I HEAR a lot about historic preservation here. But rarely do I hear about our original historic preservationist.
Yes, I’m calling him that.
This month marks 150 years since Union Gen. William T. Sherman kept Savannah from becoming another Atlanta or Columbia—burnt shells rebuilt from ashes.
This week in 1864, the Civil War was raging all around our city and Sherman was a-knockin’.
“There was certainly a sense of dread,” says Todd Groce of the Georgia Historical Society. “They knew what was going on.”
Sherman had burned Atlanta to the ground the month before. Tales of his destruction were filtering in from places like Millen and Statesboro. And on December 13th, just 15 miles to our south, Sherman’s army smashed through the Rebel stronghold of Ft. McAllister.
“He was waging war against the minds of the Confederate civilians in order to get them to give up,” Groce says. “So when the army arrives here there is considerable fear.”
The events of that month easily could have turned out differently. The Confederates here led by Gen. William Hardee realized their outnumbered forces had no chance of defending the city. So, on December 19th, they fled.
Savannah Mayor Richard Arnold watched as his city’s Southern protectors took off across a hastily-made pontoon bridge into South Carolina. And so Arnold and the aldermen did the only thing they could.
At four o’clock in the morning on December 21st, they rode out to a place now near Dollhouse Studios in West Savannah, and surrendered the city under a flag of truce.
Sherman rewarded capitulation with quiet.
“If you showed that you were defeated and that you were going to be peaceful and abide by the laws and the Constitution, there was no reason for any destruction,” Groce says.
Sherman’s five weeks here passed relatively uneventfully, a fact that we and an estimated 13 million annual visitors enjoy with gusto. He famously offered our city to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift on December 22nd.
And thanks again to Mayor Arnold’s leadership, Savannah became the first Southern city to rejoin the Union on December 29th.
Arnold urged residents to let “bygones be bygones” and move forward with the city’s business, which is exactly what happened.
“There were a number of very hardcore Confederates who were very resentful,” Groce says. “Of course, the African-Americans citizens saw this as an army of liberation.”
Twenty black leaders met with Sherman at his Madison Square headquarters on January 12th to discuss what to do with thousands of freed slaves. It might have been the first time the U.S. government ever asked African-American people what they wanted.
Sherman responded on January 16th with a directive, later reversed, that gave newly freed slave families each 40 acres of land to call their own—“40 Acres and a Mule.”
I expect some historically-minded people here to mark some of these dates.
Ft. McAllister State Historic Park, Telfair Museums and the Massie Heritage Center all have programs. And GHS will dedicate two historic markers.
“This is really an exciting time to be studying this conflict,” Groce says. “We can talk about the war in a way that we couldn’t during the centennial.”
But I doubt many of them will repeat my phrase about Sherman – our original historic preservationist. After all, the general’s motives were military, not aesthetic.
And other people—including those mentioned here—also deserve recognition for what didn’t happen that month.
Still I believe the events of December 1864 left us a historic city that citizens a century later could save again.
Just look around. Much of our modern prosperity flows from history left standing by a man with plenty of matches to light.