Sunday, March 29, 2009

Civil War

This beautiful, historic city has ghosts. Not the ones that the many ghost tours promote to tourists whose heads are popped out of the top of the black tour hearse. These old buildings, if walls could talk, have seen cruelty, arrogant dissent, disgrace, jubilation, disconsolation, fear, and hope that characterize one of the most significant periods in American history. An education in the Civil War is inescapable in Savannah, and her buildings, streets, parks and monuments, once discovered of their roles, appear saturated by their history, dark even in bright daylight. This is what I think of as I walk through Johnson Square...
The first flag of independence raised in the South, by the citizens of Savannah, Ga. November 8th, 1860 / drawn by Henry Cleenewerck, Savannah, Ga. ; lithographed by R.H. Howell, Savannah, Ga.

The Civil War was known by many names, including:
War Between the States
War of the Rebellion
War for Southern Independence
War of Northern Aggression
Second American Revolution
SezessionskriegAmerikanischer B├╝rgerkrieg (German)

Immediately after the war, the following expressions were common in the South:
The War
The Late Unpleasantness
The Lost Cause

New York : Published by Currier & Ives, 1861
I recently read Saving Savannah, by Jacqueline Jones.

Reading the book over the course of about five months, these events lodged in my mind. I think they most epitomize the cruelty, arrogant dissent, disgrace, jubilation, disconsolation, fear, and hope between the 1850s and 1870s in Savannah.

"On New Year's Eve 1862, the Savannah city council held its regular biweekly session and debated routine proposals...Meanwhile, not far away, at their sanctuary on Franklin Square, members of the First African Baptist Church were holding their traditional December 31 "watch-meeting." Outwardly, the service seemed unremarkable...Soon after midnight...the congregants exchanged greetings with one another, then parted. The meeting had proceeded peacefully, undisturbed by city authorities. And yet secretly the members of First African had just celebrated a promise of freedom, the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863...That night the choir offered up familiar hymns; only in their hearts did these "gospel trumpeters" herald "the year of Jubilee," for their music of the soul "was not for earth's ears, but it was heard in heaven." (Saving Savannah, Jacqueline Jones)
New Year's Day festivities included a "celebratory but subdued" dinner held by black clergy from all over the city. About 3,000 blacks joined in New Year's Eve festivities of the Union soldiers near Port Royal SC when an elderly black man and two women spontaneously began to sing My Country, 'Tis of Thee...
Savannah freedman James Simms wrote, of the Emancipation, "Who, then, could estimate or describe with tongue or pen the struggle in their hearts between hope and fear? Who can measure the prayer offered in secret at this period and know its effects?" (Saving Savannah, Jacqueline Jones)

First African Baptist Church, Historic American Buildings Survey,1936

"Many African Americans saw Union troops...as a grand army of liberation. At the sight or sound of the approaching vast procession, thousands of black men, women, and children along the way came out into the open, eager to free themselves as the Yankees passed by. Some emerged from the slave quarters, others from nearby swamps where they had been hiding. To greet the invaders, some dressed in their finest clothes - the women in fancy bonnets, the men wearing a pair of the master's cast-off gloves...For the most part, northern soldiers regarded the slaves with a combination of pity, contempt, and amusement." (Saving Savannah, Jacqueline Jones)
The slaves provided food, laundry and cook services, military intelligence, and muscle to the Union troops. At Ebenezer Creek, near Savannah, a Union general and his troops crossed over a pontoon bridge then pulled it up before the black refugees following them could cross. Some drowned, others were left to die at the hands of Confederate troops.

Family and former slave quarters at The Hermitage plantation, Savannah (Detroit Publishing Co. c1907)

"On the morning of January 10, 1865, five hundred black children, ragged, shoeless, and shivering from the cold, assembled in the sanctuary of Savannah's First African Baptist Church. Spilling out into the street, they marched en masse through Franklin Square to the edge of the city market on Ellis Square, and on to the imposing three-story brick structure on St. Julian Street - their new school, the old Bryan Slave Mart...This "army of colored children...seemed to excite feeling and interest, second only to that of Gen. Sherman's army," in the words of one observer. Then, in the building where traders had bought and sold slaves just a few weeks before, pupils took their seats...surrounded by remnants of the old regime - handcuffs, whips, paddles, sales receipts for slaves - and positioned in front of the auctioneer's desk, now occupied by their teacher." (Saving Savannah, Jacqueline Jones)
These were the bold efforts of the black-led Savannah Education Association (SEA.) By Spring 1866, the organization was unable to pay its teachers without government or private funding and was forced to fold. Public funds for education of former slaves and their children was almost non-existent. The AMA, American Missionary Association, backed by Northern philanthropists, competed to monopolize black education, aimed to shut down the SEA and was satisfied when there was "no opposition" in the field of black education. Print showing President Grant sitting at a large table, with group of men clustered around (identitied below print), signing the 15th amendment granting that the right to vote cannot be denied on basis of race or color. Vignettes along sides and bottom show African Americans in military service, at school, on the farm, and voting.
Stereograph showing a large group of people, seen from behind, sitting on fence rails andstanding, possibly gathered for appearance by a presidential candidate in Savannah, Georgia; also shows a banner for the Republican nominations for president, Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax. Election scene, November 1st 1868 / photographed by J.N. Wilson, No. 143 Broughton Street, Savannah, Ga.

While in Savannah, the Freedom Trail tours offer the history of enslaved and freed African-Americans in Savannah. The Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum chronicles the Civil Rights Movement in Savannah in the 1960s. Some places that saw these events unfold - rallies, sham elections, secret education, slave sales, stocks and chain gangs, parades and fights, trials - keep their secrets from the surface. Some memorialize with plaques and signs. The places we pass by, enjoy or work in every day were built by slaves or freedmen, cradled injustice or hope, were trampled by soldiers, honor Confederate dead, honor enslaved inhabitants of the city: they were used by this Civil War, not just arranged for touring. The City is a living museum.

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