Savannah Before the Outbreak
Savannah was a thriving port city before and after the American Revolution. Prior to the outbreak of the war it was one of the main southern ports for the shipping of West Indian cotton and tobacco, not American cotton to the English isles. This rapidly changed as a result of the Revolutionary War and the advent of Eli Whittney’s cotton gin in 1793. When the states began to become independent cotton producers Savannah’s status as a port city became extremely important as it was responsible for the shipment of the many western cotton products. After the shift from tobacco products many white men in the South began to feel that they could make an easy fortune off of American cotton. This however was not the case as we will see with the development of Savannah’s aristocratic class separation from the hustle and bustle of regular life in the port. As a port city one could see many people from all walks of life milling about the docks and the local streets. Savannah had a large immigrant population as a result of the shipping industry which drew in many seasonal workers, particularly for the late summer and early autumn months which would become important in the spread of diseases.2
Whittington Johnson in an article on Andrew C. Marshall, a leader of black christians during the antebellum era, argued that while there was an increased interaction between whites and blacks, they worshipped separately. Johnson states that “Savannah experienced of growth in its black population during the 1810 to 1860, when the number of black residents increased by almost 325 percent, from 2,725 to 8,417; included in these figures were 530 free blacks in 1810 and 705 in I860.” This population increase is significant because blacks lived in every district in Savannah and they occupied a variety of different duties within the city. Careers that required high amounts of education however were not open to blacks. Johnson describes this as “careers in medicine, law, education, and politics were not open to Afro-Americans, talented blacks found careers in the church” where they were expected to achieve great things for both the free and enslaved blacks. This distinction is an important one to make because we need to keep in mind that medicine at this time was a field that was only open to white men who had received some education.3
Savannah’s elite was made up of a variety of different individuals, many men found that the surest way of entering into the elite was through the aforementioned professions. Alongside the quintessential example of Southern Aristocracy, the plantation owners, there were a variety of men who worked as attorneys, doctors, or politics. After the end of the Revolutionary War some members of the elite in Savannah were actually northerners who moved south for the chance to improve their wealth. These elites were greatly influenced by Northern ideals and were responsible for the establishment of a public school system later in the 1850s while raising up Savannah’s place in education by placing an emphasis on northern medical societies and trade. Because of their location right next to the port, many of the elites were chastised throughout the South because they were more concerned with matters around the world than the ones in the rest of Georgia.4
As a result of the Georgia Land Act of 1803 there was an increase in the amount of men who were vying for land and positions of power. These early years in the nineteenth century would set the stage for later developments as Georgia was largely ruled by a ‘one party state’ which consisted of the landed aristocrats. This challenges the notion that some Georgians, particularly those in Savannah, were aligned to an extent with the North, but it also demonstrates how Savannah was an exception case. As a city that relied heavily on shipping as the primary source within the economy there was naturally a great amount of intermingling of the population.