My delay in writing about Bonaventure Cemetery was never intentional. I first visited in February 2014 and like many, was dazzled by it. I took lots of pictures with the intent of writing about that visit by spring.
Unfortunately, the hard drive of our desktop computer crashed a few months later and took with it all those lovely photos (except for a few I’d published on Facebook). It wasn’t until October that I returned to Savannah. Frankly, I think the pictures from that trip are even better since I got to spend more time there. But before I get into that, there’s quite a bit of history behind Bonaventure I want to share.
Bonaventure began as a vast plantation of nearly 600 acres, located three miles from Savannah on St. Augustine Creek. Owned by British loyalists John Mullryne and his son-in-law, Josiah Tattnall, the plantation’s name is French for “good fortune.” Altogether, they owned close to 10,000 acres in Georgia. A number of Tattnalls were buried in a family plot on the Bonaventure estate.
In 1777, all lands owned by British sympathizers were confiscated by the state and auctioned off. Mullryne, Tattnall and their families fled to England. Bonaventure was purchased by family friend John Habersham (a name still well known in Savannah). During the Siege of Savannah in 1779, the estate was used by French Admiral Charles Hector D’Estaing as a hospital. Upon their defeat, the French army and its allies departed from Bonaventure, probably after burying unidentified troops here.
Eventually, Eton-educated Josiah Tattnall, Jr. returned to Georgia and purchased Bonaventure back from Habersham. He went on to become a U.S. Senator and in 1801, Governor of Georgia. After his death in 1803, he was buried on the grounds of Bonaventure among other family members.
His son, Josiah Tattnall III, gained distinction as a Naval officer in the War of 1812. He commanded the Confederate ironclad Virginia (ex-Merrimac) after her battle with the USS Monitor. His command to have the Virginia blown up had him court-martialed, but he was later acquitted. His last years were spent in Savannah commanding that naval station there. He, too, is buried at Bonaventure.
Bonaventure didn’t truly become a cemetery until 1846 when Josiah Tattnall III sold it to wealthy hotelier Peter Wiltberger. He was the one who incorporated 70 acres of the property into what was called Evergreen Cemetery. It was designed around the ruins of the Tattnall mansion using the existing live oak tree-lined roadways to provide access and separate the major cemetery sections. In 1907, the City of Savannah purchased it and the place officially became Bonaventure Cemetery.
Bonaventure didn’t come to national attention until the 1994 publication of a book by John Berendt called Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The Book (as it is often called by fans) became a best-selling novel. The movie based on The Book was directed by Clint Eastwood in 1997 and starred Kevin Spacey and John Cussack.
I haven’t read the book yet but I tried watching the movie. The fakeness of the Southern accents in some scenes was so bad I couldn’t watch the whole thing. However, the scenes including Bonaventure Cemetery and the “Bird Girl” statue on The Book’s cover (she is now safely ensconced in the Telfair Art Museum) captured the interest of fans from the start. Savannah, and the cemetery, have been inundated with tourists ever since.
About 30 different tours wind their way through Bonaventure every week, bringing in buses filled with hundreds of visitors. You can drive your car through the cemetery. There’s only one night tour at Bonaventure (led by Shannon Scott) that takes place after the gates close. I went on that one in October. Unlike Cussack and Spacey’s characters in the movie, you can walk through the place as the sun sets without breaking the law.
Unlike most of the cemeteries I visit, Bonaventure is usually crawling with living people. For an introvert like me, that’s not a pleasant experience. When I visit nearby Laurel Grove Cemetery, there’s hardly a (breathing) soul around and I can amble amid the tombs and rusting iron gates in peace. I feel more at home there because it’s just me and the graves.
With that said, I did get a taste of that quiet I crave when I visited Bonaventure on a Sunday morning in October. There weren’t many people around (yet) and I could enjoy it for the beautiful, reverent place it was meant to be. There were moments I can only describe as worshipful because God’s handiwork was so apparent.
One of my first stops was the grave of Brigadier General Alexander Robert Lawton, who was president of the Augusta and Savannah Railroad, a president of the American Bar Association and U. S. Minister to Austria. With the Wilmington River flowing in the background, the statue of Christ seemed to welcome me like a special guest.
My next stop was meant to be Gracie, one of Bonaventure’s most photographed and beloved residents, but a couple was already there. Instead, I found this monument to Nannie “Ann” Herndon Mercer (a relative of composer Johnny Mercer, who is buried nearby). For some reason, her delicate feet got my attention as well.
One of my favorite statues from my February visit was nearby so I stopped to see her again. I think the photograph I took back then (one of the few that survived) is much better than the one I took on my second visit. This picture is on the cover photo of my Adventures in Cemetery Hopping Facebook page. The pensive lady sits atop the grave of Elizabeth Wilhelmina Theus, wife of a Confederate soldier who died in 1895.
I was also eager to revisit another monument, this one a child. Some call her the “Shell Girl” and she’s unlike any of the other ladies at Bonaventure. The graves of George Johnson Baldwin and his wife, Lucy Harvie Baldwin, rest in front of her.
I did not realize until recently when I saw the verse inscribed on the wall behind the statue of “Shell Girl” why a child was represented. I’d initially thought the couple had lost a child but instead, the reason they chose a little girl was to emphasize the importance of having a child-like faith.
I’ll be back next week with Part II of my visit to Bonaventure. You’ll get to meet Gracie and a few other famous residents.