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The story of a city at war

POSTED: May 9, 2011 5:55 p.m.
Photo by Pat Donahue/

Author Barry Sheehy discusses how Savannah grew before the Civil War at the Historic Effingham Society’s spring picnic meeting. Sheehy detailed how the four-volume series “Civil War Savannah” came together.

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The story and images of a city at war have been put together in a critically-acclaimed and painstakingly produced series.

Author Barry Sheehy discussed his four-volume set, “Civil War Savannah,” with the Historic Effingham Society on Saturday. “This is not a book about war,” Sheehy said. “It’s about a war and its effects on a city. We have gone to beautiful places, where terrible things have occurred.”

The first in the series, “Immortal City,” was released in February. Work on the series began in 2005.

“This book and book series has been a labor of love,” Sheehy said. “But it’s also been a team effort. If you’re an historian, you must travel with others. You must have that help of others, and what a fabulous team we assembled.”

Sheehy and his staff put together cartographers, architects and graphic artists, 50 people in all to help produce the series.

“When we needed someone with a special skill, they just seemed to come our way,” he said.

They also continued to find and receive information as they began to put the series together. “There was a wave, an avalanche of new material coming our way as we got ready,” Sheehy said.

Sheehy, a native of Montreal and financial consultant turned historian and part-time Coastal Empire resident, chose Savannah as his residence in the early 1990s and he’s been fascinated with its history and its story.

“It is the most complete antebellum infrastructure of any city in North America,” Sheehy said.

Sheehy quoted British prime minister and historian Winston Churchill on the process of writing a book. Writing starts as a romance, turns into a dalliance and then the process becomes a tyrant, turning the author into servitude.

“At some stage, every author reaches the stage of ‘good riddance,’” Sheehy said.

The next book, “Brokers, Bankers and Bay Lane — Inside the Slave Trade,” will look at the business of slavery. As a financial consultant, Sheehy has made a life out of studying business models and the second volume explores the business model of the slave trade.

That volume is expected to be out in late August or early September.

“So we set out to follow the money,” he said.

Savannah, in December 1864, was “as a dangerous a place you could find in America,” Sheehy said. Not far from the Savannah Christian Preparatory School campus on Chatham Parkway, the Union and Confederate lines are still intact, Sheehy added. The book also looks at Old Louisville Road and Sisters Ferry.

In 1860, Savannah’s population was around 23,000, with slaves making up 40 percent of the populace. Half the population had been born either in the North or abroad. There were only about 3,000 families in Savannah but the city had a sanitation system and a running water system.

“They built a gas works and gas lighting,” Sheehy said. “They expanded the police and fire departments.”

They also built a public hospital and two public schools, Massey and Chatham. Savannah’s citizens also funded a female asylum, an orphanage, where girls received a first-class education.

Sheehy’s team documented each of the city’s 1,800 historic structures, all built between 1845-65. Because of the war, very few were erected from 1861-65.

“So a whole antebellum city grew up in a 10- to 15-year period,” he said.

On any given day, anywhere from 50 to 70 ships from around the world called on the Savannah port.

“In 1861, they took this wealth creation machine and smashed the whole thing themselves,” Sheehy said. “Savannah, in 1860, was on its way to the moon, and they shut down their harbor. It’s the one part of the story I don’t understand.”

Though the series isn’t about the Civil War itself, the impact of battles on the Savannah is shown. For instance, while 1st Manassas, the first time Union and Confederate forces clashed in the field, was a victory for the South, its results were devastating for Savannah.

“When the city received the first casualty reports, it was a body blow for the city,” Sheehy said.

The series has the story of six young Savannah men, all of whom had attended the same Sunday school and were killed in battle at Manassas. The scenes from the battlefield were so dreadful and shocking, Confederate Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard refused to allow the families to visit to claim their fallen loved ones from the field.

In the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, which took place just three days before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, the Savannah Volunteer Guards “were hopelessly outnumbered,” Sheehy said. “They fixed bayonets and disappeared into a sea of blue and they were cut to pieces. Why did they do it? The Blue knew it was over; the Gray knew it was over.”

Nineteen soldiers killed at Sayler’s Creek were brought back to their final resting place at Laurel Grove Cemetery.

“It’s tell that story and stories like that why we set out to write these books,” Sheehy said.

“Touched With Fire,” the third volume in the series, will look at the cemeteries in Savannah and the outlying areas, such as Effingham County, and tell the stories that lie within those. The book takes its name from an Oliver Wendell Holmes poem. Holmes served in the Union army in the Civil War.

The final book, “A Terrible Beauty,” takes its name from a William Butler Yeats’ work on the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916. It contains many photos taken in and around Chatham and Effingham counties.

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