Southern pride, as foreign to a Northerner as boiled peanuts and hush puppies, is reflected everywhere: shop windows, truck stops and front porches. Dixie devotion takes many forms, but most common are Confederate flags, military icons and other relics of a war fought — and lost — nearly 200 years ago.
The South itself is a living, breathing tribute to the War of Northern Aggression – it shapes the contours of daily life, from politics to religion to social custom.
In a part of America so enthralled with its own history and traditions, a visitor might be surprised that the South is relatively modern in design. Such cities as Columbia, South Carolina, Raleigh/Durham North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia boast some of the most contemporary architecture and layout as you’re likely to encounter in the States. The reason is simple: a guy named General William Sherman burned most of the original stuff to the ground.
Sherman wreaked havoc on the American South. His “March to the Sea” left landscapes devastated, families broken and torn, and upended the Confederate economy, choking the last ounce of breath out of America’s Old South. He left a burning path behind him for miles, torching any and every town and village he came upon — including the now-gleaming metropolis of Atlanta.
There remains a major anomaly to this New South, a curious relic that rests along Georgia’s short seacoast: the city of Savannah. For one reason or another, Savannah seems frozen in time. Journeying downtown is like stepping out of Doc Brown’s DeLorean. Here, visitors find themselves surrounded by some of the nation’s oldest and most cherished homes – antebellum dwellings that owe their existences to early 19th century preservation efforts. Just about every downtown building is a historical site – each one with a plaque on the outside along with cornerstone proof of date of erection and principal owner.
Did Sherman’s march to the sea not make it to the coastline? As matter of fact, the General occupied Savannah for a lengthy period of time. Yet the pyromaniacal Yank spared the city the throws of his torch. The city was left intact.
Some believe that Sherman spared Savannah because of its breathtaking beauty. Others claim that when he saw the slaves of Savannah willing to protect the city without the master’s orders, he recognized it as a emblem of potential Southern virtue. Both explanations seem a bit dramatic. According to a friendly local with whom I spoke during a visit last month, the local politicians invited Sherman and his men into the city, greeted the tired and starving Northern soldiers as brothers and stayed flame-free as a return favor.
The people and culture of Savannah were also left largely un-violated. An odd and eclectic group, Savannah citizens take pride in their traditions, and sport antiquated seersucker suits, top hats and throwback facial hair. The women honor the past through mannerisms, dress, and courtesies more Scarlet O’ Hara than Scarlett Johannssen. Horses trot up and down the original cobblestone streets, and the old Southern way of life remains intact — even if it is just for show.
Savannah’s attempt to preserve its past encompasses all aspects of Southern life — and Southern death.
When you visit the city, be sure to skip the ghost tour trolleys along the cobblestone. And don’t be alarmed if you happen upon a Confederate soldier in one of the many beautiful garden squares that dot the historic district — it’s just a SCAD student earning a few extra bucks as a ghost tour guide. It might seem weird that everyone gabbers of ghosts, spooks, haints and even murderous phantoms, but it’s perfectly normal for them.
It’s just Savannah being Savannah. Preserving its past in a celebration of the paranormal.
A short while ago, my wife and I packed up the car and took off for the coastal city; our second visit in the ten years we’ve been carpetbagging the South. I made it my personal goal to dine in and visit as many legendary haunted locations as possible throughout Savannah. Although we couldn’t get a room at TheMarshall House – a large, restored hotel in the center of town with an entire floor plagued by a murderous and terrifying presence, we did get to eat at The Olde Pink House — the former home of a Confederate captain that’s now a fine dining establishment. The food is marvelous, as are the tales of ghosts that haunt the basement pub. Many employees claim to have seen the apparitions of two Confederate soldiers saddling up to the bar for a sniff of brandy. Also, the former owner, apparently disgusted with the feminine color of his house, has been known to tug at any pink apparel in the joint. Ourwaiter, a three year veteran of the restaurant, said that, while he’d never seen the ghosts, every so often a female diner would report on her clothes being pulled at while in the bathroom. But to his recollection, nothing has been experienced by any employee firsthand during his time there.
Next stop was Moon River Brewery — a staple for locals. This would be the place I could see myself and friends relaxing after a day of work, escaping the tourists, and imbibing the delicious brew (try the aptly-named “Apparition”). The Moon River Brewery’s ghostly past has been cemented by the folks over at TAPS, who glimpsed evidence of a shadowy figure moving behind a pool table in a far corner of its lower level — a place where they admitted that no door was present (meaning that a forgery would have to pass in front of the camera). So I went to the location, found the pool table… and the hidden door against the wall leading to another room. Disappointed, I told my wife as the folks at the neighboring table asked our waiter if they could go downstairs and say “hi” to the friendly ghost seen on “Ghost Hunters.” My wife and I shrugged our soldiers and continued our meal.
The rest of our weekend was similar. We stopped at all the hot spots and inquired of employees’ experiences. Most replies began the same way: “Well, I’ve never experienced something but I heard that one time…”
Our last stop on our “Haunt Jaunt” in Savannah was the one that I will remember. The Owens-Thomas House is one of the oldest and best-preserved homes in the city. The main building is immaculate and beautiful, a stunning depiction of antebellum affluence. Beyond the spot where guides greet guests are the slave quarters, which have remained practically untouched in almost 200 years. Here lay the relics of a nearly-forgotten past: slave tools behind glass cases, financial records of human trade in the corner and an old blanket draped over a a rickety chair.
The first thing our guide pointed out was the ceiling. It was painted by the slaves — the same hands of those who worked the house — and has never been altered or restored. The color they chose: an original hue they called “Haint Blue.”
The slaves believed that this color kept wicked spirits from infiltrating their own world. It acted as a barrier between them and the twisted wills of the long departed.
Beneath this azure cover they would lie in the freezing seaside cold fearing the unseen and unconquerable hands of forces they could not resist — the only protection being a thin layer of paint and an even thinner layer of hope.
As we toured the main house, I marveled at the elevated bridge inside, was dazzled by gold pieces and color-schemed rooms honoring foreign dignitaries, and took in the elegance of another time. Still, my mind constantly went back to the untouched ceiling in the slave house.
Because the hands that painted that ceiling are the true spirits that haunt Savannah and many other parts of the American South. And all the opulence and wealth cannot cover it up.
Ultimately, the ghosts and spirit stories told to preserve a link to Savannah’s past haunt the city far less than the fading ceiling paint in a small building behind the Owens-Thomas House.