Savannah, Georgia is routinely rated one of the most beautiful American cities—and why wouldn’t it be?
It boasts the country’s largest Historic District, with one of the highest percentages of historic homes per square capita. Its landscape is incomparable, thanks to its positioning within Georgia’s Low Country. Spanish moss flutters in the breeze, and the city’s historic squares bequeath endless green space throughout the downtown area. Additionally, the city’s proximity to the Savannah River allows for stunning waterfront property and scenic walks.
Savannah’s historical value, in addition to its endless charm, therefore make this Colonial and Antebellum city a hotspot for travelers and locals alike.
But within the boundaries of Savannah, some of the most awe-inspiring places to visit are its cemeteries and graveyards.
Indubitably cemeteries provide an opportunity for close insight into a city’s past. Cemeteries in Savannah might not look anything like those of New Orleans, which in turn look nothing like the graveyards found in Kansas or California. They are often a symbol or display of a city’s culture and tradition.
More importantly, these graveyards offer a glimpse into the circumstances of Savannah’s history during its nearly three-century-old haul. From the American Plague of yellow fever to the death of innumerable Civil War soldiers, Savannah’s cemeteries are not only beautiful because of their architecture or countless oak trees but because of their ability to allow visitors to recapture the past, even for just a small moment in time.
While there are countless cemeteries to choose from, here are our choices for the most beautiful cemeteries in Savannah, Georgia:
Of all of the cemeteries in Savannah, Laurel Grove might have one of the most intriguing pasts—intriguing but also telling of the social state of Savannah during the nineteenth century.
By the late 1840s, there was something of a problem in Savannah: there were simply not enough burial plots to keep pace with the number of dying people in the city. Prior to the maximum capacity issue of the mid-1800s, Savannahians had been buried in Old Cemetery (Colonial Park Cemetery), Potter’s Field, the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Old Negro Cemetery.
The necessary land was acquired from the Stiles family who owned the Springfield Plantation, and it thereafter became the first and foremost burial ground for the city of Savannah for the rest of the nineteenth century.
Prior to Laurel Grove’s establishment, the cemeteries in Savannah had been racially segregated. This continued in the city’s new cemetery—although not just yet.
The year 1850 saw the first burial at Laurel Grove, which would later be known as the North plot. It was exclusively meant non-African Americans. Magnolias, live oaks, pine and dogwoods dotted the green. In comparison to Colonial Park Cemetery, which predated Laurel Grove by more than five decades, Laurel Grove North was a haven of beautiful trees and tranquility.
It was not until three years later that a companion cemetery opened to allow for black people to be buried. Fifteen more acres were acquired in addition to the fifteen that had already been purchased, so that “free persons of color and slaves” could be buried—at this point in Savannah history, the Old Negro Cemetery (as it was historically termed) had not only reached capacity . . . but the land itself was to be used for new housing developments.
Hundreds of bodies were thus dug up from their final resting place at the Old Negro Cemetery. Famous men such as Reverend Andrew Bryan (1737-1812) and Reverend Henry Cunningham (1759-1842) were exhumed and then reinterred at Laurel Grove South. Some evidence suggests that Bryan, who had been born a slave and had also founded the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, was not one of the fortunate people to have their remains actually transferred out of the old cemetery. Alternatively, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that this isn’t true so we must believe—and hope—that the marker in Laurel Grove South does actually hold the remains of one of the most important men in Georgia history.
Historical records suggest that more free persons of color were buried in Laurel Grove South than in any other cemetery in the American Southeast.
By the 1860s, Laurel Grove North’s plots were selling off quick. The number of dead who returned from the Civil War did not allow for much choice. By the end of the War between the States, nearly 1500 Confederate Soldiers were laid to rest in a section of the cemetery devoted exclusively to the deceased veterans of the war.
Eight generals were buried in Laurel Grove North, including Gilbert M. Sorrel and Francis Bartow.
Laurel Grove North also holds the gravesite of Juliet Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, “Jingle Bells” composer James Pierpont, twenty-four Savannah mayors, and one US Supreme Court Associate Justice.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Laurel Grove too had reached capacity—and today is known to hold have the highest concentration of Victorian period cemetery architecture in the Southeast, as well some of the largest number of burials per site.
Today, Laurel Grove Cemetery stands as a blatant reminder of Savannah’s racially contested past: North and South, white and black. It speaks to the city’s past, but also offers a juxtaposition between the integrated present. As well, the trials and strength needed to get to the city’s current social position in the last century.
Should feel compelled to visit the cemetery, Laurel Grove North and South are open from dawn to dusk.
Bonaventure Cemetery has a few claims to fame: its old and is also considered one of the most beautiful cemeteries in America, making it a perfect addition to this list.
For all of its beauty and stately architecture, Bonaventure’s origins are quite dramatic. Seated just three miles from Savannah on St. Augustine Creek, the land once belonged to John Mullryne and his son-in-law Josiah Tattnall. When they were granted the land in 1771 it was nearly 9,920 acres and, because of its size and location, they named it “Bonaventure.”
In Italian, “bonaventure” means “good fortune.” A small cemetery plot was established for family members in 1773. Unfortunately, it’s safe to say that the good fortune of Mullryne and Tattnall would not last much longer.
The Revolutionary War erupted just a few years later, but when it did the Mullryne and Tattnall families were not quiet in whom they supported. Their loyalties lay with England and George III, and both families were deemed traitors. Disloyal. They were subsequently banished from Georgia. In 1782, the newly recognized state of Georgia began disbursing land like Bonaventure to those who had supported the infantile United States.
Men like John Habersham, who purchased Bonaventure. However, the history of Bonaventure turned only stranger from here: for a time during the Siege of Savannah it operated as a hospital for French and Haitian troops. Then, in 1788, only six years after the original families had lost the plantation, Josiah Tattnall, Jr. returned to claim what he deemed his.
Habersham agreed to resell the plantation and the land, and so the land was welcomed back into the family of the Tattnalls. The old burial ground that they had established in 1773 continued to be of use, first for Tattnall’s wife in 1803 as well as six of their nine children.
By 1846, the Tattnall family (Josiah III) sold the then 600-acre plantation to Peter Wiltberger—on one condition. Tattnall III requested that the small family cemetery be kept up and not allowed to fall into ruin. Wiltberger agreed and in 1847, he acquired 70 more acres of land to which he established the Evergreen Cemetery of Bonaventure.
It remained a public burial ground, and still is, until 1982 when the city acquired the cemetery. Today, it still remains active and sits at 100 acres.
Over the years, it accrued some of the most important members of Savannah society, including Savannah founders Noble Wimberly Jones and Edward Telfair. So too are singer Johnny Mercer, countless Civil War Generals, and other poets.
Sweeping Spanish moss, colorful azaleas, dogwood and magnolias create an air of tranquility at Bonaventure Cemetery. Due to its incredible size, we certainly recommend visiting Bonaventure Cemetery with a cemetery tour.
Luckily enough, we at Discover Historic America offer such a tour and would love to have you on board!
The second oldest cemetery in Savannah can be found at the cross-section of Abercorn and Oglethorpe Streets in the Historic District. Its entrance boasts a large stone Roman Arch with a bald eagle overhead—a grand welcoming gesture if there ever was one.
Colonial Park Cemetery is not only a sight to behold, but its historical significance within the city of Savannah is one of trial, tragedy and restoration with over 10,000 people buried within.
Established in 1750 as the burial ground for the Christ Church Parish, Colonial Park Cemetery was expanded some thirty years later in 1789 to include all religious faiths. For the following century, Colonial Park remained the primary burial ground for all of Savannah—and plenty of famous people were therefore interred inside. One of which was Button Gwinnett, a man who signed the Declaration of Independence but who also died fighting a duel against Continent Army Commander Lachlan Macintosh.
However, despite the number of notable people buried in Colonial Park Cemetery (or the Old Cemetery), it was the innumerable yellow fever victims that are often discussed today on tours throughout the city.
Savannah, like many other cities in the American South, was afflicted with several horrific epidemics of what historians often call the “American Plague.” The disease of yellow fever was such that there was not much that could be done if you found yourself exhibiting the early symptoms. Spiked fevers, failing organs, the threat of a coma—the only cure to the disease was simply to survive it.
If one could, of course.
In the year 1820, Savannah suffered one of its most disastrous bouts of yellow fever, killing nearly 700 people. The exact number, if it is to be believed, was 666 victims. The threat of yellow fever did not stop in death, however. Many victims who were afflicted by yellow fever succumbed to a deep coma, sometimes lasting a matter of days. Believing the victim to be dead, family members commenced with the burial process—only for the so-called “yellow fever victim” to emerge from their coma in a dark, dank wooden coffin underground with no way to escape. A fate that most would not wish upon even their worst enemies.
Duels were also commonplace at Colonial Park, with the first occurring in 1740 (or so they say) and the last transpiring around 1877. Search for the “dueling ground” when visiting Colonial Park and visitors will quickly find this plot of land which played host to masculine honor and pride—“too much pride” some might even say.
By the Civil War era, Colonial Park Cemetery had been closed to further burials with the citizens of Savannah being put in Laurel Grove North and South. Even so, when General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived in Savannah on his March to the Sea campaign, the Union Army set up camp inside of Colonial Park Cemetery.
Rumors spread that the Union soldiers were scratching out dates on some of the headstones and putting in others—some poor souls found immortality and lived to be over 1,000 years old. These vandalized headstones can still be found at the cemetery, a true testament to a period in which the Savannahians were too fearful of retribution to say anything and the Union soldiers too bored to refrain from some fun.
Since 1896, the cemetery was converted into a city park and is open to visitors from dawn to dusk. It’s a frequent stop on ghost tours thanks to its eery background, but is also a fantastic spot for a historical cemetery tour as well. If you’re hoping to take a historical cemetery tour of Colonial Park, be sure to check out our walking tour! You don’t want to miss out.
It seems that the beauty of Colonial Park Cemetery, as opposed to Bonaventure or Laurel Grove, comes from its ruin and tragedy. But just like Savannah’s other cemeteries, is no less beautiful.