Georgia: Savannah Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The oldest permanent settlement in Georgia and one of the most historic and picturesque cities in the United States. The city’s history is commemorated by many monuments and buildings, indicative of Savannah’s successful efforts to preserve and restore many fine examples of early nineteenth century architecture. Savannah was one of the first planned cities in the United States and was the chief city and capital of the Georgia colony until well after the ending of the Revolutionary War in 1783. Today, the city’s history has made Savannah one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Southeast.

Site Office

The Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

101 East Bay Street

Savannah, GA 31402

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Savannah was founded in 1733 by General James Edward Oglethorpe, a philanthropist and military expert, and nineteen associates, when they received a charter from the British government empowering them to establish the colony of Georgia. The colonists had several reasons for wanting to establish a settlement there. The first was altruistic. Savannah was to be a settlement where the poor and persecuted might find refuge. The other reasons concerned economics and military defense. England hoped to strengthen the colonies, increase trade, and provide a buffer for Carolina against the Spanish, who had settled Florida.

Early Years

During its early years, Savannah became a haven for all kinds of religious groups experiencing persecution, including Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Jews. In 1734, just a few months after Georgia’s colonization, Salzburger Lutherans fled Europe for Savannah, where they established a religious colony at nearby Ebeneezer. In July, 1733, Savannah became the home of the first Reform Jewish congregation in America. Today, its synagogue, Temple Mickve Israel, houses a museum with 1,790 historical books, as well as the oldest torah in America and letters to the congregation from U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

Early development also reflected Savannah’s military importance. A strategic pattern was set when the entire city was walled against the Spanish. Later, fortifications were built to protect the city during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Today, Savannah has many reminders of its military history. Occupying a site fortified since colonial days is Fort Jackson, the oldest remaining brickwork fort in Savannah. Fort Pulaski, designed by Napoleon’s military engineers and built between 1829 and 1847, is a National Monument maintained by the National Park Service. Fort Screven, built in 1875 and used during the Spanish-American War and World War I, is one of the last coastal artillery batteries erected along the East Coast of the United States.

The First Planned City

In the beginning, James Edward Oglethorpe gave order to Savannah’s growth. The city, in fact, can lay claim to be America’s first meticulously planned city. Oglethorpe’s plan included twenty-four public squares designed to be meeting places as well as areas where local citizens could camp out and protect themselves against the Indians. Although some of the squares were built after Oglethorpe’s time, his basic scheme remains in place today, with twenty-one of those public squares still in existence.

Many of these squares have strong associations with some of the most prominent names in U.S. and British history. Calhoun Square, which was laid out at Abercorn Street between Taylor and Gordon Streets, is named for South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun. Chatham Square, created in 1847 at Barnard Street between Taylor and Gordon Streets, was named in 1851 after William Pitt, the earl of Chatham. Lafayette Square, at Abercorn Street between Harris and Charlton Streets, 1837, is named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman who fought for the colonies in the Revolutionary War and who visited Savannah in 1825. Madison Square, between Harris and Charlton Streets, is named in honor of James Madison, fourth president of the United States.

Also in this area is the Trustees Garden, at East Broad near Bay Street, the site of an experimental garden planted by Oglethorpe in 1734. The peach trees planted here in the eighteenth century are believed to have marked the beginning of the Georgia peach industry. On the site is an herb house, from about 1734, that may be Georgia’s oldest building.

Savannah “Firsts”

During the eighteenth century, Savannah established a number of firsts. In 1735, for example, the city exported the first silk from North America. A year later, John Wesley, the third rector of Savannah’s Christ Episcopal Church, published the first hymnal in America and founded the world’s first Sunday school. Later, Wesley returned to England and founded the Methodist Church. Savannah held its first horse race on June 26, 1740, and in 1763 established the colony’s first newspaper, the Georgia Gazette.

Savannah grew rather slowly until after the Spanish left Florida in 1763. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Savannah had a population of between 2,000 and 2,500. During the last fifteen years of the colonial period. Savannah’s export business in rice, naval stores, lumber, and other items grew significantly.

Savannah During the Revolution

Savannah was caught up in the events leading to the independence of the thirteen colonies. The city was the site of the one of the Revolutionary War’s most bloody battles when British troops arrived at Savannah in December, 1778, and captured the city. A combined force of Continental and French troops tried to dislodge the British on October 9, 1779, but the attack was poorly planned and did not succeed. The Continentals and French suffered more than a thousand dead and wounded. Among the dead was the famous Polish cavalry commander Count Casimir Pulaski. Today, a monument in one of Savannah’s public squares honors him.

After the Revolution, Savannah grew and flourished. The city became an important cotton trade center, as cotton became the south’s most important crop; Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 on a plantation near Savannah. The introduction of steam navigation made possible the movement of goods by river to and from Augusta in 1817. Cotton planters in the Georgia interior would ship their crop to Savannah for export, rather than to Charleston as was their practice previously. Savannah’s Cotton Exchange became the center of the world cotton market. During its period of post-Revolution growth, Savannah received a temporary setback in 1796 when two-thirds of the city was destroyed by fire, and another in 1820, when it experienced another fire as well as a yellow fever epidemic.

Historic Buildings

From 1830 until the onset of the Civil War the railroad increased Savannah’s prosperity and created a cotton-merchant elite. Several significant Savannah buildings date from the first half of the nineteenth century. The Customs House, built between 1848 and 1853, remains the most important public building in Savannah. The 1819 William Scarborough House served as the center of festivities surrounding President James Monroe’s visit to the city that year. The Owens-Thomas House, built during 1816-1819 at 126 Abercorn Street, is one of the country’s finest examples of Regency architecture. The Telfair Academy, built in 1820 on Barnard Street, was the mansion of Alexander Telfair, a prominent local citizen. In 1875 it became the property of the Savannah Historical Society, and today is the oldest public art museum in the Southeast.

The Champion-McAlpin-Fowlker House, built in 1844 at 230 Barnard Street, is Savannah’s greatest example of Greek Revival architecture. The Davenport House, built around 1820 by master builder Isiah Davenport on the northwest corner of State and Habersham Streets, is one of the country’s best Georgian houses. The house was marked for demolition in 1955, but the Historic Savannah Foundation restored it and opened it as a museum.

Several of Savannah’s historic churches also were built in this period. The present structure of Christ Episcopal Church, the first church established in the colony in 1733, was erected in 1840. In the 1830’s, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the oldest Catholic church in Georgia, was moved from Liberty Square, its home since the late 1700’s, to 222 East Harris Street, where a larger church was built. The First African Baptist Church at 23 Montgomery Street, completed in 1861, grew out of the first African American congregation in the United States, organized in 1788 at nearby Brampton Plantation. Other churches from this era include the Trinity United Methodist Church at 123 Bernard Street, the oldest Methodist church in Georgia, which was dedicated in 1848, and the Lutheran Church of Ascension at 21 East State Street, which German settlers had organized in 1741. The present church dates from 1844 and was enlarged in the 1870’s.

The Civil War

Savannah’s period of rapid growth ended with the Civil War. Savannah was an important Confederate blockade-running port during the war until its capture by Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s army, at the end of his March to the Sea. Instead of torching Savannah, Sherman decided to give the city as a gift to President Abraham Lincoln. On December 22, 1864, Sherman wrote a telegram to Lincoln from Savannah: “To his excellency President Lincoln, Washington, D.C.: I beg to present to you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

The occupation was peaceful and uneventful, perhaps because Sherman had taken a liking to the charming southern city. In his memoirs Sherman recalled that when he arrived in Savannah it was

an old place, and usually accounted a handsome one. . . . Its houses were brick and frame, with large yards, ornamented with shrubbery and flowers; its streets perfectly regular, crossing each other at right angles; and at many of the intersections were small closures in the nature of parks. These streets and parks were lined with the handsomest shade trees of which I have knowledge, viz, the willow-leaf live-oak, evergreens of exquisite beauty; and these certainly entitle Savannah to its reputation as a handsome town.

Postwar Recovery

After the Civil War, Savannah’s economy weakened, for cotton was no longer king. Gradually, however, Savannah regained its position as an important port on the south Atlantic Coast. It began to take on the look of an industrial city as it spread out in all directions, attracted factories, and exhibited the characteristics of a busy manufacturing center. Today, the city serves the region as both a shipping and a manufacturing base for a wide variety of goods, including steel, chemicals, paper, and tractor trailers.

By the 1920’s, Savannah’s historic architecture had began to deteriorate, a decline that continued into the immediate post-World War II years. In the early 1950’s, several important public buildings were demolished. Some historic preservation work, however, began in the 1940’s when the city restored buildings in the Trustees Garden.

In 1955, residents created the Historic Savannah Foundation and began a project to restore old buildings in the historic center of town. The impetus for the foundation’s creation was the threatened demolition of the Davenport House. Less than twenty-four hours before its scheduled demolition, the home was saved from the wrecker’s ball by the foundation.

During the second half of the twentieth century, more than one thousand buildings were restored in the oldest section of Savannah, and the area became a popular tourist attraction. One of the foundation’s major successes was the 1966 designation of the area from East Broad to West Broad (now Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard), from the River to Gaston Street, as a Landmark Historic District. It is one of the largest historic districts in the country. The foundation also established a revolving fund to buy historic properties, work for their preservation, and sell them to owners who had the desire to restore them. Today, few U.S. cities can claim such a commendable record of historic preservation as can Savannah.

For Further Information
  • Bell, Malcolm. Savannah. Savannah: Historic Savannah Foundation, 1977. Given Savannah’s fascinating history and rich architectural heritage, numerous books have been written about the city. They include several fine illustrated works, such as this one. Includes photographs by Jane Iseley.
  • Mitchell, William Robert, Jr. Classic Savannah. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991. Another fine illustrated work about Savannah. Includes photographs by Van Jones Martin.
  • Sieg, Chan. The Squares of Savannah. Savannah, Ga.: Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce, 1965. A worthwhile specialized book about Savannah.
  • Smith, Derek. Civil War Savannah. Savannah, Ga.: Frederic C. Beil, 1997. Examines the history of Savannah during the Civil War.
Categories: History