Thursday, June 24, 1999
Old Savannah is as different from Historic Charleston as both those cities are from Restored Williamsburg. For one thing the streets are wider. For another, there are more trees. But mainly, the focus isn’t on buildings. It’s on squares.
My map lists twenty-one, though Tom and I only hiked fifteen, and not just ’cause the dog slowed us by sticking her nose in everything. Again, walking seemed best, though I counted three different trolley tours—red, green, and white—plus a horse-and-buggy operation (with the steeds again in diapers). Also, just to get this out of the way, one of the squares figures importantly in Forrest Gump, while another is central to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Not that people in Savannah seem to care much about Hollywood. They have far more important history: The Revolutionary War. The Civil War. Oglethorpe. Jasper. Wesley. Pulaski. Sherman. (He wasn’t one of their good guys, and you’ll never find a monument to his deeds. But after burning his way through the rest of the Georgia, he offered Savannah to Lincoln as a Christmas present. Wisely, Abe refused.)
Georgia was founded by James Oglethorpe in 1733, on a river bluff seventeen miles from the ocean. Historically, we’re taught it was a haven for debtors. More strategically, the colony was a shield against Spanish Florida. It was also meant to be slave-free, but that soon evaporated in the face of King Cotton. The Masons also factored in, and their bronze plaques are everywhere in the city. But that society now has misogynist, racist overtones, so where other plaques are easily-read, in two-tone bas relief, the Masons’ are dirtily whitewashed.
There were originally four squares, three of which still exist, along with most of the twenty-four imagined. Two that were planned were absorbed by the colonial cemetery, and one built was obliterated by a parking garage. The main street is Bull—for Colonel William Bull, who helped lay out the city—and the first square is Johnson, named for the then-governor of South Carolina. Johnson was also the busiest square we saw, closest to the business district, and full of office workers eating brown-bag lunches, or simply smoking. I guess, even in the Tobacco South, that’s becoming illegal indoors.
The second square, Wright, was originally Percival, after the Right Honorable John Lord Viscount Percival, Earl of Egmont and president of the Trustees of the Georgia colonists. But like Telfair, initially dubbed St. James for the King’s palace, all that changed with the Revolution. Still, Wright wasn’t renamed for Orville and Wilbur, but for James Wright, the last Royalist governor and least ineffective. History ain’t consistent.
That day Wright was packed with troops of picnicking Girl Scouts, which I figured for an ordinary field trip. But just around the corner was the birthplace of their founder, Juliette Gordon Low—as well as plaques to her and her statesman-father. (Other cities may have as much history, but only Savannah wants you to read it, plaque-by-plaque.)
Juliette Low—her friends called her Daisy—was married to an Englishman, and spent several dozen years in Britain. There she met the father of the Boy Scouts, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, and his sister Agnes, founder of the Girl Guides. Returning home in 1912, Daisy brought something for the girls of Savannah, and all America. There are now almost four million Daisy followers.
The third square was Chippewa, not after that loyal group of Native Americans, but to remember the Battle of Chippewa (What?). It should be called Oglethorpe as it centers on a huge, romantic statue of the fearless leader, but there’s already an Oglethorpe Square, and an Oglethorpe Street, and plenty of other things Oglethorpe.
The actual Oglethorpe, or Prim Jim, is kind of Nixon-tricky to explain. He founded the place with the best intentions, but how practical was that in a time when the Spanish were Catholics, so Catholics were the enemy in a land created to foster religious freedom? Not to mention his antipathy towards lawyers, prostitutes, and booze, pillars of the colony, if not civilization. Oglethorpe was also a Mason, and maybe a noble one. But his good-works Masonic are also buried under beige paint.
Madison Square followed, named for President James, but most noted for its epic bronze of young Sargeant William Jasper. He’s famous for saving the Revolutionary day by giving his life in a way that would make Leonardo DiCaprio proud. Oddly, the heroic statue wasn’t ringed by bands of panting Brownies.
Next, Monterey, which commemorates the capture of Monterey, Mexico by General Zachary Taylor in 1846. Noted here is the huge monument to Polish Count Casimir Pulaski, the highest ranking officer to be killed in the American revolution. At least, it would have been noted, had the statue not been off for repairs.
Forsyth Park isn’t a square at all, but still boasts an enormous, twice-restored, white iron fountain, as well as a towering Civil War monument. Memorials are tricky, in the South or anywhere—think of Germany and Japan. Lots of kids died, often for the worst reasons. But they were still kids, and need to be remembered.
Then came ten squares that I forget. (Okay: Calhoun, Whitefield, Troup, Lafayette, Greene, Columbia, Oglethorpe, Reynolds, Warren, and Washington). All were beautiful. Some were larger. Some had lovers. One even hosted a boy and his dalmatian. But just as Pulaski isn’t in Pulaski, let alone Monterey, Oglethorpe isn’t in Oglethorpe, and there’s no square for Wesley—maybe ’cause he only lasted twenty-three months. My guide book says he returned to England a changed and chastened man, having lost his heart and the girl he loved, and having found the Indian he intended to convert to Christianity more savage than noble. He has a small, austere, statue in Reynolds Square.
Tired of walking, we looked for shade, and off a side street found a small museum where we mainly exploited the air-conditioning. The dog also scored by looking so pathetic—it’s an act, folks —she inspired an anxious docent to lift a Tupperware bowl from her colleague’s lunch, then fill it with water. This was the first day we’d felt the heat, though we knew we’d been lucky. Hearing we were driving the South in late June, friends told us we were just crazy.
Cooling off in the bookshop, I leafed another tourist guide, making sure there was nothing extraordinary we were missing. Yikes: The Waving Girl Monument. Beginning at 19, in 1887, from her brother’s lonely cottage on an island in the river, Florence Martus waved at all vessels entering or leaving the port of Savannah. At first, it attracted only passing interest. But it was so consistent for 44 years, she became known throughout the world. By day, she waved a handkerchief. At night, a lantern. Her park, just below the harbor light, is an attractive place to view the river.
Had to go.