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.