I'VE NEVER been to the North Pole, but I dare say that Savannah at Christmastime is most magical.
The lights twinkling in the graceful arms of the moss-sleeved oaks, the super-extra Southern cheeriness in everyone’s step, how it’s just nippy enough to break out the good boots but no one’s going to lose any fingers to frostbite. Plus, “Jingle Bells” was actually composed here!
If you’ve ever stood in the wintry mid-morning glimmer, it’s easy to reckon why General Sherman decided to leave the beautiful houses and lovely squares intact instead of torching it all to trash like he did in Atlanta and the rest of the unfortunate towns on his March to the Sea, offering the city up like a shimmering jewel to President Abraham Lincoln.
I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton, he famously dispatched to Washington on Dec. 22, 1864.
OK, so it was probably the piles of weapons and white gold and not the enchanting yuletide ambience that gained Sherman’s sympathy. Still, it must have seemed like a Christmas miracle to the people of Savannah subsisting on dried fish and cowering under the Confederate blockade. Mercy was surely received in part to then Mayor Richard D. Arnold, who begged the pyromaniacal Union general not to pillage the defenseless city. (The Confederate Army, knowing they were beat, cut out the night before.)
But there was no greater gift given that December than freedom. As the Union Army decimated Middle Georgia on its way east, it liberated more than 70,000 slaves per the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and according to the U.S. Census, 7,587 people in Savannah and the surrounding areas were released from bondage when the city surrendered.
“They thought General Sherman was Moses and talked about the Union soldiers like they were angels from heaven,” says military historian Eric Saul, citing interviews with former slaves recorded in the 1930s. “It was a transcendent moment.”
While many African American communities commemorate the end of slavery with Juneteenth celebrations, Gullah Geechee storyteller and tour guide Sistah Patt Gunn insists that Dec. 21 is the day to rejoice locally.
“From the minute Sherman set foot in Savannah, we were free,” declares Sistah Patt, who also founded The Center for Jubilee, Reconciliation & Healing to pay homage to those freed and those who supported the cause.
The Center is once again hosting its annual Jubilee Freedom Day, with slave narratives reenacted at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum followed by a joyful feast of “soups, hot wata’ cornbreads, ol’ fashioned pound cakes n’ more” at the Mt. Zion Greater Faith Church in West Savannah. Sistah Patt and the Saltwata Players performance troupe will sing the songs of freedom, the same ones sung by those liberated 153 Christmases ago.
She and Saul, who is the former curator of the Presidio Army Museum in San Francisco and possesses one of the largest photograph collections of African American soldiers in the country, met four years ago when he came to town with his wife, Dr. Amy Fiske, a professor at West Virginia University and a fourth generation descendant of Gen. Henry Slocum, Sherman’s second-in-command and the author of Special Field Order No. 15—better known as “Forty Acres and A Mule.”
“It was the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and we decided to follow Sherman’s March to the Sea to honor Amy’s abolitionist ancestor,” recalls Saul. “We ended up meeting Patt and spending Christmas with her family, which was revelatory.”
The couple has spent the holiday season in Savannah ever since, soaking up the camellia-steeped charm. They have also been collaborating with Sistah Patt on a traveling exhibit, “The American Abolitionists: The Conscience of a Nation,” a poignant collection of portraits depicting thousands of brave activists—both black and white—who fought for emancipation, including author and former slave Frederick Douglass, Unitarian clergyman Adin Ballou and suffragette Susan B. Anthony. (An abridged version of the exhibit could be glimpsed at Sulfur Studios where Dr. Fiske gave a talk on Tuesday night and will return in full to the Beach Institute this February.)
“The abolitionist movement was the first civil rights movement in this nation,” point out Sistah Patt. “We’re excited to tell the story.”
Saul acknowledges the Union’s broken promises—not a single acre nor mule ever materialized, did it?—and let’s not romanticize Sherman’s treacherous trek, during which on several occasions pontoon bridges were purposely pulled up to strand the increasing number of freed slaves who joined the soldiers on their march, most tragically at Ebezener Creek, where hundreds of men, women and children perished in the swollen waters.
Yet Savannah clearly brought out a charitable spirit from Ol’ Devil Sherman, who sent those appropriated bales of cotton north to Boston and Philadelphia in exchange for food and dry goods for the people of Savannah, and the Union troops delivered care packages via mules with twigs tied to their heads to mimic Santa’s reindeer. At his interim headquarters at the Green-Meldrim House, the general welcomed African American clergy, including the Rev. Garrison Frazier, who characterized the gruff general as “a friend and gentleman.”
Saul describes the Yankees’ Savannah stay as “the most benevolent occupation by Union Army of the entire war,” and although Georgia ended up being the last state to rejoin the Union, he contends that the city pledged back its allegiance before the war was even over.
“It’s a great Christmas story,” says the historian. “It’s about reconciliation, reunion and liberation and should be celebrated.”
As I kicked down the cobblestones and reveled in the reds and pinks of the camellias this week, I had a renewed awareness of the tortured souls who had toiled to build the fancy corniches and dig the gardens, and how for them, saving Savannah for Christmas meant the truest kind of deliverance.
I also mulled over the current divisions among us, and how difficult it seems to reconcile and reunite. Yet surrounded by the exquisite, enduring beauty of our city, I sensed possibility in the crisp, morning air, one that turns violence to benevolence, inspires neighbors to become allies, and allows for the kind of peace that lasts.
Wishing you and yours the most magical of holidays, and let’s keep singing the songs of freedom.