10 History Lessons from Savannah Georgia

This past weekend I was able to visit Savannah, Georgia for the first time. I was enamored by all the history around me and thoughts of all the take aways that I was immersed in to bring back to my students to help understand all aspects of history as it relates to this town.

1. Ships of the Sea – Since Savannah is located along the river and includes a major global portal across centuries, the Ships of the Sea Museum exhibits ship models, paintings and maritime antiques, principally from the great Era of Atlantic trade during the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, founded in 1966, exhibits ship models, paintings and maritime antiques, principally from the great era of Atlantic trade and travel between England and America during the 18th and 19th centuries.The Museum features nine galleries of ship models, maritime paintings and artifacts.The vast majority of ship models were commissioned by the Museum to interpret the rich story of Savannah’s maritime history.The collection of models includes, colonial vessels, ironclads, ocean-going steamers, and modern navy ships. The models have been strenuously researched and intricately detailed.

Designed in 1819 by English architect William Jay, the Willian Scarbrough House is one of the earliest examples of domestic Greek Revival architecture in the South. Now home to the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum.

2. Slavery – The arrival of the slave ship Wanderer to the Georgia coast in 1859, involved the illegal capture and transport of Africans, a conspiracy, the hierarchy of both Savannah society and the United States government, over 40 years of failed U.S. policies, and a capital punishment trial. 

The Ships of the Sea Museum offers an online exhibit the chronicle of the Wanderer is explored, along with the historic context within which this intriguing story unfolded. The history of the slave trade is examined along with U.S. legislation regarding slavery, such as the abolition of the Slave Trade Law, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the influence of John Brown’s abolitionist actions and the historic Dred Scott Supreme Court decision.  

3. Sugar – “A most precious product, very necessary for the use and health of mankind” 

– William of Tyre, 12th century

The sweet culinary habits wealthy Savannahians is exhibited at the Jepson Center Telfair Museum dedicated to the consumption of sugar in the port city. This unique display gives visitors a glimpse into humans’ connection to sugar and its complicated history, dependent on slavery, and the city’s socio-economics. Porcelain and silver were shipped from Europe and beyond into the Port of Savannah, providing the elite of this city with purchasing options far surpassing those of any inland towns of the 19th century.

4. Revolutionary War – The siege of Savannah, the second deadliest battle of the Revolutionary War (1775-83), took place in the fall of 1779. It was the most serious military confrontation in Georgia between British and Continental (American revolutionary) troops, as the Americans, with help from French forces, tried unsuccessfully to liberate the city from its yearlong occupation by the British.

5. Yellow Fever – Savannah’s first major yellow fever epidemic occurred in 1820 when 666 people died. In the 1854 epidemic, 1,040 people died. Locals who could afford to leave fled the city and businesses shut down.

6. Civil War – Hundreds of antebellum houses, buildings and churches abound with Civil War history in this city. The Savannah area has three historic forts once occupied by Confederate and Union forces, and miles of coastal channels where gunboats and ironclads sailed and slithered through the marshes, inlets and backwaters of historic Chatham County.

The Civil War is more than what happened on the killing fields of battle. The old city is woven with the stories of generals, planters and brokers, enslaved (and later free) West Africans who lived in the historic lanes. And there are the families — regardless of color or nationality — Savannah’s diverse multicultural population is another side to Civil War history in Savannah that is more than worth the time to explore.

Civil War Savannah is also a place where Union General Sherman, and 60,000 Union troops entered in December of 1864.

Telfair Museum

7. The 3rd Oldest Art Museum – Designed for Alexander Telfair, the Telfair mansion was constructed in 1819 on the site of the former colonial Government House, the official residence of Royal Governor James Wright. Alexander commissioned William Jay, a young English architect, to design his new home. Jay had recently arrived in Savannah from England to oversee the construction of the residence of Richard Richardson (now Telfair Museums’ Owens–Thomas House & Slave Quarters).

In 1875, Alexander’s sister Mary – heir to the family fortune and last to bear the Telfair name – bequeathed the house and its furnishings to the Georgia Historical Society to be opened as a museum. The Society hired German-born artist Carl Brandt to create the new institution. Working with New York-based architect Detlef Lienau and Savannah-based architect Augustus Schwab, Brandt remodeled the old Telfair home and constructed an addition to house a new collection of art. The museum opened to the public in 1886, making it the oldest public art museum in the South and the first museum in the United States founded by a woman.

In 1906, Telfair Museums’ Board of Trustees asked American artist Gari Melchers to serve as the museum’s fine arts advisor and to make purchases on its behalf. During his tenure from 1906 to 1916, he facilitated the purchase of many of the best-known works in the permanent collection thanks to his many connections to the international art world.

Today, Mary Telfair’s unique gift to the city of Savannah has grown into an institution comprising three architecturally significant buildings, over 6,300 works of art, and a proud history of educational programming and exciting exhibitions.

8. Ghosts & Hauntings – Savannah is widely known as the most haunted city in America. Walk into any historic building or cemetery in Savannah and you may catch sight of ghostly presences surrounding you. Some say that the city was built on the graves of indigenous people and then over time built on top of cemeteries of slaves and those who died during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. In fact, unbeknownst to us, we stayed at the Marshall House one of the top haunted hotels in the U.S. Since 1851, this hotel has been used as a hospital three times – once for Union soldiers and twice for 19th century Yellow Fever epidemics.

Civil Rights Marker

9. Civil Rights –  On March 16, 1960, black students led by the NAACP Youth Council staged sit-ins at white-only lunch counters in eight downtown stores. Three students, Carolyn Quilloin, Ernest Robinson, and Joan Tyson, were arrested in the Azalea Room here at Levy’s Department Store (now SCAD’s Jen Library). In response, African-American leaders W.W. Law, Hosea Williams, and Eugene Gadsden organized a nearly complete boycott of city businesses and led voter registration drives that helped elect a moderate city government led by Mayor Malcolm Maclean. Sit-ins and the boycott continued until October 1961, when Savannah repealed its ordinance requiring segregated lunch counters. The boycott continued until all facilities were desegregated in October 1963, eight months before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. declared Savannah the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The Davenport House presents the story and lifestyle of a young builder, Isaiah Davenport, and his household in the early 19th century.

10. Mythology of Moonlight & Magnolias – There are many historic mansions built in 1820s in Savannah. Whereas, when these museums opened in the 1950s, there was no mention of the people enslaved on the property. Like most house museums, the focus used to be on the luxury and aesthetic appeal of the lifestyles of the wealthy, centering and mythology of moonlights and magnolias. It has taken decades of labor, research, and collaboration to construct an honest interpretation of the history of this period. Many museums continue to hone their presentation as facts present themselves. Savannah’s historic homes can offer a closer look at the lives of its (mostly white and wealthy) residents in times past, an appreciation of the architecture and furnishings of a particular period.

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