American towns don't come much more beautiful than Savannah, seventeen miles up the Savannah River from the ocean. The historic district, arranged around Spanish-moss-swathed garden squares, formed the core of the original city and boasts examples of just about every architectural style of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The cobbled waterfront on the Savannah River is edged by towering old cotton warehouses.
Savannah was founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe as the first settlement of the British colony of Georgia. His intention was to establish a haven for debtors, with no Catholics, lawyers, or hard liquor – and, above all, no slaves. However, with the arrival of North Carolina settlers in the 1750s, plantation agriculture, based on slave labor, took off. The town became a major export center at the end of important railroad lines in which cotton was funneled from far away. General Sherman arrived here in December 1864 at the end of his "March to the Sea." At Lincoln's urging he set to work apportioning land to freed slaves. This was the first recognition of the need for "reconstruction," though such concrete economic provision for slaves was rarely to occur again.
After the Civil War, the plantations floundered, cotton prices slumped, and Savannah went into decline. There was little industry beyond the port and Savannah's graceful townhouses and tree-lined boulevards fell into decay. Not until the 1960s did local citizens start to organize what has been the successful restoration of their town. In the last two decades, the private Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has injected Savannah with even more vitality, attracting young artists and regenerating downtown.
Savannah acquired notoriety in the mid-1990s thanks to its starring role in John Berendt's best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; both the book and movie detailed a delectable mix of cross-dressing, voodoo, and murder.