Savannah saved, but from what?

In early January 1865, some three weeks after the Union Army entered Savannah at the sweeping end of Sherman's March to the Sea, some 500 black children marched through the city to the old slave market that had been hastily converted into a large schoolroom.

That '"army of colored children," one observer noted, "seemed to excite feeling and interest, second only to that of Gen. Sherman's Army."

And as historian Jacqueline Jones describes the scene, "positioned in front of the auctioneer's desk, now occupied by their teacher, freed boys and girls commenced their classes."

But despite such accounts of newly gained freedom -- and an upbeat title -- "Saving Savannah" is ultimately the darkening story of how Savannah and the South was lost to a century of repression and segregation.

This is a history rich in social detail and written with deep insight. Jones, a Bancroft Prize-winning historian who teaches at the University of Texas, uses the life and times of one city and its people to convey the broader outlines of the political and social tensions during the quarter century that encapsulated the Civil War.

Savannah, in the decades before the Civil War, was a major seaport, and the Georgia lowcountry was the nation's major rice-producing region. And while there was that slave market, there was also a significant community of free blacks.

And often it was difficult to tell a black person's legal status, writes Jones, citing a butcher who, "hiring his own time and paying his master $50 a month," had "a freedom of movement that belied his status as a slave."

A "martial spirit" had long dominated the city's civic life. And by the fall of 1860, with the impending election of Lincoln, that "citizen soldiery" was mobilizing, marching and drilling in the city's squares, watched by "throngs of black curiosity seekers."

With the coming of war, that curiosity turned to resistance as enslaved and free blacks "opened up a second front." After Union forces seized vital areas along the coast in late 1861, black boatmen helped pilot Union ships up the Savannah River and acted as spies and guides for Union troops. Others formed raiding parties to seize cattle and foodstuffs from their former masters' plantations.

At the same time, schools and other civic institutions were being established by blacks on the Union-controlled coastal islands to which they had fled.

Already, by the fall of 1863, Savannah itself had "a threadbare appearance," and there were "widespread shortages of labor and resources." And within the year, the end was in sight as Sherman's forces captured, and burned, Atlanta in September 1864, with Savannah clearly "the ultimate destination."

Witnessing Atlanta's fate, Savannah's city leaders resolved to surrender the city to the advancing Union forces. And Sherman's "saving of Savannah," as a counterpoint to the destruction of Atlanta, would be "a dramatic sign of the impending Union triumph."

In the following months, the white leadership worked to retain political control, while black leaders "moved to reclaim the streets," triggering a white backlash "to ensure that black people remained literally in their place."

A clear sign that political repression was the new order came in September 1868, when the Georgia Legislature expelled all its recently elected black members on the grounds that under the state Constitution, blacks were not guaranteed the right to hold office. That November, when some 1,000 black men assembled outside Savannah's single polling place, fully 90 percent were turned away through various challenges.

The ensuing melee, in which three white policemen and three blacks were killed, Jones writes, "was less a riot than a rout of black voters."

The continued repression of Southern blacks over the next hundred years is beyond the scope of Jones' account. However, there is one incident that readers may find as pointing to the future.

In July 1872, a group of blacks boarded white-only streetcars. At the next stop, three white men forcibly ejected them. The scene would be repeated over the next few days, ending when a federal commissioner ruled that Congress had not granted blacks a "social privilege" that would give them the right to integrated public facilities.

It would be some 83 years later that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., to a white passenger, setting in motion the modern battle for civil rights.