Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Savannah, Georgia USA: Near Myths and Complete Misses by J. D. Byous

Historian and photographer James Byous untangles Savannah history from Savannah folklore in Savannah Georgia USA: Near Myths and Complete Misses (JByousCompany.com). In this enlightening feature, this history scholar debunks some erroneous Savannah tourism stories, and advances his storytelling with historical images and photography.

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Figure 1 The Armstrong House fence, above,
compared to the fence around
Buckingham Palace below.
SAVANNAH Georgia --  Okay… Okay… So I’m not perfect.  Not even my mother entertained that thought and my wife would back her up on the conclusion. But, there are a few… shall we say… factual contortions here in Savannah.  One could call some assertions a near miss… or maybe a near myth… but they are infractions of the truth.  You hear them on trolley tours, you hear them on walking tours, you read them in history books and magazines and brochures.

History is as history does but sometimes history does as others remember.  And, it may not be all that glaring.  This one is part of the official city test one must pass to gain a tour license.  The test book reads, “GENERAL JAMES EDWARD OGLETHORPE officially founded Savannah in 1733.”……. Technically it’s not true.  Perhaps it’s, shall we say, “nit-picky,” but in 1733 Oglethorpe was actually, Colonel James Edward Oglethorpe (Figure 2).  He wasn’t promoted to brigadier general in 1743, ten years after founding the colony.  So it’s a minor point.  I call it a near myth and a bit petty, but hey, truth is… well, the truth.

However, there are also several complete misses floating around the streets and squares of this unique, beautiful and extremely historic town.  I will admit to having stated them as fact in years past and should have checked them out.  As the newspaper editor says to Jimmy Stewart in the movie, Liberty Valence, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  But in history facts are… in fact… facts!  Rewriting the narrative for its correction is not revisionist history, it is the rectification of history.  Remember, this will be on a pop quiz later this week.

Myth number one --  The fence around the Armstrong House is a replica of the fence around London’s Buckingham Palace…  You will hear it daily as groups stroll and roll past the grand building on the Bull Street corner across from Forsyth Park.  In reality - and to give credit - both fences are made of metal with lance-shaped metal bars. (See Figure 1)



A quick Google search will provide a photo/picture-worth-a-thousand-words comparison.  Both are nice and both are pricey to build or replace.  I will admit, both are way out of my budget since I couldn’t afford to buy a replica hinge… but they are not the same and Savannah’s version is not a replica.

Myth number two -- Civil War Union General William Tecumseh Sherman refused to burn Savannah when he captured it in 1864 because it was so beautiful. The reality is, according to War Department records, Sherman was prepared to level the city and was bringing in the same powerful rifled cannons that devastated Fort Pulaski earlier in the war.  The actions of the Rebel Army changed his mind.  The cannons were never used because the rebels escaped across the Savannah River into South Carolina on a make-shift pontoon bridge constructed from rice barges and ripped-up wharf planks. With the Confederate Army out of the picture the city became a perfect Union seaport. Savannah is a strategic location on the Atlantic coast, a natural portal to the Southeast. Should the war continue for a long period beyond December 1864 when it was occupied by Union forces the army would have easy access to the interior regions of Georgia and beyond.  Why burn a city when it will serve a better purpose, housing Union soldiers and serving as a staging location?

Figure 2 James Edward Oglethorpe
Myth number three – Anyone who takes the tour guide test will tell you that per the tour-guide manual, “Georgia’s first colonists arrived with James Edward Oglethorpe on a ship called ANNE, which sailed from England on September 11, 1732 and arrived in Savannah on February 12, 1733.”  Countless articles, books describe the event and illustrations show the Georgia colonists stepping from the Anne, Plymouth-Rock style, onto the shore at Yamacraw Bluff.

Not really.  Oglethorpe and the colonists arrived at Beaufort, South Carolina on the Anne.  Oglethorpe quickly paddled his little canoe away from the group to start surveying the future city site and to take soundings of the river.  The colonists arrived a few days later.  They traveled in smaller-than-the-Anne boats called petiguas.   The depth of the river was not trusted for larger boats.  No records, at least that I have seen, indicate that the Anne sailed up the Savannah River at any time.

According to the Colonial Record of Georgia, Oglethorpe wrote the Trustees that, “Our people arrived at Beaufort on the 20th of January, where I lodged them in some new barracks built for the soldiers whist I went myself to view the Savannah River….” The whole of the people arrived on the first of February.  (The date is from the Old Julian Calendar, January 31 is now Feb. 12… It’s a long story.) 

A few days later one of the original settlers, Thomas Causton, wrote to his wife of his arrival in a letter dated March 12, 1733, “We continued in those barracks ten days, sailed from thence in six large boats, and the country scout boat and the garrison boat with twelve soldiers attending us.  We had a very fair wind and safe passage, being two days, and then arrived at this place, then called Yamacraw and now Savannah.”

Nope… no Anne.  It wasn’t in the plan.

Myth number four - “No Roman Catholics, or PAPISTS, were allowed to worship in colonial Georgia because of suspected sympathies with the Catholic Spanish.” 

True in part, no Roman Catholics were allowed to hold worship services in Georgia.  However, the Spanish thing was no doubt no more than an afterthought if a thought at all.  I’ve found no document saying the trustees considered the Catholic-Spanish as a connection to the prohibition. This is a complicated time in history, but can be summed up in a few complicated paragraphs.

At the time of the founding of Georgia there was conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the British Isles.  When Catholic kings or queens were in charge they persecuted Protestants.  When Protestant kings or queens were in charge they persecuted Catholics.  Not because of bigotry or religion but because of politics.  King Henry VIII left the Catholic Church and formed his own of brand of Protestantism.  The Pope wouldn’t let him divorce his wife and marry another.  So, Henry left the Church and whacked the wife and so on and so on… if you know the story.

In 1733 the trustees of the colony did not want Catholics to hold services or meetings since they could plot insurrection when they met.  It’s the same thing that the Protestants had done when the Catholics were in charge.  It was during this time in history that the Jacobite uprisings were in full swing… (Remember the story of Rob Roy?  No?  Rent the DVD.  Don’t let your kids watch.)

These uprisings were a major influence on the rules laid down by the trustees.  It is known that at that time in the colony’s history Spaniards lived and worked and… whatever else they did, in the colony and little was thought of it.  One was hanged for murder in the same manner as Alice Riley of the famous Savannah ghost story.  The culprit who was taught to swing with no hands was simply referred to as the Spanish doctor. 

The Spanish-Catholic fear was probably presumed and recorded on an old tour brochure then subsequently grandfathered in…. part of Savannah legend.

Bigotry?  We can conclude, “Not.”  Oglethorpe’s mother was an Irish Catholic lady from Tipperary.  And that’s a long way… one could say.  She, her daughters and her older sons were also all Jacobites, all Catholics.  Jamie, the future general, was the only hold-out in his Father’s Protestant faith, the Church of England.  The rest of the family supported the ousted king, James II over the new, improved Protestant king and queen, William and Mary...  (Yes, like the university.)  They all moved to France to be near their exiled monarch.

As a sad footnote, after Oglethorpe left Georgia he went on to lead a British force that pursued a Jacobite army led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of James II.  Oglethorpe’s own nephew was an aid to one of the Generals of the French Jacobite army.  Unfortunately… or fortunately, Oglethorpe failed in his attempt and was promptly accused of treason.  He was later court-martialed but was found not guilty.  He never had a British command after that date.

Figure 3 The Gas Works Wall east of Savannah
(Library of Congress Photo, Frances Benjamin Johnston)
Myth number five The brick-buttressed wall at the eastern end of Bay Street at Trustees’ Garden is old Fort Wayne. (Figure 3)


Actually the wall was built in 1853 for the Savannah Gas Company to support gas holders, tanks for storing natural gas made from cooking coal.  It was never a fort.  The real Fort Wayne that had once stood on the site was a crescent shaped earthen fort but, yes, on the same location.  It was an earthen fort as was common in that era.  When the current wall was built it was filled with the dirt, shovel by shovel, from Fort Wayne to create the terrace area above McIntosh Boulevard.

Two old cannons were found in the fill of the dirt fort.  Later, just for fun, the cannons were placed on the wall about General McIntosh Boulevard.  Generations of Savannah residents would pass the cannons and conclude that the wall must be the fort.  The myth was born quite slowly over the decades.  Today you will find the cannons on the grounds of Old Fort Jackson on your way to the beach at Tybee Island.

Myth number six – Founded in 1733, Savannah is the first planned city in what is now the United States.

Oops! Off by almost a century.  New Haven Colony, one of the earliest colonies in America, was designed with a tiny 9-square grid at its founding in 1638.  Philadelphia flipped the numbers and was founded in 1683 as a planned city. (Figure 4)

Figure 4 The plan for Philadelphia, 1683
According to Wikipedia, “New Haven was founded in 1638 by English Puritans, and a year later eight streets were laid out in a four-by-four grid, creating what is now commonly known as the "Nine Square Plan", now recognized by the American Institute of Certified Planners as a National Planning Landmark. The central common block is New Haven Green, a 16-acre (6 ha) square, now a National Historic Landmark and the center of Downtown New Haven.”

Tradition and dictation, it seems, creates its own common knowledge.  As Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors.”  So we might add, “and sometime legend… and sometimes by a governing body.”  As my grandfather used to say, “Who’d a thunk?”

So, as you walk Savannah’s tree-lined squares or take a relaxing tour on a carriage or trolley, forgive the guides for their presentation of myth over fact.  Just whisper to yourself, or to your travel companion, “Print the legend.” 

Copyright © 2015 J.D. Byous. This article is printed here with express permission of the author.


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