Historic Savannah is often called one of the country’s most beautiful cities, rich in history and natural splendor. So, it isn’t surprising that the city’s cemeteries are also full of natural beauty and intriguing history. And, although it would take the length of a book to give these cemeteries full justice, we’re going to provide an overview of three historic Savannah cemeteries: Colonial Park, Bonaventure and Laurel Grove.
Colonial Park Cemetery
This cemetery was founded in 1750 by the Christ Church Parish at the intersection of Abercorn Street and Oglethorpe Street. Visitors are greeted by a large stone Roman arch, topped with a bald eagle, and more than 10,000 people are buried within its grounds. In 1789, people of all faiths could begin being buried there, and this is where Button Gwinnett was laid to rest.
He was one of three signers of the Declaration of Independence from Georgia, serving in the state’s colonial legislature as well as the Second Continental Congress. He also was the president of the Revolutionary Council of Safety in Georgia. His signature is one of the most valuable of the Declaration of Independence signers, with a document featuring his signature valued at $700,000-$800,000 in 2012. He died after fighting a duel with Continental Army Commander Lachlan Macintosh. It wasn’t especially unusual, by the way, for duels to be fought within the actual cemetery grounds, with this occurring reasonably regularly from 1740 through 1877.
In 1820, the number of filled graves increased significantly as the city was plagued with a deadly eruption of yellow fever. Nearly 700 people in Savannah died from this epidemic. By the time the Civil War began, this cemetery was already full, and residents were being buried in the Laurel Grove Cemetery, North and South. When General William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia, his army used Colonial Park Cemetery as his temporary camp.
It was said that bored Union soldiers were changing the dates on tombstones, making some people more than 1,000 years old. These scratched out (and then scratched in) dates can still be seen on some of them. The cemetery became a city park in 1896.
The word “bonaventure” means “good fortune,” making it an unusual name of a cemetery – and that’s because it started out as a plantation owned by John Mullryne and Josiah Tattnall. Located three miles from Savannah, the property winds along the Wilmington River. Because of the property’s location, and the profusion of colorful azaleas and camellias, stately magnolias, live oaks, Spanish moss and dogwood, they named their 9,920 acres of land “Bonaventure.”
After the Revolutionary War began a few years later, the owners of the property quickly became labeled as traitors because they supported the British royalty – and then they were banished from the colonies. This property served as the site of a hospital for a few years; in 1788, the property was sold back to the Tattnall family. In 1846, property was sold to Peter Wiltberger on the condition that the family cemetery located on the grounds continue to be maintained. In 1847, the new owner bought 70 more acres and officially established the Evergreen Cemetery of Bonaventure. The city purchased the cemetery in 1982.
People who visit the cemetery today will see a tranquil space set up much like a Victorian garden with winding paths. Numerous Civil War generals are buried there, along with two Savannah founders: Edward Telfair and Noble Wimberly Jones.
Fans of the bestselling book, After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, will be interested to know that the Bird Girl statue on the book’s cover was originally from this cemetery. This book was released in 1994, with the Kevin Spacey and John Cusack movie – directed by Clint Eastwood – debuting in 1997. In 2014, the Bird Girl statue was moved to the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts on West York Street. A gravestone that remains there and is often photographed is in the shape of a piano. You can find significantly more information about the Bonaventure Cemetery in this helpful map and guide of the cemetery.
Laurel Grove Cemetery
By the time Laurel Grove Cemetery was founded, other Savannah cemeteries had been filled to the brim, including Colonial Park Cemetery. So, the city purchased part of the Springfield Plantation from the Stiles family to create the Laurel Grove Cemetery, and it became the most used one throughout the 19th century.
This cemetery was first used in 1850 in the North section, a beautiful final resting place intended only for citizens. Three years later, a cemetery (the South section) was opened for “free persons of color and slaves.” Hundreds of bodies were exhumed from what had been called the Old Negro Cemetery, moving them to this new portion of Laurel Grove. They included Reverend Andrew Bryan, a man born in 1737 as a slave. When his master died, he was left 95 pounds of sterling silver and he used 50 of them to buy his freedom. He founded the First African Baptist Church, a church that had 69 members in 1788 and about 700 in 1800. He lived a long life, dying in 1812.
Another person whose remains were transferred was Reverend Henry Cunningham. It is believed that the largest numbers of free persons of color have been buried in this cemetery when considering all cemeteries in the American Southeast.
When the Civil War hit, the plots in the North section filled up far too quickly, with about 1,500 Confederate soldiers now resting in the section devoted to deceased veterans of the era. These include eight generals, including Francis Bartow (pictured to the left) and Gilbert M. Sorrel. Other people buried in this cemetery include a US Supreme Court Associate Justice; Juliet Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts; the composer of Jingle Bells, James Pierpont; and more. By the time the 20th century arrived, this cemetery was full.
Historic Savannah Sightseeing Tours
There is so much to see and do in Savannah. When you book a spot on the 90-minute trolley tour of Savannah, one of the many sightseeing spots includes the Colonial Park Cemetery.