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Savannah

The road to Savannah, Georgia from Atlanta is a long one, laid out like a bent outstretched arm with Macon serving as the elbow.  While chewing up miles on that long drive on the highway one can’t help but wonder why the state of Georgia didn’t simply use the direct path that General Sherman and his 70,000 troops so generously provided back in 1864.

They removed obstacles like railroad tracks and buildings, even helpfully leveling whole towns that lie in the path of the army.  When Sherman got to Savannah itself, however, he was so impressed by the town’s beauty that he ordered the place to be largely left alone.  And Savannah has been mostly left alone by developers and the modernizing tendencies of succeeding generations ever since.

While recently driving along I-16 in a southeasterly direction towards the city I thought about those things, how maybe one could save half or even a whole hour driving on “Sherman’s Highway.”  However, I had to take into account the animosity Georgians have always had towards General Sherman and knew because of this the highway has been and would always be theoretical.  Maybe the one thing Sherman on one side and Georgians on the other could agree on is that the road to Savannah should be a little windy, the path a little tortured so that the prize would be a little more valuable.  Savannah is out of the way for any traveler and that fact (along with a strong tradition of architectural preservation) has helped keep the city a giant historical landmark all these years.

There is no superhighway dividing the city, no subways or skyscrapers either.  “Downtown” Savannah is ironically the part of the city that looks most like a small town, with the majority of the buildings only 2 or 3 stories tall and constructed over 100 years ago.  The layout is like a grid, with larger squares equidistant and made up of beautiful little parks.  The fact that it is a grid and that it is laid out to the northeast gives it a kind of harmonic resonance with Manhattan, 800 miles to the northeast.  You could almost extend Broadway in a line all the way down to Georgia and it would line up with perhaps Abercorn Street.  Well…. not quite, but you get the idea.

People have been living here for hundreds of years, dueling, prospering, loving and dying; with many of the oldest gravesites paved over, under streets and buildings and long forgotten.  Perhaps because of this a dozen generations of Savannah residents have been spinning ghost stories, stories that have given the town quite a reputation.  There are of course proper graveyards too.  There are two main cemeteries that people visit when they come to Savannah; Bonaventure and Colonial Park.

Bonaventure Cemetery

Bonaventure Cemetery

Bonaventure is an uber-photographed large Gothic cemetery located to the southeast of town in Thunderbolt, which is either a neighborhood or its own town, depending on who you ask.  A walk or a drive inside the stone gates day or night will always lead to panoramic vistas of live oak and Spanish moss, with the crypts and mausoleums of Savannah’s departed elite scattered throughout.  It is quite a sight, the low hanging moss almost whispering in the breezes that come through.  Many of the more elaborate graves have stone markers up front that say “perpetual care,” kind of a ‘forever contract’ worked out between Savannah’s families (the old ones there that never seem to leave) and the managers of the cemetery.

Colonial Park is even older and located in the heart of Savannah.  It’s a walk in cemetery with entrances on all four sides and is the focal point of historical incidents and ghost lore.  Union troops bivouacked in the Cemetery in late 1864 and out of feelings of boredom or revenge defaced several tombstones, removing others and using still others for musket practice.  Tombstones that were removed were not able to be matched up later in their right spots so were placed along the back wall, where they remain to this day.

Broken headstones along back wall of Colonial

Broken headstones along back wall of Colonial

A few years ago my wife and I took a ghost tour of Savannah and the bus took a long time stopped along the east side of Colonial Park, talking about the “girl on the bench,” the “lady with the hat,” the “running boy.”   Locals love to say that the spirits are still pissed off at having their resting places disturbed by the marauding Yankees.  I could definitely be counted among those people on the bus that night who would love to see some visible manifestation of that anger.

But alas, nothing like that happened, we just drove around the squares that night getting bitten by sand gnats and listening to the guide tell stories through a mike that had been tuned up too high.

Recently, while in Savannah for business, I was determined to make a little out of the free time I did have there.  I walked around downtown quite a bit, sampling the city’s excellent restaurants.  I walked through the squares, the parks that are lovely no matter the season.  Though there were not many flowers in February, the Spanish moss was tinted a little silvery for the season.

One garishly bright afternoon I encountered a square that was larger than most and walked inside.  Only upon entrance did I realize I was inside Colonial Park Cemetery, a place I had previously only seen from the outside, and at night.  It was bright but the shadows were deep.  There was a very sharp and cold wind blowing too, perfect weather for a cemetery walk.  What looked like sleeping animals on the ground turned out to be heaps of Savannah’s ubiquitous Spanish moss, blown forcefully to the ground.

Standing near the center of the cemetery I paused to read a marker and my attention was drawn up and to the left.  I was surprised to see a woman standing there, apparently looking at a tombstone.  She was dressed all in black and had all white or blonde hair, she looked like she’d just come from a funeral, which was odd because there had been no burials there since the late 1800’s.  When I’d walked in a couple of minutes before I saw no one and assumed I was alone.  I glanced back up again about 15 seconds later and she was gone.  I looked around, nothing.

Sometime standing there would have very few exit options in such a short amount of time so, assuming she must be crouched behind a large tombstone, maybe reading it, I strode over quickly.  Nobody there.  I grid-searched the center of the cemetery and got nothing. 

Well, I know what you’re thinking, I’m trying to spin a ghost story of my own, perhaps to add to the legions of others about Savannah.  But no, not really, I’m not.  I don’t believe anything one way or another; it was just strange (but then again, isn’t this what any teller of a ghost story is supposed to say?!).  There was someone there and then all of a sudden they just weren’t there.  I’ll admit that during my whole life, starting when I was a kid drawn in by my mother’s love of the occult, I had wanted to see a ghost.  Was this actually it?  If so I have to say it was a little underwhelming.

As far as strange incidents go it was interesting, as a ghost sighting it was rather disappointing.  Maybe I’ll just take it as a strange incident because as such  it matches all of my other experiences while in Savannah, interesting and, I’ll add, always beautiful.  And like General Sherman, his troops and succeeding generations of Georgians later managed to do, I’ll just leave Savannah and its myriad stories at that, no embellishments necessary.

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