Of all the cemeteries in Savannah, Georgia, Bonaventure Cemetery is probably the most aesthetically pleasing. In fact, it’s generally considered to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the entirety of the United States—quite a feat!
Now operated by Savannah’s Department of Cemeteries and 100-acres in total, Bonaventure once belonged to the Tattnall and Mullryne families of the late eighteenth century. The plantation consisted of 9,920-acres, an enormous plot of land that today would comprise most of the Savannah Region.
However, drama ensued from here. You see, Tattnall and Mullryne were Loyalists, and once the Revolutionary War erupted, the state of Georgia (like many other newly installed states) stripped all Loyalist supporters of their land. Tattnall and Mullryne were no different.
What followed then was a long-term back-and-forth saga in which Tattnall and Mullryne were booted out and John Habersham purchased Bonaventure. The plantation’s name was decided upon by the original owners, who perhaps saw good fate in naming a working plantation “Bonaventure,” which means “good fortune” in Italian. It’s tough to say whether either Tattnall or Mullryne saw any good fortune in having their land be stolen away, but Tattnall’s son was able to repurchase the estate from Habersham in 1788.
Good fortune, indeed.
Until 1846, Bonaventure remained within the Tattnall family, before being sold to Peter Wiltberger. It was Wiltberger who agreed to care for the family plot on the plantation, and who would ultimately lay out the beginning foundation for Bonaventure to become the large-scale graveyard that it is today.
Which are the must-see tombs in Bonaventure for those visiting? Find out below!
19 Academy Award Nominations. 4 Oscars. Over 1,500 written songs. Founder of Capitol Records.
Could this be anyone else but American songwriter Johnny Mercer? Johnny was actually born in Savannah, Georgia, and hailed from a long line of important Savannahians. His mother Lillian Elizabeth was descended from a merchant seaman who navigated a Union blockade during the Civil War. If that heroic feat was not enough, Johnny Mercer also claimed Confederate General Hugh Weedon Mercer as his great-grandfather and American Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer as well.
Oh, and Johnny also happened to be somewhat distantly related to General S. Patton.
As you can see, the Mercers in Savannah were very well connected.
From a very young age, Johnny’s parents fostered a musical environment. His father would sing Scottish songs, or his mother would bring him to vaudeville shows, even at the shockingly young age of six months. With no musical education behind him, Johnny joined his church’s choir at age six, and by age twelve had amassed hundreds of memorized songs in his head.
His talent was unprecedented, but so too was the fact that as good as he was a singer, he was an even better composer and songwriter. He snuck into speakeasies and listened to ragtime and jazz, all the while writing songs and practicing his craft. When his father’s business crashed, Johnny was expected to help as much as he could—his need for escape grew from there.
His escape came in the form of New York City, to which he moved in 1928 at nineteen years old. Harlem, Broadway—they were both his inspiration and the founding source of his drive. His first lyric appeared in a musical, The Garrick Gaieties, in 1930. He traveled to California and met Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, two of his biggest idols.
For the next few years, in addition to marrying Ginger Meehan, Johnny threw himself into his work—he made a recording debut, he wrote dozens of songs that did not make it anywhere, he won a contest to perform with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. But it was not until the 1930s that Johnny truly found notoriety for his work.
He moved to Hollywood, began writing music for the movie industry, and as they say: that was that. After a few flops, his “I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande” was the final nail he needed to cement his place in the music world. He continued on the top of the game until his death in 1976.
Despite a rather successful career in life, as well as a more tumultuous personal life, Johnny’s level of success after his passing reached even greater heights. He became the inspiration for Barry Manilow, as some of his unfinished lyrics were given to him by Johnny’s widow, Ginger; Johnny was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; in 2009, Clint Eastwood released a documentary about Johnny in celebration of the centennial anniversary of his life.
And in that same year, the city of Savannah did Johnny Mercer one more honor: they created a statue for him in Savannah’s Ellis Square.
For a man who was born in Savannah, who traveled the world and put his stamp on music, Johnny Mercer returned to his birthplace after death. His tomb can now be found in Bonaventure Cemetery.
The tomb of Johnny Mercer’s great-grandfather, General Hugh W. Mercer’s, can also be found at Bonaventure Cemetery.
Born in Frederickburg, Virginia, Hugh W. Mercer also had big shoes to fill—after all, his grandfather, the original Hugh Mercer, had fought under George Washington during the American Revolutionary War.
In looking at his history, it seems that Mercer did a reasonably good job of keeping up. “Reasonable” because his early military career saw a few hurdles.” He’d entered West Point Academy in 1824 but found himself—along with 167 other cadets—involved in the Eggnog Riot of 1826.
It should be noted that alcohol and any level of intoxication was outlawed at West Point. (Unless you hoped to be expelled, of course).
It should also be noted that while the annual West Point Christmas party had normally offered eggnog prepared with alcohol, word came out just before Christmas that the eggnog for that year’s party was to be alcohol-free.
No one was amused, and the announcement ultimately led to one of the biggest scenes of rebellion that West Point had ever witnessed. Liquor was smuggled into the barracks, leading to nearly one-third (give or take) of the cadet’s imbibing way too much. From there, only mayhem ensued. Windows were broken; cadets wandered the grounds in drunken stupors; brawls broke out among the men.
The total damage would have equaled to nearly $4,000 in today’s US currency. The damage to the cadet’s military careers was worse. The lucky few, men like Jefferson Davis and Hugh W. Mercer, were remitted to the academy after being initially expelled and court martialed. Mercer finally graduated in 1828, and his military career continued from there on.
He served as a second lieutenant in the US Artillery and was promoted in 1834. However, a year later Mercer had resigned his commission and retired home to Savannah. It was then that he began construction on the infamous Mercer-Williams House, which would become the crime scene for a murder in the mid-1900s. Unfortunately, no member of the Mercer family ever lived at the Italianate-Revival property, for right after construction began the Civil War broke out and Mercer reenlisted.
He served as colonel and brigadier. In 1862, Mercer’s name became well known throughout the Confederate Army for being the first person to truly work on enlisting slaves to fight for the Confederacy. He later fought at Dalton, Kennesaw Mountain and Marietta—but then illness struck and Hugh W. Mercer returned home.
Banking became his major ambition during the latter half of his life, though his health never recovered. Despite traveling to various spa resorts to ease his pain, Mercer passed away in 1877 and his body was buried in Bonaventure Cemetery.
Poet Conrad Aiken was another born Savannahian, but unlike either Mercer, Aiken’s childhood was fraught with violence and death.
At the age of eleven, Aiken’s father brutally murdered Aiken’s mother, before turning the gun upon himself. There was no known reasoning as to why, at least none that was admitted outside of the family. Following the homicide-turned-suicide, Aiken and his three younger siblings were shipped to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be raised with their mother’s sister.
Between the brutal deaths of his parents, and Aiken’s later enrollment in Harvard University, his path to literary greatness was born of grief, hope and an interest in the psychological. At Harvard, Aiken met T.S. Eliot, who would become one of his most long-lasting friends.
Aiken’s interest in psychoanalysis developed even further. Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung were two scholarly psychologists that Aiken studied profusely—so much so that by the 1920s, Sigmund Freud had actually learned about Aiken’s writings and wished to conduct his own psychoanalysis of Aiken. Aiken was beside himself with excitement, buying a ship ticket and sailing straight for France to meet with his idol.
It was during his time on board that he actually stumbled across one of Freud’s personal disciples, who warned Aiken that taking Freud up on his offer might not be in his best interest. Whether Aiken was upset about this revelation or not, we will never know, but we do know that Conrad never met the man who most influenced his life’s work.
Ultimately, Aiken made his way to England where he divorced his first wife and married his second, painter Mary Hoover. When World War II broke out, Aiken and Mary returned to Massachusetts, where Aiken finally claimed an American audience for his literary work. In his 1952 autobiography, he finally detailed the dark, twisted life he’d experienced during his childhood. But it also included anecdotes about his travels, and the various literary scenes throughout the world.
Conrad Aiken had finally earned international acclaim. In his lifetime, he was awarded the position of Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress; the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, as well as the first Georgia-born author to win the Pulitzer Prize, among many others.
In a weird twist of fate, Aiken and his family returned to Savannah in the 1960s—where he was offered to live in his old childhood home on Oglethorpe Avenue, across from Colonial Park Cemetery. Aiken wasn’t interested in returning to those particular memories, so he instead chose to live free-of-charge next door at 230 Oglethorpe Avenue.
Before his death, Aiken had a marble bench installed next to his parents’ tombstones in Bonaventure Cemetery. On it was etched “Give my love to the world” and “Cosmos Mariner Destination Unknown.”
For Aiken, despite the trials of his childhood and the deeply troubling thoughts that continued to plague him, he had only love the scholarly and literary world. In 2003, he received one last honor: he was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Today, while his body is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery, a plaque commemorating his accomplishments can be found outside of his home on 230 Oglethorpe Avenue.
Perhaps the most famous grave in Bonaventure Cemetery is that of Little Gracie Watson. The iron gate surrounding her tomb is often adorned with trinkets and toys left by guests of the cemetery, all of whom wish to offer the little girl a bit of comfort in the Afterlife.
The story of Little Gracie is by no means lighthearted.
Born in 1883 to parents W.J. and Frances Watson, Gracie hailed originally from Boston, Massachusetts. After her father was given the opportunity to manage one of the most popular hotels in Savannah, however, the Watson family made the move to Georgia. After all, one did not say no to the luxurious Pulaski Hotel.
From almost the first moment that the Watson family arrived, Little Gracie’s face became one of the most recognized in all of the hotel. The guests adored her, and it seems that she adored them as well. She would laugh and dance, sing and play for anyone willing to give her a moment of their time. For Little Gracie, it seemed that there was all the time in the world . . . Until there simply wasn’t any longer.
At just six years old, Little Gracie was struck with a high fever, a plaguing cough. Somehow she had caught pneumonia, a sickness that could level any adult and could surely do damage to a little girl. Little Gracie had not the strength to press on, and just days before Easter she finally succumbed to illness.
W.J. and Frances were utterly distraught. W.J. had a beautiful stone carving erected in Bonaventure Cemetery by famed sculptor John Waltz; it was to be an exact liking to his baby girl, and Waltz’s skill surely did Little Gracie justice.
Unfortunately, her parents found it almost unbearable to remain in Savannah after their daughter’s death. Instead, they chose to return to New England, where they lived out the rest of their days. At the time of the respective deaths, they were both buried together in New England . . . while poor Little Gracie remained in Savannah. Alone.
For over a hundred years now, Little Gracie has been a favorite stop for visitors of Bonaventure Cemetery. Although she is not with her family, one could surely argue that her family has since become everyone who makes it a priority to stop by her tomb and leave her toy or just to say hello.
For a little girl who once loved to sing and hold the attention in a room, we can only imagine that Little Gracie’s spirit revels in the spotlight.
“Duelling at the present day has fallen into disrepute; it never did settle any point of honor and sensible discard if compatible with the spirit of the age; yet peculiar circumstances [ . . . ] drive men to such hostile meetings, and it would be fortunate to all parties if the issue was equally favorable.”
– “My First Duel” by M. M. Noah
Savannah Daily Republican, August 10, 1842
Between the years of 1740 and 1877, Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, played host to not only the already deceased but those who were rapidly headed toward that fate.
The art of dueling, as it happened, was not the best practice to involve oneself if a person wished to keep their limbs intact and the number of holes in their body the same as they were at birth.
In Savannah, however, dueling was an incredibly common practice that oftentimes took place at none other than Colonial Park Cemetery. With the number of buried tallying around 11,000 people, Colonial Park Cemetery’s number of “dead duelists” (if you will), in no way is staggering in its overall total.
At Colonial Park Cemetery, yellow fever epidemics, other fits of disease, fire and war were the edge of evil that crept into society to steal the babes from their cribs and proud men from the battlefield. And yet, duelists in the cemetery are more often than not marked by green placards describing the scene of the duel; others simply provide the most basic information for those who lost their life in the midst of a prideful fight.
Who were some of these famed duelists? First, let’s take a quick moment to truly understand the art of dueling and how it came to be in Savannah.
From the start of time—or at least the start of man’s pride—dueling was a method of conflict engaged in by men who hoped to settle the score. A cutting remark or a slight to one’s honor were instigating actions that ultimately paved the way to “meeting at dawn.”
(Generally, dawn proved the best hour to commence with dueling as the authorities were still abed and unlikely to put a stop to anything).
But if it was not one’s own honor that was called into question, it was probably a wife’s, sister’s or mother’s reputation that had been slandered. And thus, the only thing worse than receiving an insult yourself was to have a woman in the family be on the receiving end instead.
Here is an 18th Century sketch of a British Duel–if you look closely, you will see that they are making fun of the American South and their dueling “habits.” [Source: Library of Congress}Established originally in Ireland, in 1777, the Code Duello prescribed the necessary rules to the art of dueling. For example:
“The first offense requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult.”
In other words: if a cutting insult was delivered, then an apology was integral to settle the matter. If the apology was rejected, then the challenger’s “second” was meant to ease the situation. But if this step was ignored, then the Code Duello mandated:
“As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. [ . . . ] If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed; or until, after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.”
European practice dictated that the duel was expected to happen, no matter if a change of heart occurred or there was an attempt to yield a more favorable outcome without firing a pistol or stabbing each other with swords.
Blood was to be drawn and the subject of “honor” restored.
Although the United States followed the well established Code Duello, things were a mite different down in the American South.
The European Code Duello was the law of the land until 1838, when former South Carolina governor John Lyde Wilson wrote the accompanying “The Southern Duello” or, more professionally known as, “The Code of Honor; or Rules For the Government of Principles and Seconds in Duelling.”
Much like the European Code Duello, the American Southern version listed all the need-to-know information. Which insults constituted a challenge for a duel, where dueling should be conducted, the roles and responsibilities of seconds, who were generally friends of the challenged and challenger. And a particular good one: physicians and surgeons were not necessary during the duel unless both parties agreed that they were. In short, many duelists were left to bleed out thanks to a lack of medical support.
Informally, duels were sometimes referred to as “pistols for two, coffins for one.” A morbid image to be sure, especially as it brings to mind that not everyone would leave such a confrontation the same as they entered it.
Despite the gruesome imagery, dueling in Savannah did not always come to pass as it did in the more traditionally stringent Europe. Dueling Savannahians were known to mark their paces, turn to face one another and then aim their pistols up into the air. Bang! Bang! the shots rang out, and yet both men remained standing and unhurt. The score was settled with a firm shake of the hand and perhaps a word or two volleyed back and forth about who would have won had they decided to go for it.
But the insults that launched a thousand duels (or perhaps dramatically less than this)—oh, the insults remained the same. Challenges were issued in the local newspapers or sometimes tacked on posts or storefronts throughout town, and thus earned the nickname “postings.” And sometimes they got incredibly saucy in their verbiage. A few of the best:
“I do proclaim Richard Henry Leake, Attorney-at-Law, to be an infamous liar and vile defamer. Fathers of families, if you value the reputation of your daughters, suffer him not to enter your doors.” – John Miller
Or, better still:
“. . . I therefore pronounce General James Jackson an assassin of reputation and a coward.” – Jacob Waldburger
Frequently the challenger’s missive was answered in kind, even in the newspaper, and by that point . . . Well, it was unlikely that the instance would simply be glossed over. Instead, the challenger and the challenged picked their seconds, and the challenged was granted the luxury of choosing the location and the preferred weaponry.
Naturally, not everyone in Savannah particularly favored the act of dueling, like Mr. M. M. Noah who spoke so disagreeably of it in the local newspaper. From the early nineteenth century on there was a strong movement to outlaw the practice from all of Savannah society.
For example, following a rather political duel when the Governor of Georgia David Mitchell killed his opponent, William Hunter, at the Old Jewish Burial Ground, Mitchell went on to sign legislation in 1809 that aimed to stop dueling. It was thereafter illegal to accept a challenge, especially if the challenged was a member of the government.
The Revolutionary War saw both American and British officers dueling—sometimes against each other, sometimes within themselves—at what is now Fort Pulaski. Another anti-dueling law was established in 1828 by Governor John Forsyth, who made all civil and military officers swear an oath that they would have nothing to do with dueling.
And then an even more exacting law followed, which ruled that no one in the state was allowed to publish a challenge in the newspaper that initiated a duel by calling the challenged “a coward.” If someone did, they were to be imprisoned and fined one thousand dollars—a fee so exorbitant at the time that one would think potential duelists would have been scared off by the mere prospect of being poor for the remainder of their lives.
This was not the case, not even when it was then ordered that if death was the outcome of a duel, then the “killer” and his seconds were deemed guilty for manslaughter.
The city of Savannah and the state of Georgia sought every measure to curtail the bloody practice that resulted in more deaths than a simple acceptance of “let us agree to disagree.”
As one article stated in the Savannah Morning News on March 9, 1876 (just one year before the final duel in the city): “And now the Young Men’s Literary Association have decided that dueling is never justifiable. So, now keep your challenges in your pocket.”
For as many men agreed to keep said challenges tucked away, there were just as many men, if not more, who could not do that. And many of them were then buried in Colonial Park Cemetery.
As has been mentioned, many of the duelists who are interred at Colonial Park Cemetery have placards that mark their burial and the cause of their death.
One of these such National Register state markers revolves around Lieutenant James Wilde who was unfortunately killed in a duel against Captain Roswell P. Johnson. Both men served in the 8th Regiment U.S. Infantry. The reason for the argument is unknown, which the placard even notes. (No further information could be recovered from local newspapers, either, to solidify or expand upon what the marker already states).
What is known, however, was that the duel transpired on January 16, 1815, near the city of Savannah. Somehow both Wilde and Johnson survived three wound-free rounds before the tragedy of the fourth occurred. Lieutenant James Wilde took a bullet through the heart, stealing his breath and life in one fell swoop.
Wilde’s epitaph indicates that Captain Roswell P. Johnson was “a man who a short time before would have been friendless but for [Wilde].”
Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the duel between the two military men was that Wilde’s younger brother, who was both a poet and a statesman, wrote a significant poem about the campaign against the Seminoles . . . though some wonder if he was not referring to his own brother’s life being cut dramatically short.
The opening stanza reads:
My life is like the Summer Rose,
That opens to the morning sky;
But ere the shades of evening close,
is scattered on the ground — to die.
The next pair of Savannahian duelists can actually be found less than a stone’s throw away from each other at Colonial Park Cemetery.
The first McIntosh to engage in the “pistols for two, coffin for one” battle was General Lachlan McIntosh against Button Gwinnett, who just so happened to be one of the men to sign the Declaration of Independence.
As the story goes, McIntosh had established his credibility within the military and political sphere at a young age. He had high hopes, and even higher ambitions, about scaling the ranks within the colony of Georgia. Button Gwinnett, alternatively, had no military experience to speak of and yet found himself in the position of Governor of Georgia during the Revolutionary War.
As one might expect: Lachlan McIntosh was not amused. But neither was Gwinnett. Button Gwinnett’s envy only escalated after McIntosh was placed in the charge of all of the Continental troops in Georgia.
Gwinnett had wanted that exact same position.
Soon enough McIntosh and Gwinnett began issuing orders to the troops that completely contradicted—or just flat or disputed—what the other had said. Matters became so terrible between the men that under one of Gwinnett’s orders when the British invaded, McIntosh and his men were left roaming the Floridian swamp.
McIntosh returned to Georgia in a flurry of anger. That flurry swirled even faster after discovering his brother had been arrested for treason by none other than Button Gwinnet.
McIntosh had had enough. The insults came next, naturally, and naturally, Gwinnet issued a challenge to a duel. They decamped to the still-unknown location and faced off with their seconds at the reader. Normally, the men would have positioned themselves with their backs turned, but McIntosh was keen to see his opponent’s face.
McIntosh aimed at Gwinnett’s thigh; Gwinnet did the same. But Gwinnett’s fire glanced off McIntosh’s leg, leaving only a superficial wound. The same could not be said for the Governor. Gwinnett was felled by the force of his wound.
He died three days later. McIntosh, alternatively, was tried for murder but released under the grounds of the Code Duello.
And both men, enemies in life and one can only assume so in death, too, are found nearly side by side at Colonial Park Cemetery. Till this day, their duel remains one of the most famous of such skirmishes in Savannah’s history.
As an intriguing side note: Lachlan McIntosh was not the only McIntosh to fight in a duel. His nephew, Lieutenant-Coloneal John McIntosh, fought against Captain Elholm because of a dispute over military conduct. The duel itself was incredibly gritty, with Elholm’s arm nearly being severed and McIntosh’s being severely mangled. Both men survived, luckily, though their limbs remained somewhat disfigured following the battle. They, too, were buried in Colonial Park Cemetery at the end of their lives.
In 1831, poor Odrey Miller fought in a duel and became the victim. Who he dueled? That answer has been lost to history.
From his tomb slab in Colonial Park Cemetery, it’s clear that at one point in time his killer’s name was etched on the marble. Perhaps Odrey’s last wish was for all to know who had stolen his life—after all, as the story goes, he ensured that his friends did this one last thing for him.
However, one morning Odrey’s friends headed down to the cemetery . . . only to find that the duelist’s name had been completely scratched out.
Was it Odrey’s opponent who wished to keep his identity a secret for the rest of time? Or was he simply nervous to face the potential consequences with the Savannah government should anyone discover that he had taken a life?
Whatever the case, Odrey Miller’s tomb no longer gives the whole story and we can only imagine what occurred on that early morning when the two men marked their paces and commenced with salvaging their honor and reputation.
Dueling grounds can be found all throughout Savannah, but strangely enough most of the preferred meeting spots tended to be the city’s cemeteries. Colonial Park Cemetery was only one of the many graveyards where men once faced off in the name of honor.
But Colonial Park Cemetery is one of the only places where the duelist’s are named and marked for all to see who wander through. If you’re considering visiting the cemetery, be sure to go during the park’s opening hours from dusk to dawn.
For those of you hoping to learn more about dueling in Savannah and the particular graveyards and the old “dueling site” at Colonial Park Cemetery, consider taking our Cemetery Tour where you’ll learn all about Colonial Park Cemetery’s history as well as its secrets.
We hope to see you there!
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.