Sturdy history of the Southern port city and its relationship to the “curious institution” of slavery.
As Bancroft Prize–winning historian Jones (American History/Brandeis Univ.; Creek Walking: Growing Up in Delaware in the 1950s, 2001, etc.) notes, Savannah, like most ports, was cosmopolitan compared to the interior. Its white inhabitants included Protestants, Jews and Catholics from many European nations, most recently arrived from the Old World, and almost all members of a vigorous Democratic Party, which served as “testament to the mutual if wildly unequal dependence of the planter-merchant-lawyer elite and large numbers of teamsters, dockworkers, and sawmill hands.” No matter how different, though, white Savannah was insistent in its defense of slavery. Jones opens with an account of a slave, Thomas Simms, who escaped via the port and traveled north to Boston, where his pursuers discovered him and forced his extradition, despite the protestations of abolitionist Northerners. Upon returning to Savannah, Simms received the maximum punishment allowed by law, 39 strokes with the lash, which, Simms later said, would have been more “but for the sympathy manifested for him in the North.” Drawing on a trove of documents and firsthand accounts, Jones depicts the ordinary life of both whites and blacks. When the Civil War arrived, Savannah’s secessionist fervor gave way to pragmatism, and, like those of Natchez and other Southern cities, its leaders surrendered quickly rather than let their city be attacked. The arriving Federals, Jones observes, were none too evolved in their view of the African-American populace (one colonel called them “perfectly childlike…no more responsible for their actions than so many puppies”), and Reconstruction was no more generous to most of them, replacing slavery with other forms of indenture.
An important addition to the literature of slavery and African-American history, complementing the now-standard work of Eugene Genovese, Kenneth Stampp and other chroniclers.