For the last two months, Isaac McCaslin has been reliving the events of December 8, 1864. He’s been holed up in his studio on Drayton Street, carving out the narrative of the betrayal at Ebenezer Creek into ten charcoal drawings. In a city with so much history, it’s not unusual for Savannah’s Civil War tragedies to become b-plots to other more intense atrocities or battles. The events at Ebenezer Creek are remembered by the historical marker placed on the creek bed, but that’s about it.
McCaslin’s series walks us through the events of that night. Sherman’s Army Approaching Savannah puts us right in the middle of an enormous crowd. Major General William T. Sherman’s Union troops march towards Savannah, closely followed by hundreds of black refugees – freed slaves whom Sherman called “contrabands”, desperate for food and help.
Even in their desperation, the refugees avoided the 14th Corps, led by Brigadier General Jefferson Davis, a notorious racist even by Civil War standards. Davis blamed the 600 or so freedmen and women following his unit for slowing down the march. (Unless the freed slaves were the cause of that winter’s torrential rainstorms, Davis was definitely deflecting.)
By the time the march reached Ebenezer Creek, the Confederate cavalry was right on their heels and Davis was feeling the pressure. A pontoon bridge was quickly built (in part by the freed slaves) and the Union troops began to cross. The refugees, however, were ordered to wait. Freedpeople Waiting to Cross Ebenezer Creek places us on the bank of the creek too, watching the last of the troops march to safety. McCaslin slices the scene in half with a soldier’s bayonet, a choice that renders the event’s division of power explicit.
The horrifying events that followed are described plainly on the Georgia Historical Society marker at the Ebenezer Creek site today: “Davis hastily removed the pontoon bridge over the creek, and hundreds of freed slaves following his army drowned trying to swim the swollen waters to escape the pursuing Confederates.”
Abandonment at Ebenezer Creek depicts the chilling moment of betrayal. Chaplain John Hight, a witness to the tragedy, wrote about the moment the refugees realized they were stranded: “There went up from the multitude a cry of agony.”
McCaslin’s drawing is gut-wrenchingly visceral; the terror and rage of his figures seems to echo long after the first viewing has passed. The artist describes the piece as “Goya-esque in its necessary grotesqueness”. Tragedy at Ebenezer Creek’s twisted faces of horror and desperation should be more than enough to start a conversation about the astounding injustices of America’s past and how they might affect us today.
A conversation is exactly what McCaslin wants. Creating this work has led him to examine our current social climate more closely. “This country was built by slaves and a lot of the wealth that we’re privileged by is from the hard work of an incredible human injustice… We’re still mistreating African-Americans and in my opinion a lot of it is largely subconscious biases that people haven’t come to terms with,” he explained during a studio visit last week. (If you disagree, I hope the word “Ferguson” can quickly dispatch your argument.)
The Ebenezer Creek series is, of course, a selective framing of history, but that doesn’t diminish its pertinence to the present day. “I think stories like this are still relevant today because we still haven’t absolutely achieved civil rights,” McCaslin told me. The empathetic examination of injustice and oppression through art like McCaslin’s will hopefully help spur on that conversation.
The Ebenezer Creek series will be on view at Of Two Minds studio during the April 3rd First Friday Art March.
Editor’s Note: This series of drawings has been adapted from a series of sketches commissioned by Resurrection Life Counseling for their upcoming docudrama 40 Acres and a Mule.