Saving Savannah

The City and the Civil War

By Jacqueline Jones
Knopf Publishing Group. 528 pp. $30
Dec. 21, 2008

Chapter One

Sell and Buy and Sell and Buy

In early September 1854, Savannah was diseased, dying. At dusk, tar fires kindled in the public squares threw a plume of acrid smoke into the air, an immense black shroud that settled over the desolate, oppressively hot and humid city. The lush, tree- lined thoroughfares were nearly deserted, the hush broken only by the muffled sounds of a horsedrawn hearse plodding through the sandy streets. The usually raucous marketplace was empty, stately homes were abandoned, schools and hotels shuttered. Many people had fled, most to the interior of Georgia or to the North. Behind closed doors, the ill, unattended, lay side by side with the dead, and in poorer areas of the city, human corpses mingled with refuse piled in back alleyways. Deprived of supplies from either the surrounding countryside or from arriving ships, the river port risked slow starvation. "How changed is our beautiful, growing, healthy city, lately full of enterprise, noise, and business," despaired one of the city's clergymen, exhausted from ministering to the ill. Racked with fever, chills, and convulsions, hundreds of all ages were succumbing to the "black vomit," more commonly known as yellow fever.

Savannah was dying, and Richard Arnold, M.D., could do nothing to stem the plague. The stricken city was in fact playing unwilling and unwitting host to Aedes aegypti, the carrier mosquito for yellow fever. Breeding most freely in manmade receptacles such as barrels and culverts, the insect proved the bane of commercial ports from the West African coast to New Orleans. The illness spread rapidly, not because it was contagious but because infected mosquitoes carried it from victim to victim. When the epidemic hit, Arnold was still mourning the death of his thirty-five- year- old wife, Margaret, from tuberculosis four years earlier. Nevertheless, beginning in August 1854, the doctor spent his every waking hour with patients, crisscrossing the city in his carriage and losing all sense of time. Trying not to panic in the midst of so much misery, he wrote on September 2, "my mind is calm, for I have a duty to perform in staying here." Under these conditions, he believed, the physician was akin to a soldier, albeit one denied the requisite glory: the doctor "goes into the very dens of infection, he inhales the reeking effluvia of filth & disease, he is most exposed to catch disease himself in those very cases which will bring him neither money nor credit."

For forty-six- year- old Richard Arnold, the yellow-fever epidemic of 1854 represented a crisis of multiple dimensions- a crisis destructive not only of the physical and fiscal health of the city he loved, but also of his own good name as a man of science and as an exemplar of civic virtue. Born in Savannah, the son of a Rhode Island merchant, Arnold had graduated from the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University) and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Settling in the place of his birth, he served in a variety of elected and appointed posts related to municipal governance and education. Like other elite Savannahians, Arnold well understood that the river port thrived to the extent it could attract not only investors and merchants, but also hundreds of seasonal, unskilled northern workers annually. Yet the city suffered from a stubborn reputation as an unhealthy place plagued by fevers bred in rotting vegetation and polluted water, and by a vaguely defined but lethal form of "miasma," or poisonous air. Savannah's booster were always on the defensive; some blamed the high mortality rate on large numbers of northern invalids dying an untimely death in the city en route to their final destination in Florida. Now the "yellow jack" epidemic of 1854 threatened not only Savannah's good name, but also its very survival.

Arnold and Savannah's other physicians did well financially in their everyday business. As a group they helped ensure the "soundness" of the enslaved rural coastal population in Chatham, Bryan, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn, and Camden counties-thirty-five thousand blacks who planted, harvested, and processed vast quantities of cotton and rice each year. Arnold also served as the physician for the region's largest industrial slaveowner, the Central of Georgia Railroad. At the same time, his doctor's salary seemed chronically insufficient to afford him the gracious life of a wealthy merchant, banker, or lawyer, a constant irritant given his appreciation for fine wines, champagne, sherry, sauterne, and Madeira. And now in this disease- ridden city Arnold could not help but wonder why he was putting himself in mortal danger day in and day out, coming face-to-face with failure as he left the home of each dying patient- for "neither money nor credit."

In early August, the sickly cast of yellow fever had made its first appearance in Yamacraw, the northeastern neighborhood that was home to many Irish immigrants (70 percent of all foreigners living in Savannah). At the first sign of the outbreak, Arnold and other physicians had joined with politicians, businessmen, and newspaper editors in a public relations campaign that was part wishful thinking and part cynical manipulation. As in past epidemics, they feared that rumors would give way to hysteria, which in turn would lead to a quarantine of all vessels leaving Savannah. The city's trade would be crippled, its archrival Charleston enriched. A correspondent for the Savannah Morning News tried to reassure readers with the claim that northeast winds had carried the disease exclusively to newcomers living on the edges of the city in wretched wooden tenements. These were presumably men, women, and children "who do not enjoy the comforts of life, and have no regard for cleanliness." On August 10, Mayor John E. Ward, a former U.S. attorney and prominent Democrat, ordered the board of health to cease listing yellow fever as the cause of death on its mortality reports; the mayor's aim was to protect "the reputation and interest of the city." Richard R. Cuyler, president of the Central of Georgia Railroad and Banking Company, published a letter in the New York Times maintaining that of the 392 whites employed by the railroad, almost all continued to "go out and come in, in the night, and many are exposed to the burning sun" without contracting the illness. Like others, Cuyler assumed that both night air and direct sunlight were causes of yellow fever.

Yet the mounting death toll spoke louder than the bland pronouncements uttered by businessmen and parroted in the city's newspapers. By the last week in August a full- blown exodus from the city was under way. The sight of dozens of Savannah families crowded in mail packets going south and in steamer ships headed north laid bare the deep fear that had overtaken the city. Prodded by the outrage spread in whispered street conversations and in newspapers of nearby towns, authorities began to react. Dominick O'Byrne, an alderman and lawyer of Irish descent, offered a resolution authorizing the committee on health and cemeteries to spend a largely symbolic $1,000 for the alleviation of suffering among the city's poor. Meanwhile, the mayor and other leaders found themselves gratefully accepting cash donations from cities as far away as Boston. Contingents of physicians and nurses arrived from Mobile and New Orleans.

Above all else, Savannah's leaders prized prosperity and public order, and on both counts the epidemic was devastating. Not until the late nineteenth century would the medical- scientific establishment link mosquitoes to yellow fever. Still, physicians did know enough to associate deadly illnesses with weed- choked rice- field ditches and with undrained city streets. Indeed, as early as 1817 the city council had established a dry culture committee; its purpose was to pay the owners of private lands adjacent to the city to drain their fields of scum- covered stagnant water. The city also funded a board of health charged with monitoring conditions in each of the city's thirty wards, a health officer to inspect incoming ships for signs of infectious disease among crew members, a scavenger department of black men who cleared the streets of refuse and animal carcasses, a pest house to segregate impoverished ill people from the general population, and a dispensary to distribute medicines to the ailing. Nevertheless, the 1854 epidemic eventually claimed the lives of more than 6 percent of the city's total population- a loss comparable to that of 400,000 lives in New York City today.

Savannah was dying, and whites were its chief victims. To a large degree, lowcountry blacks did not contract mosquito- borne illnesses; the paired genetic trait that made West African groups vulnerable to sicklecell anemia also provided them with relative immunity to yellow fever and malaria. In caring for the ill, Arnold probably relied on the assistance of black nurses such as forty-three- year- old Georgiana Guard, a free woman of color. Over the previous few years Guard had helped the widower Arnold care for his daughter, Ellen, and he had served as the black woman's guardian. (All free blacks in the city were required to have a white male "guardian" to represent them in legal matters.) During the epidemic, black men and women left food at the doorstep of infected households, and otherwise attended to those bereft of other caretakers. Throughout the ordeal, few Savannahians, enslaved or free, could escape the conclusion that this scourge afflicted primarily white folk.

To add to the city's distress, on September 8 a ferocious hurricane slammed into coastal Georgia. With its fierce winds and torrential rains, the gale was the region's most destructive storm in three decades, ripping off roofs, smashing windows, and leveling the city's exotic mix of jasmines, Spanish daggers, magnolias, palmettos, and Pride of India trees. The streets of the elegant Forest City were now virtually impassable, littered with tree limbs, tin, shingles, and pieces of slate. Disrupted gas service snuffed out the lamps in the two dozen grassy, shaded public squares that dotted the city. On the riverfront, floodwaters carried off whole lumberyards, drove vessels into the wharves, and tore the city's dry dock from its moorings. Across from the city, in the Savannah River, Hutchinson's Island was submerged under twelve feet of water, a watery grave for an estimated one hundred enslaved men, women, and children. Along the Ogeechee River, a center of Georgia's rice industry, the force of wind and water destroyed the intricate systems of embankments, ditches, and dams that regulated irrigation of the fields. Much of the entire region's rice crop was lost, the small amount already harvested carried off by swollen rivers and creeks, the maturing plants choked by rising seawater.

On the morning of Sunday, September 10, throughout the lowcountry enslaved workers slowly emerged from their quarters, small cabins mad of wood or tabby (a mixture of oyster shells, lime, and sand), to survey the damage. Up and down the 118-mile coastline, men and women found that their year's worth of work had been destroyed by the storm. On the Elizafield rice plantation in Glynn County, the "Dreadful Gale" had drowned whole fields and "blown and washed away" the entire recent harvest of six thousand bushels of rice. Under dark skies still heavy with heat and moisture, the slaves there and on other plantations spent the day not in their customary way, holding worship services and tending to their own gardens, but toiling in the fields. At Elizafield, Scipio, Frederick, London, and other men labored to repair breaks in the dikes, while Nancy, Matilla, and Mary Ann and other women waded through the boggy soil to salvage what rice was left.

The storm obliterated not only the cash crops of the master class, but also the slaves' vegetable gardens, livestock, and stores of staples- the product of their own strenuous labors in the quarters after they had completed their daily tasks in the fields. Pushed to the limit of human endurance, enslaved families were forced to grow their own rice and corn in order to survive. Some rendered their own lard, kept turkeys and hogs, and crafted quilts, wooden utensils, and baskets. Rainwater and floods carried away beehives, jars of honey, pots, and other goods displayed in neatly swept yards in front of the slave cabins. On many plantations, then, the storm brought a double load of grief to lowcountry slaves- longer days of toil to repair the fields and rescue the rest of the rice and cotton, but also the ruin of their own stores of food and household goods.

Over the next few days with clearing skies came blistering heat. In Savannah, people continued to die. Four days after the storm, a group of prominent men formed the Young Men's Benevolent Association (YMBA). The association set up soup kitchens for the city's poor whites, dispensing bread and serving medicinal teas brewed from snakeroot and flaxseed. Like other private charity groups, the YMBA ignored the black population, on the assumption that masters would care for the city's 7,500 slaves, and that the 900 free people of color were by definition unworthy of aid of any kind. In any case, the fact that relatively few blacks contracted the disease seemed to confirm the notion that they could fend for themselves.

By the end of September, only 12,000 residents remained: an estimated 4,000 whites and almost all of the blacks. Among those who fled were the city marshal, the city constable, and Mayor Ward. An alderman, Dr. James P. Screven, physician, planter, and president of the Savannah, Albany and Gulf Railroad, assumed the position of mayor pro tem. Many of the wealthiest left their slaves behind. Because enslaved men and free men of color formed the core of the city's fire department, few whites objected to the new black majority in their midst. Reeling from the combined effects of illness, floods, and high winds, this city of lumber mills, cotton warehouses, and wooden boardinghouses could ill risk fire as well.

Meanwhile, Richard Arnold stayed at his post, worked twenty-hour days, treated hundreds of patients, and managed to survive. But his triumph was bittersweet at best. The unseemly manner with which some of his colleagues suffered from "Stampede Fever" brought disrepute on the whole profession, he thought. In mid-September, he mourned the deaths of "two noble young men," his protégés. The weekly interment reports and obituaries featured names of a cross section of the white population- Burroughs, Sheftall, Hannemeyer, Gallagher. The city's three cemeteries, for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, were daily engorged with fresh corpses: "Death has had a full harvest," mourned the doctor.

Arnold and his colleagues at Savannah Medical College considered themselves scientists; they dissected cadavers, recorded observations of their patients, and published their findings in journals such as the Savannah Journal of Medicine and the Charleston Medical Journal and Review. Yet these white men hardly dominated the medical business in Savannah. The city board of health authorized burning tar fires at night and pine fires during the day in an effort to "purify" the sickly air; beyond these measures there existed little agreement about cures for yellow fever. Some people advocated sniffing camphor, taking cold baths in the morning, and lining shoes with garlic. Arnold watched in disgust as a relative newcomer to the city, Dr. Philo H. Wildman, founder of the upstart Georgia General Hospital, prescribed twenty to sixty drops of tincture of iron administered every two hours for his yellow-fever patients. A local paper endorsed Wildman as "a great enemy to quackery in all its forms"; but after he contracted the disease, medicated himself, and then died, his "specific" fell into disfavor.


Excerpted from Saving Savannah by Jacqueline Jones Copyright © 2008 by Jacqueline Jones. Excerpted by permission.
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