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.

Formally established in 1846 as a private cemetery (although burials had been taking place before that), Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery welcomes thousands of visitors from around the world every year.

First established in 1846 as a private cemetery (although burials took place before that), Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery welcomes thousands of visitors from around the world every year. It became a public cemetery in 1907 and you can purchase a plot there even today.

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.

Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, also known as Comte d'Estaing, led a fleet to aid the American rebels. He participated in a failed Franco-American siege of Newport, R.I. in 1778 and the equally unsuccessful 1779 Siege of Savannah before returning to France in 1780.  While he sympathized with revolutionaries during the French Revolution, he held a personal loyalty to the French royal family. Because of this he came under suspicion, and was executed by guillotine in the Reign of Terror.

Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, also known as Comte D’Estaing, led a fleet to aid American rebels during the Revolutionary War. He participated in a failed Franco-American siege of Newport, R.I. in 1778 and the equally unsuccessful 1779 Siege of Savannah before returning to France in 1780. Later, he was executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror in 1796.

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.

This is the Tattnall family plot at Bonaventure.

This is the Tattnall family plot at Bonaventure. Photo by Ed Jackson.

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.

Josiah Tattnall, Jr. led a colorful life, serving in the U.S. Navy in the War of 1812 and the Spanish American War. When the Federals captured Norfolk in May 1862, Tattnall ordered the ironclad "Virginia" to be blown up, for which he was court-martialed and acquitted. He later commanded the naval station at Savannh as a Commodore.

Josiah Tattnall III led a colorful life, serving in the U.S. Navy in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. When the Federals captured Norfolk in May 1862, Tattnall ordered the Confederate ironclad Virginia to be blown up, for which he was court martialed but later acquitted. His last post was commanding the naval station at Savannah as a Commodore.

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.

Naturalist John Muir, who spent six days at Bonaventure (including sleeping on the graves), once remarked that Bonaventure "contained one of the most impressive assemblages of animal and plant life I have ever seen." This is an undated postcard.

Naturalist John Muir, who spent six days at Bonaventure (including sleeping on the graves), once remarked that it “contained one of the most impressive assemblages of animal and plant life I have ever seen.” This is an undated postcard.

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.

The "Bird Girl" statue sculpted by Sylvia Shaw Judson in 1936 is featured in the movie. It was eventually moved to the Telfair Art Museum to protect it from being damaged by tourists.

The “Bird Girl” statue sculpted by Sylvia Shaw Judson in 1936 is featured on the front cover of The Book. She was originally purchased by Lucy Boyd Trosdal, who named it “Little Wendy” and placed it at a family gravesite. “Bird Girl” was eventually moved to the Telfair Art Museum to protect it from being damaged by curious tourists.

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.

Those of us going on the night tour at Bonaventure gathered at the Jewish gate to wait for our guide.

Those of us going on the night tour at Bonaventure gathered near the Jewish gate to wait for our guide.

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.

The Sunday morning light at Bonaventure cannot be equaled. It has a special quality unlike any place I've ever been.

The morning light at Bonaventure cannot be equaled. It has a special quality unlike any place I’ve ever visited.

Rafaello Rominelli's sculpture of Christ for the monument to Brigadier General Alexander Robert Lawton is simply stunning. The statue was sculpted in 1898 in Florence, Italy.

The Italian artist Rafaello Rominelli’s monument to Brigadier General Alexander Robert Lawton is lovely. It was sculpted in 1898 in Florence, Italy. The Lawton family is still active in Savannah and it remains a prominent name.

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.

She may not be Gracie, but she's absolutely beautiful.

The quote on the base of the monument from Isaiah 40:8 reads “The flower fadeth, but the word of our God shall stand forever.”

I've always had an interest in the feet of statues. The sculptor that pays as much attention to the feet as the face has my admiration.

I’ve always had an interest in the feet of statues. I promise I don’t have a foot fetish! But the sculptor that pays as much attention to the feet as the face has my admiration.

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.

Pensivelady

The thoughtful gaze of this statue always charms me. Little is known about Elizabeth Wilhelmina Theus and her husband, Confederate soldier Thomas Theus. Originally an ancient symbol of victory, the wreath was adopted into the Christian religion as a symbol of the victory of the redemption.

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.

The alcove surrounding the sculpture contains a verse from Mark 10:15: "Verily I Say Unto You, Whosoever Shall Not Receive the Kingdom of God As a Little Child, He Shall Not Enter Therein."

The alcove surrounding the sculpture contains a verse from Mark 10:15: “Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”

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.

In Christian iconography the seashell, and more specifically the scallop, is a symbol for Baptism.

In Christian iconography the seashell, and more specifically the scallop, is a symbol for Baptism. Sometimes people leave flowers in the shell.

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.

SunsetOnMossBon

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