You may remember that back in February, I took a short but memorable trip to Savannah. My journey included a stop at one of the South’s oldest burial grounds — Colonial Cemetery. It’s a wonderful place to amble through, chock full of history. But it also has a few secrets it seems reluctant to part with.
Sitting in the center of the Historic District, Colonial is thought to be the oldest cemetery still in existence in the city (which was established as a British colony by General James Oglethorpe in 1733). When you walk through the gates, it doesn’t seem like there are that many grave stones present. But while there are about 600 or so visible markers in Colonial, it is home to an estimated 10,000 graves. Historians aren’t even sure if the markers that remain are placed where they were originally due to so many changes to the place over the years.
Colonial opened for burials in 1750. Over the years, it expanded from a few acres to its current six. At one point, it was larger than its current borders would indicate. So when construction occurs in the area, bones from those unmarked graves are often found. Eventually, Colonial closed to burials in 1853 for lack of space.
What you’ll immediately notice as you stroll down the paths is that there are a number of brick tombs. I had only seen a few of these before and they were at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. During Savannah’s early years, the city did not have access to the fine marble crypts that later Savannah cemeteries like Laurel Grove Cemetery have. Brick was what they had to build with, so I am guessing that’s why they favored it.
In 1999, the Chicora Foundation (a non-profit heritage preservation organization) was hired to do an in-depth study of Colonial Cemetery. Of special interest were these brick tombs and their construction. You can read the report here.
What I learned from Chicora’s report is that these tombs were made primarily with two kinds of bricks. “Savannah Grays” were actually more red and brown than gray, locally made, large and not well-fired. By contrast, “Philadelphia” bricks were slightly smaller and very hard by comparison. These were probably imported from the North and were also being used in many of the buildings taking shape in the city at that time.
One of Colonial’s more famous former residents was General Nathanael Greene, a decorated Revolutionary War hero and friend of President George Washington (who visited Savannah in 1791). A native of Rhode Island, Greene is best known for his successful command in the Southern Campaign in which he forced British General Charles Cornwalis to give up the Carolinas.
Greene was buried in Colonial after his death at his Georgia estate, Mulberry Grove, in 1786. However, in 1901, there was a push to have Greene’s remains buried in Johnson Square under a monument in his honor. The problem was, nobody was quite sure which tomb he was buried in!
Col. Asa Bird Gardiner, president of the Rhode Island State Society of the Cincinnati (an organization for descendants of military officers of the Revolutionary War), was assigned the task of finding Greene’s remains. From notes left by Greene’s grandson, all they knew was that the man was taller than average and had a wide, prominent forehead. Not much to go on compared to the forensic technology we have access to today.
But Gardiner (with help) eventually had success:
He heard something clatter inside the sieve and plucked from it three metal buttons with a patina of green. He wiped one button clean and saw the faint outline of an eagle. Gardiner recognized these as buttons worn by officers of the Revolution. Keenan then found a French silk glove filled with finger bones. French silk had been a luxury during the Revolution. Keenan found a second glove full of bones. He then found a third glove stiff with finger bones. Obviously more than one person had been entombed on this side of the vault. (From the article “Recovering the Remains of General Nathanael Greene” by Gerald M. Carbone.)
The second person turned out to be Greene’s oldest son, who drowned at the age of 18. The elder Greene’s identity was also confirmed by the discovery of an engraved nameplate on the coffin. Both Greene and his son’s remains were removed and now rest in Johnson Square underneath a large monument.
As a result of its hot, humid climate and (in its early days) unsanitary conditions, Savannah had the dubious honor of enduring several Yellow Fever epidemics over the years. Thousands of people who died during those epidemics are buried in Colonial Cemetery. Many of their graves are unmarked.
One of Colonial’s most fascinating and enduring features is its long wall of old broken headstones salvaged from the past. They are a result of one of Colonial’s periods of renovation in 1895 when the Park and Tree Commission took over. Their efforts to shape the cemetery into something akin to a public park included planting masses of foliage over many of the tombs and gravestones. Why? I have no idea.
Some of the markers have altered dates on them, but I did not see many. The story goes that Union Soldiers who camped in Colonial Cemetery during the Civil War did it in an attempt to get back at the Confederate Forces. Many of them reminded me of the stones I saw in Charleston, especially the ones with the weeping willow motif. So many of those buried here died young, some even shortly after they were born.
Finally, one last thing I should mention is that several prominent Savannah gentlemen are buried here as a result of the “dueling era” that took place from the 1730s to the 1870s. Some of them were fought for the flimsiest of reasons. Many even say some of these duels took place in Colonial Cemetery itself, but that is a bit of a mystery.
In the case of Button Gwinnett, who signed the Declaration of Independence and is the man for whom Georgia’s Gwinnett County is named, he died as the result of his wounds from a duel he fought with his political rival, Col. Lachlan McIntosh. Why a duel? Gwinnett tried to lead a campaign against British-controlled East Florida in order to secure Georgia’s border, but McIntosh was against it. Gwinnett challenged his enemy to a duel and while both were wounded, Gwinnett died.
There are a number of ghost stories surrounding Colonial but they really don’t interest me much. The history of the place is fascinating enough. When I was there, I felt rather solemn. The awareness that so many people were buried there during Savannah’s tumultuous early years was great.
And many took this city’s secrets with them to the grave.
You sure do find some interesting places
I try! 🙂
Nice article! I haven’t been to this one but the one near the water where a lot of slaves are buried. As usual, want to go back and explore further! Thanks for your report!
Beneath Thy Feet said:
Fantastic informative post and what amazing pictures. It looks like a thoroughly fascinating place to explore.
I host a Cemetery Blog Hop on my blog beneaththyfeet.blogspot.co.uk every Sunday for cemetery bloggers to showcase their favourite posts or any posts they have done that week. I hope you can join us.
Looks absolutely lovely! I look forward to posting and reading about other blogger’s adventures. Thank you so much for commenting.
Debbie Saylor said:
During the the time before the city was actually awarded the claim to the cemetery and not the church, it had become so dilapidated and had become an extreme eye sore , It had been neglected, tombs open, etc that the city did “everything possible to disguise the cemetery. Some tombs repaired ,some were removed, and vines were thickly planted over others to convert them to them into masses of foliage”.
I hope this wasn’t a rhetorical question to get readers to seek out the answer and learn more. Which is exactly what I did, not intending to take the ” fun” out of searching , for others that may want to.
Pat W. said:
I am so thrilled to have had this pop up on Cemetery Explorers. We travel to Savannah/Charleston every year, and Bonaventure and Laurel Gove are always on our itinerary. I, too, love “Shell Girl”, and have dozens of pictures of Louisa Porter. Isn’t she amazing? Beautiful shots, and a great, informative article. Thank you!
I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Yes, Charleston and Savannah are prime cities for cemetery lovers. I’ve been to Magnolia Cemetery (Charleston) several times now. If you get a chance, arrange a private tour of the Jewish Cemetery in Charleston that’s locked up. It’s well worth the time and small donation.
Allen Rowe said:
Oh! It’s Allen again! You’re a ahead of me! You already know the gates aren’t nearly big enough to contain the cemetery! More trivia, or rather another story to tell. There’s a park right behind the cemetery that the back gate leads right to. Once while walking around with a bestie, we stopped just to take in the beautiful cool winter day. It was about February so it was 60ish. The “heavy vibe” is quite thick within colonial park. Sitting on the swing and being a native, I turned to my friend on the other swing and bluntly told her we should leave. We were very likely swinging on top of someone deceased! She told me she knew, but they had probably been dead a hundred years or more so instead of family leaving flowers, people come play on the playground. I figured this was lemonade out of a lemon, but I still felt insanely morbid. The rest of our walk that day I realized how Savannah it was to turn a cemetery into a local park. Tourists come for history, college students come to walk their dogs, natives come to visit their ghostly neighbors, but we all can sip the fine Chatham city water at the fountain and play on the playground with the dead!
Hi, Allen! I’ve beeb enjoying your comments. I think in a lot of older cities like Savannah, Boston, Philly, etc., there are a lot of cemeteries that got built over. I know Chicago has a park that was built over a cemetery and they left one above-ground mausoleum intact. It’s amazing construction crews around Savannah don’t find bones more often.
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