American technology, vast improvements had been made in the artillery used to conduct siege warfare which allowed the Union to overtake Fort Pulaski in 1862. Savannah was blockaded from its seaward side, cutting off one of the last remaining ports for the Confederates, and creating unfavorable conditions for the citizens within.

Union General William Sherman held Savannah throughout the extent of the Civil War. Receiving a personal invite from Mr. Charles Green, General Sherman utilized the elaborate Green-Meldrim House on Madison Square (now St. John’s Episcopal Church) as his headquarters. It was here that the general penned his famous letter to President Lincoln: I beg to present you, as a Christmas-gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.

Population Reconstruction

The war left Savannah structurally unharmed, but population surged as freed slaves began inhabiting the city, often in the squalid conditions imposed upon them. Cultural clashes inevitably ensued between the blacks and whites, particularly where education was concerned. As Savannah rebuilt its commercial prosperity, the blacks progressively gained ground for education. 1890 saw the first school for blacks established, Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth (now Savannah State University). By the turn of the century, Savannah was once again the leading seaport on the Atlantic coast, while blacks throughout began pushing for equal rights.

Remember to come back to learn about the modern history in part four of this series! Click here is you missed part 1 or part 2 of the History of Savannah, GA.

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