The Crucible of Reconstruction

How slavery, the Civil War and emancipation shaped life in Savannah.

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Reviewed by Philip Dray
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page BW02


The City and the Civil War

By Jacqueline Jones

Knopf. 510 pp. $30

"Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and others lived during the Reconstruction period," the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar once observed. He might have been describing Jacqueline Jones's account of 19th-century Savannah, Ga., where men and women both famous and obscure transformed a resilient Southern city in the years surrounding the Civil War.

Jones introduces the voices of numerous slaves, citizens and soldiers as she explores a trove of original sources to create a people's history of emancipation and the vast social changes it wrought. The author, a former winner of the Bancroft Prize, must work at times to stage-manage so wide a range of personages. But grounding her effort is the book's real character -- the city of Savannah itself, a lush, semi-tropical port town known for its mix of slaves, free blacks, plantation gentry and Irish immigrants; its seasonal malarial outbreaks; its splendid mansions and gardens; a waterfront humming with the loading of rice and cotton; and distressing extremes of wealth and poverty.

Steeped in Southern custom, Savannah grew anxious at abolition's early tremors. It cheered secession and with patriotic fervor gave its sons to war. After the city was conquered by Union forces in late 1864 -- "I beg to present you as a Christmas-gift the city of Savannah," Gen. William T. Sherman famously telegraphed President Lincoln -- the jubilee of emancipation and the bitterness of defeat gave way to a protracted struggle, as black and white Savannahians adjusted to a world fundamentally changed. Were the South's 4 million freed slaves to have land? Would the thousands of black men who had served the Union under arms -- some of whom, to the discomfort of native whites, now patrolled Savannah's streets -- receive equal rights? And what of the emerging black politicians so integral to the state constitutional conventions mandated by Congress, who -- despite their educational disadvantages and in the face of cruel white caricature -- often proved adept at legislative deliberation and lawmaking?

"The white race had never understood or known us perfectly; because we have always dissimulated," state legislator James Simms, an ex-slave, explained at a biracial Republican rally in postwar Savannah. But now, "we want it to be understood . . . we want no bigoted Mayor and no brutal policemen; but we mean to have black aldermen and white aldermen, black policemen and white policemen, and we will mix the colors up like 'rum and [mo]lasses.' "

Simms's hopes for racial equality, though girded by Congressional acts and Constitutional amendments, proved premature. Black leaders like Tunis G. Campbell, who established two "homelands" for freed slaves, and the militant lawyer Aaron Bradley, who organized blacks to fight the Ku Klux Klan, showed a determination to save reconstruction in Savannah and the South, but the forces of white reaction soon determined to save the region from them. The restoration of white authority became a holy crusade, and the rest of the United States, increasingly finding its hands full with issues other than the resolution of the freed people's fate, and motivated by an ardent desire for national reconciliation, ultimately abandoned the emancipated race. The result by the 1880s was a Savannah whose racial hegemony looked much as it did before the war.

Whites, many prominent, also animate this story: physician Richard D. Arnold, who confronted the mysterious fevers and "miasma" that sickened and killed hundreds in a city surrounded by bays and swamps, years before the mosquito was identified as the carrier of such diseases; Hugh W. and George A. Mercer, high-ranking Confederate officers and the forebears of Savannah's celebrated native son, songwriter Johnny Mercer; planter Pierce Butler, owner of a thousand slaves, whose wife, the British actress Fanny Kemble, was so shocked by the depravity of slavery that she divorced her husband and became an abolitionist, remarking of her Southern neighbors, "I pity them for the stupid sameness of their most vapid existence."

The guiding insight of Jones's work is an appreciation of how fully the various stories of the disinherited inform the American narrative. Her depictions of labor conditions on watery coastal plantations, mass slave auctions held in desperation to salvage planter fortunes, and the plight of Union soldiers unfortunate enough to wash up as prisoners in Savannah toward war's end are especially well-drawn. Synthesizing the perspectives of the mercantile elite, the aristocratic upper crust and the downtrodden, she has, in Saving Savannah, fashioned a compelling social and political history. ยท

Philip Dray is the author of "Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen."

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