I’ve dreamed of visiting the historic city of Savannah for years. It’s considered by the paranormal community to be a mecca for ghosts and one of the most haunted cities in the U.S., if not the most haunted city. It’s older than the United States itself (records start in 1733), after Georgia was named the 13th and final Colony in 1732, with Savannah becoming its first city. It has existed for 289 years, being created 44 years before the U.S. gained independence from England. It’s Georgia’s 5th most populated city and is known for it’s 22 magnificent squares that dot the city. The architecture and scenery reminded me greatly of New Orleans (New Orleans: The City of the Dead.), albeit everything was a bit cleaner and quieter.
Not only did Savannah go through the American Revolutionary War, it was also part of the Confederacy and suffered through the brutal Civil War. Slavery was made legal by Georgia in 1750 and ran rampant until 1865. The city played an important role in the Atlantic Slave Trade, with slaves eventually being openly sold in Savannah in the 1740s. Not only that, but in 1796 and 1820 two fires leveled different sides of the city, with both being rebuilt afterwards. Also in 1820, Savannah experienced an outbreak of yellow fever that killed a 10th of the population.
Savannah has seen a lot of death and devastation; hence why it’s routinely named as the “most haunted city in America”. There are numerous haunted locations sprinkled throughout the city, as well as multiple, centuries old cemeteries, either inside city limits or on the outskirts. The most famous of these cemeteries is Bonaventure Cemetery.
Bonaventure Cemetery routinely makes most lists of “World’s Most Famous Cemeteries” and is usually in the Top 10 of famous cemeteries to visit by weirdos like me. Established in 1846, it is your stereotypical Georgian cemetery, complete with the area’s famous Spanish moss-covered oak trees with a gothic feel that transports you to any number of medieval European cemeteries. Many of the tombstones date back to the 1800’s and 1900’s, with at least one dating back to 1775 (one year before America’s independence).
Open 7 days a week, from 8am to 5pm, it’s located at 330 Bonaventure Rd, Thunderbolt, GA 31404, sitting on the outskirts of Savannah, in a more “rural” location. I say “rural” because to me, Stonehenge is rural, literally sitting in a field in the middle of nowhere (Stonehenge: Not Just a Pile of Rocks.). This is more like a 20-minute drive to the edge of Savannah. It’s not in the city center but is certainly not an “all day trip” type of deal. It became famous when it was featured in the 1994 novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, and reached an even higher pinnacle of notoriety when the movie based on the book (filmed by Clint Eastwood) was released in 1997.
Quick history rundown – The cemetery was originally built on the sight of the old Bonaventure Plantation, which no longer exists, as the family’s private cemetery. The 600-acre plantation and private cemetery were then sold in 1846 to Peter Wiltberager. Two years later, the son of Peter, Major William H. Wiltberger, formed the Evergreen Cemetery Company, which took over control. 61 years after that, in 1907, the city of Savannah purchased the land and cemetery from the Evergreen Cemetery Company, turning it into the public Bonaventure Cemetery we’ve come to know today.
There are some notable burials in the cemetery, but none that are very well-known or infamous. A few of them include: Samuel B. Adams (interim Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia), Hugh W. Mercer (Civil War Army officer and Confederate general), Conrad Aiken (poet and novelist), Edythe Chapman (actress), Josiah Tattnall, Jr. (Senator and Georgia Governor back in the late 1700’s), Edward Telfair (another late 1700’s Georgia governor), Claudius Charles Wilson (Civil War Confederate general), Gracie Watson (it’s more of her gravestone that is infamous; not her), and the Spanish-American War Veterans from Worth Bagley Camp #10, which is the nation’s 2nd largest burial area dedicated to soldiers killed in the Spanish-American War. There is also a section dedicated to veterans of the World Wars.
Mainly, this cemetery is infamous for how eerily beautiful it is. It is the quintessential deep-south, Georgian cemetery, complete with gothic architecture and headstones, all draped in the gorgeously enchanting Spanish moss-covered oak trees. As the website Thrillist puts it, “Best reason to visit: It looks like a set out of True Blood” (for those unaware, True Blood was a super popular vampire tv show set in the deep-south, with a cult-like following, that aired on HBO).
We didn’t spend a ton of time at Bonaventure, roughly about one hour, and that seemed like enough time. I’m sure one could spend far longer than an hour here, especially if they wanted to slowly read and take in all of the tombstones. We also didn’t stay long mainly because of the famously humid southern heat and the dreadful mosquitoes. I certainly plan on going back in the fall next time.
After visiting Bonaventure Cemetery, we were able to check into our hotel, so we headed that way. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Savannah Historic District, which as the name suggests, is located right in historic downtown at 520 W Bryan St, Savannah, GA 31401. It was nice, decently priced, clean, and most importantly, quiet, so I’d certainly recommend it. We both learned our lesson with cheap hotels during our 2018 East Coast road trip (Epic East Coast Road Trip.), and that is a mistake we would not be making again!
After freshening up, we headed out to grab dinner at a nearby Asian restaurant and then took a lovely evening stroll around historic downtown. I loved this area because, again, it reminded me so much of the French Quarter in New Orleans (my fav U.S. city). In between all the centuries-old buildings (which have long been converted into private homes, bars, restaurants, shops, and small businesses) are small squares, complete with monuments and unparalleled history.
& Wright Squares
There are 22 squares in downtown Savannah, each named after someone or something. They include Calhoun Square, named after John C. Calhoun, Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson; Chippewa Square (made famous by Forest Gump and his bench), named after the Battle of Chippewa during the War of 1812; Telfair Square, named after Edward Telfair, a Scottish immigrant, who contributed greatly to Savannahs cultural and economic growth in the later 1800’s; Warren Square, named after the Revolutionary War hero General Joseph Warren; Washington Square, named after, you guessed it, the U.S.’s 1st President; Franklin Square, named after the Benjamin Franklin, who was an agent for Georgia in London from 1768 to 1778 (as this was during a time when England was still trying to helicopter parent the U.S.); Wright Square, named after Sir James Wright, Georgia’s 3rd and last Royal Governor; and Johnson Square, named after South Carolina Governor Robert Johnson, who befriended the first Georgians after the state was settled.
We visited 3: Johnson, Franklin, and Wright.
Franklin Square was the first one we happened to stumble upon (I was unaware about Savannah’s downtown squares until we arrived. SUCH a rookie mistake to make – research places before you go). This square is right in the middle of some of the liveliest night scenes in the city and was completed in 1790. As mentioned, it’s named after Benjamin Franklin, who was a Founding Father of the United States and the first Postmaster General (and has been wrongly attributed to discovering electricity). The oldest building on the square dates back to 1846.
It also holds an important monument dedicated to the black Haitian soldiers who fought, and died, for America’s independence during the Siege of Savannah in 1779. Also known as the Second Battle of Savannah, it was one of the many battles during the American Revolutionary War, and unfortunately, a victory for the British. Savannah had already been captured by the British a year prior, and it was an attempt to take back the city. Even though the Americans had French allies fighting alongside them (hence how the Haitians became involved), as well as 1,850 more ground troops and 34 more naval ships, the British still managed to kill 244 U.S./French men (only losing 40 British), wounded 584 more (63 wounded British), and captured 120 of them (losing track of 52 of their own).
The monument was erected to honor the Haitians who fought and died for a country they weren’t even citizens of, a death brought on by simply being a country in the Caribbean colonized by a European country called France (although participation was voluntary).
Shaped like a hexagon, there is text inscribed on multiple locations all the way around the monument. Another important text highlights young Henri Christophe, who is also depicted as the Drummer Boy on top of the monument. As a young boy, he went into the Siege of Savannah as one of the drummer boys (as they did stupid stuff like that back then) and luckily survived. He later became a leader in Haiti fighting for the country’s independence from colonial French rule. He then became a commander in the Haitian army, however, his biggest claim to fame is eventually becoming King of Haiti, becoming one of the first Heads of State of African descent in the newly settled western hemisphere.
Located at the Western End of City Market, near Bryan Street.
Laid out in 1773, and named after a South Carolinian governor (who helped grow the colony of Savannah), Johnson Square is the oldest (completed 288 years ago) and largest square in Savannah. Many notable buildings surround the square, including City Hall, the Christ Episcopal Church, and the Ann Hamilton House (the oldest building around the square – built in 1824). Several important events in history have taken place here, including a reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Chekilli (head Chief of the Creek Nation) reciting the origin myth of the Creeks, and finally, a ball for President James Monroe in 1819.
It also holds a monument honoring Nathanael Greene, a New England-born general, as well as his gravesite. He was originally from the North, and although a decorated general of the American Revolutionary War, he somehow managed to get himself into significant debt and fled to the South as a result. He had been awarded several plantations during the war and he made his new home at the Mulberry Grove Plantation, just outside Savannah. Proving that flip-flopping on important political and human rights issues is not a 21st century problem, Greene used to be an outspoken critic against slavery (coming from the North and all), but then decided to purchase slaves for his shiny new toys aka plantations. After falling ill and dying at the ripe age of 43 in 1786, he was originally buried at the Graham Vault in Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, next to his arch-rival, John Maitland. However, in 1902 he was moved to his own little monument in Johnson Square.
I am unsure why Greene was awarded his own monument in a square because he was A) a slave owner, B) died with an insane amount of debt, screwing over a lot of people and causing countless headaches for others, and C) he was a northerner. It’s likely due to people overlooking these small tidbits and focusing solely on him being a decorated war hero. As analyst Robert Killebrew writes, Greene was “regarded by peers and historians as the second-best American general in the Revolutionary War, after Washington”. Killebrew also considers Greene to be the “most underrated general” in American history. Or perhaps because another historian, Russell Weigley, believes that “[He] remains alone as an American master developing a strategy of unconventional war”. So, as history proves, be good at war and you’ll be forgiven for anything.
As for his monument, it was completed by architect William Strickland in 1830, and is in the shape of an obelisk, modeled after the Egyptian style of Cleopatra’s Needle. Why? I do not know.
Located at Bull and Saint Julian streets.
By far my favorite out of the 3, Wright Square was the most beautiful. It was laid out in 1733 and is one of the first four squares laid out and built in Savannah. In fact, it was the second square laid out after Johnson Square. The oldest building on the square is the Lutheran Church of the Ascension, which was built in 1878. It was originally named Percival Square, after Lord Percival, who is generally concerned to be the man who gave Georgia its name (after King George II). However, in 1763, it was renamed after James Wright, who was the third and final royal governor of Georgia. Located on this square is the Tomochichi Federal Building and United States Court House, which is the courthouse for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.
It is also the burial spot of thee Tomochichi (also sometimes written as Tomo-chi-chi), the leader of the Yamacraws. An ally to the British, he was also a dear friend of General Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia (who, naturally, has his own square too). Some historians accredit Tomochichi as being a co-founder of Georgia, but it is not universally accepted. He is buried beneath the Gordon Monument, which is named after William Washington Gordon I, who was the first president of the Central of Georgia Railroad and Banking Company. He has one of the few monuments in Savannah not dedicated to a war general or politician.
As to why Tomochichi is buried beneath a monument honoring some president of some railroad company – it’s because the Central of Georgia Railroad and Banking Company frankly did not care that his grave was there when they decided to erect the monument to Gordon in 1882. Originally, his body was buried at that spot in 1737 with only a pile of rock commemorating him. Apparently, this was easy for the 17th century elitists to ignore, as they totally destroyed it over a century later while erecting the Gordon Monument. However, in 1899, Gordon’s granddaughter, Nellie Kinzie Gordon, apparently the only one with a heart, made it a priority to get a new monument erected in Tomochichi’s honor. While they did not destroy the Gordon Monument to exhume Tomochichi’s remains or erect a monument dedicated to him in its place (as they should have), they erected a smaller, granite rock monument in the square for him.
Location is on Bull Street between State Street and York Street.
Aside from the squares and Bonaventure cemetery, there are numerous things to do and see, including the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Lafayette Square, SCAD Museum of Art, Telfair Museums (first public art museum in the Southern United States), National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, Isaiah Davenport House, the American Prohibition Museum, Georgia State Railroad Museum, Old Fort Jackson (a restored 19th-century fort), First African Baptist Church, Fort McAllister State Park (home to Fort McAllister, the best-preserved earthwork fortification from the Confederacy), Casimir Pulaski Monument (the alleged “father of the American cavalry”), Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace House (founder of the Girl Scouts of America), Savannah Botanical Gardens, Savannah’s Children Museum, Tybee Island Marine Science Center, Wormsloe Historic Site (aka the Wormsloe Plantation – remember Noble Jones?), Savannah Historic District, and sooo much more.
After visiting the three squares, we walked around for a bit longer, entering some stores and bars (Savannah allows you to open carry alcohol around the downtown district – like Vegas and Nashville), eventually passing the birthplace of Juliette Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of America. My short time experiencing the amount of history in downtown Savannah is equivalent to just dipping your toe into a pool, and I am more than anxious to return for much longer!