Colonial Park Cemetery is the oldest graveyard in Savannah. Opened in 1750, it was used as Savannah’s primary burial ground for 103 years. Included among the noteworthy burials here are Revolutionary War heroes like Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Generals Lachlan McIntosh and Samuel Elbert; Archibald Bulloch, 1st President of Georgia, and Maj. William Leigh Pierce.
But Colonial Park Cemetery is not a collection of war heroes. It is filled with ordinary people whose weathered headstones tell much about their life’s struggles and triumphs. Standing in Colonial Park Cemetery, we are surrounded by people from all walks of life; the merchants, carpenters, nurses, wives, husbands, and children. This is a place of mass graves. We have duelists and suicides buried alongside the statesmen and captains of industry. All of these people have stories to tell.
History of the Colonial Park Cemetery
Colonial Park, originally known as Old or Brick Cemetery, is the oldest cemetery in Savannah, but not the first. It is the 2nd burial ground to be used in Savannah, the 1st being located right off of Wright Square (originally Percival Ward).
The old cemetery was bordered by Bull, Whitaker, York and Oglethorpe streets. It was only in use during the first 17 years of the city’s existence. In 1750, plans were made for a new cemetery outside the city’s wall along Oglethorpe Av., which was then known as South Broad Street.
There is only a brass plaque to commemorate those graves today, which incidentally are still there. The graves were not moved into the new cemetery, and the city allowed the plot of land to be developed.
In 1783, plans were made to repair the brick wall that surrounded Colonial Park, which was damaged extensively during the British occupation. People living near the cemetery began to complain about packs of wild dogs digging up corpses.
This problem was compounded because overcrowding in the Catholic section off to the east made it necessary to re-open the burial ground to new burials every ten years. This literally meant that the graves were being dug up, and the eastern side of the graveyard was strewn with human remains.
George Washington made a substantial contribution for the wall during his visit in 1791, and the resulting new wall contained 300,000 bricks. The remaining section of this wall is still visible on the eastern side of the cemetery.
Foundation of the Colonial Park Cemetery
Colonial Park Cemetery, on the southern side, has the distinction of being the dueling ground in years past. The grassy commons served as both a dueling ground and as Potter’s Field.
The first recorded duel was in 1740, with swords. The more- traditional firearm quickly gained prominent use in duels; the last use of swords was the Revolutionary- era duel between John McIntosh and Capt. Elholm.
They cut each other up to the point of mutual collapse. Both recovered, and wisely decided that their disagreement was not important enough to fight a second duel.
In 1852, because of overcrowding conditions in ‘Brick’ Cemetery, the city allotted 100 acres of the newly- purchased Springfield Plantation for the purpose of beginning a new public graveyard.
This new cemetery was to be known as Laurel Grove, and to alleviate some of the overcrowded condition at Colonial Park, the city allowed for graves to be moved from the older Colonial Cemetery into the new site free of charge. Six hundred burials were moved in this fashion, but there was a problem: Springfield Plantation had been a rice plantation, and rice grows in swampy marshes.
Laurel Grove was hardly an ideal resting place for the honored dead, at least in the opinion of their loved ones. So, many of those who were moved into Laurel Grove were then moved yet again to Bonaventure Cemetery. So with many of the headstones in Bonaventure Cemetery mark the final resting place of those who changed addresses more often once they were deceased than they did when they were alive.
Replica of Past Glory and Infamous Spirits
Colonial Park Cemetery was closed to new burials in 1853. Over the years, well- meaning but misguided attempts to renovate and ‘beautify’ the cemetery have resulted in the loss of numerous tombstones.
There are about 600 burial markers, but over 10,000 bodies interred here. Stones have been the subject of theft, neglect, and outright vandalism. One of the more colorful instances of the latter is when Sherman’s troops occupied the city, in December of 1864.
Many troops were stationed inside the cemetery walls, it being ideal to stable horses. Not only did the Union troops search for valuables among the burial vaults and graves, but they also changed the dates on a number of these tombstones. If the altered tombstones are to be believed, the oldest person buried in Colonial Park Cemetery lived to the ripe old age of 1700!
The Brick Vaults
Scattered throughout the cemetery are brick vaults. These are family vaults. At first glance they appear to be above- ground burials, but this is not the case. A sealed-over archway on one side marks the former entrance, and a series of steps, long- since filled in with earth, once led down into the vaults.
Once inside, you would find a row of three shelves on either side, which contained either a coffin, or in some cases, a shrouded corpse. In the center of the vault floor would be placed a large urn. When the vault became crowded and the shelves were full, the older burials would be placed inside the urn to save room. As time passed, more bones would be added to the urn as more space was needed—and this also reinforced the idea of the family being together, in this case literally, in death.
Few Notable Graves
1. Button Gwinnett/ Lachlan McIntosh
The names of Gen. Lachlan McIntosh and Button Gwinnett will be forever linked. Once friends, it was here that they fought their duel in 1777. Gwinnett was acting Governor of Georgia during the Revolutionary War.
He imagined himself a commander, yet had no military experience. It was General McIntosh, a born military leader, who was in charge of the Continental troops in Georgia. Colonial forces in the region often received orders from both Gwinnett and McIntosh that contradicted one another.
Their bad relationship was further tainted when an invasion of British- held Florida, planned by Gwinnett, went awry and McIntosh and Samuel Elbert were left wandering around a swamp. McIntosh blamed the mission’s failure on Gwinnett.
The Tragic situation
A bad situation got worse when McIntosh finally returned to Savannah to find that his brother George had been arrested on charges of treason—by Gwinnett (he was later tried by Congress and released). Both Gwinnett and McIntosh were called in front of a tribunal to explain the failure of the Florida expedition. Gwinnett managed to escape rebuke, but McIntosh was not so lucky. McIntosh had some harsh words with Gwinnett, and Gwinnett challenged him to a duel.
The two met, along with their assistants (called ‘seconds’) and agreed to fire from four paces away. They were both wounded in the leg in the exchange. McIntosh’s wound was superficial, but Gwinnett was shot just above the knee, a wound that broke his thighbone.
McIntosh grimly asked if Gwinnett would like another shot, and Gwinnett answered that he would, if the seconds would help him to his feet. The seconds, perhaps not anxious to be in the line of fire between two wounded men with loaded pistols, interceded. Gwinnett died three days later, of a gangrenous infection. McIntosh was tried for murder, but acquitted.
Today, Button Gwinnett is remembered for being one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but also for the rarity of his signature. Only a few are known to exist. One of these signatures was on a document that was formerly in the possession of the city of Savannah; at least it was until an unscrupulous clerk sold it to a collector for $50,000.
2. Odrey Miller
Odrey Miller, who died in a duel in 1831, has an intriguing gravestone: his friends made sure that the man who shot Odrey Miller was named on his tombstone for posterity. The killer apparently took exception to being recorded in stone as a murderer so, presumably under cover of darkness, he crept into the cemetery and chiseled his name off of Odrey Miller’s slab.
3. The Habershams
The Habersham burial vault tells a story all too familiar during the Revolution: fathers against sons. James Habersham Sr. was grateful to the crown of England for the opportunity to become a wealthy man in the New World.
He arrived in Savannah in 1738. He was not only a plantation owner, but also served at the orphanage Bethesda as an administrator and educator with his friend, Rev. George Whitefield. James Habersham had 3 sons, James Jr., Joseph and John.
James Sr. was nearing death as the first rumbles of Revolution began to be heard. He was dismayed to find that all three of his sons were sympathetic to the Colonial cause, and were involved with the Sons of Liberty.
It broke his heart that his boys would fight against the Crown he had spent his life serving. They would also find themselves arrayed “father against son, and son against father”. Only in death did they resolve their bitter family conflict: they are buried together here, father with sons, sons with father.
Joseph Habersham was perhaps the most famous of the three brothers. He was responsible for capturing Royal Governor James Wright by walking into his home and clapping Wright on the shoulder, announcing that Wright was now under arrest. It was in this fashion that Habersham, acting alone, managed to capture one of the most powerful men in Georgia.
4. Samuel Elbert
Samuel Elbert attained the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army. He also served as Governor of Georgia, a Trustee of Chatham Academy, and Sheriff of Chatham County. When he passed away, he was buried originally at his plantation, called Rae’s Hall.
The burial ground at Rae’s Hall was a large Indian mound, known as ‘the ‘Mount’. Located about 5 miles upriver, it had previously been a burial ground for the Indians that predated the Yamacraw in the area.
There he and the remains of his wife remained in the old Indian burial mound until 1915, when a group of children from prominent Savannah families decided to hunt for arrowheads and artifacts in the mound. Instead they found some bones, which were actually two skeletons, along with coffin handles, and nails.
The boys were thrilled with their discovery, and they dug up the bones and took them home. But the excitement of their find was quickly dulled when an article in the newspaper a few days later announced that vandals had desecrated the grave of Samuel Elbert, Revolutionary War hero.
One of the boys, in a panic, threw some of the bones away. The remaining bones were eventually taken to the Georgia Historical Society, and turned in to a librarian there, where they remained in a drawer for several years. Finally in 1924, amid great ceremony, the bones were placed in Colonial Park Cemetery.
It is still not known whether the bones actually belonged to Elbert, his wife, or perhaps another family member. And what of the bones discarded? It is entirely possible that these bones were the remains of Samuel Elbert. The Revolutionary War hero and politician could be buried in a less- than- honorable location: the city dump.
More Gravestones and Stories
|Susannah Gray||She “departed this life by the will of God, being killed by lightning on the 26th, July 1812”. Her correct age is 21 years, not the 121 years, 1124 days that is listed on her stone.|
|Elizabeth Gordon||A great businesswoman, Elizabeth, in her quest to make profits out of her cotton selling ran the American blockade by sitting on top of the cotton bales in a rocking chair, trusting in the honor of gentlemen not to fire at a lady. Her risk paid off, and she made a fortune.|
|Samuel Vickers||It came as a shock to many residents that a prominent doc like Sam shot himself for reasons still unknown while visiting Sharon Plantation. The tombstone bears a soul portrait complete with wings.|
|John Struthers||Upon the death of John, Robert inherited the Glasgow Brewery. So, not only is there a glowing account of John’s life on the gravestone, there is also an advertisement for the brewery.|
|Anne Guerard||Right next to the D.A.R. gate is the reddish-brown slab marking the grave of Anne Guerard. She died in 1793, at the age of 41, a few days following the birth of her 15th child. While this may seem shocking, it may be counting stillborn children as well.|
|Ann McLaughlin||She reportedly lived to 186 years of age, inscriptions say.|
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