Sailors’ Burial Ground

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Allie Pipitone as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2015.

The Sailors’ Burial Ground historical marker was dedicated in 1953. View the Sailors’ Burial Ground historical marker listing.

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1. Sailors’ Burial Ground Marker, Laurel Grove North Cemetery, Savannah. Courtesy of Allie Pipitone.

2. 102-110 East Bay Street, Savannah, Ga., photographic print, c. 1979. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

3. Clagrhorn and Cunningham Advertisement, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

4. The Rebel defences [sic] of Savannah, Georgia, 1864, pen-and-ink and watercolor, c. 1862-1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

5. Anchor Monument, Laurel Grove North Cemetery, Savannah. Courtesy of Allie Pipitone.

6. Anchor Monument Text, Laurel Grove North Cemetery, Savannah. Courtesy of Allie Pipitone.

7. The American Paddleship Savannah, wood engraving, 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

8. Adonhis Kragero, Savannah, Ga., photographic print, c. 1883-1892. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

9. USS Waterwitch, glass negative, c. 1909. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

10. “The Shipwreck” by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Courtesy of Tate.

The following essay is by SCAD student Allie Pipitone, 2017.


Inspiration for this project comes from my deep-seeded interest in disastrous and tragic events, and a willingness to investigate why humans are drawn to these tales. Shipwrecks represent a lost history; they embody the spirit of adventure gone wrong. However, more powerfully than that, they also represent tales of hope and heroism when humans risk everything to help each other survive. The Sailors’ Burial Ground commemorates those who died while in the port of Savannah, and the hallowed ground in which they now rest. Telling its tale and its relationship to open waters seemed appropriate. 

Marker History

Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea.

But such a tide as moving seems a’sleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep,

Turns again home.

— “Crossing the Bar,” Lord Tennyson

The above poem by Lord Tennyson was requested to be part of the original marker text for the Sailors’ Burial Ground, but after much revision from Alexander A. Lawrence, president of the Georgia Historical Society from 1945-1952, was omitted in the final marker text.[i]

Erected in 1953, the marker credits the donation of the land by Major John Cunningham (Fig. 1). A “public-spirted citizen,” Cunningham served as an Alderman for Savannah on four separate occasions.[ii] In 1848, he and Joseph Samuel Claghorn established Claghorn & Cunningham, a ship chandlery located on Bay Street.[iii] (Fig. 2 and Fig. 3) The two served as senior officers in the Confederate States Army (CSA) and their chandlery supplied provisions for CSA forces during the Civil War.[iv] Both men helped evacuate the city of Savannah during General Hardee’s retreat on December 20, 1864 (Figure 4).[v] When Cunningham purchased the burial plots in 1860, he did so with the intention that they would be used “for a burying ground for the ‘Ships Captains and Officers who may die in this Port.”[vi] By the time Major Cunningham had given the lots to the Savannah Port Society in 1897, he learned that there were already several people buried there—without his consent—who weren’t officers or captains of any vessels.[vii] Records for those buried in the lots do exist and are kept by Laurel Grove Cemetery North, as there are only a few tombstones on the lots to mark the graves that are there.[viii] On January 13, 2013, a memorial anchor was placed on the lot. (Fig. 5 and 6)


While the ocean itself has captured our imaginations for thousands of years, the haunting tale of shipwrecks and the crews that went down with them adds to its allure. Their sunken, lifeless forms open the gateway to discovery, revealing a history of not only the ship’s era, but also the places it has traveled to and the people it has served. An estimated 1,200 shipwrecks of historical value dot the Georgia coastline, none of which have been excavated and put on permanent display.[ix] Georgia’s maritime history is long neglected. Many of the ships found around Georgia cannot compete with the luster of the treasure ships found just to the north and south in the Carolinas and Florida. However, what it lacks in sunken treasure, it makes up for in a rich history.

Before roads were cut into the Georgia soil, the waterways that veined through the state served as a highway system of sorts. These waterways served settlers and natives alike, transporting goods during the state’s European occupation.[x] These waterways were utilized during the Civil War and aided the Confederacy in eluding the Union army.[xi] As such, many of the shipwrecks found near Savannah relay the history of the Civil War. Though the city was divided between abolitionists and those that supported the institution of slavery, Savannah was a Confederate port, supplying the CSA with supplies and other goods to support the Confederate cause.[xii] When Sherman’s army drew close, the city was surrendered and many of the Confederate ships were scuttled to keep the Union Army from using the technology for themselves. Possibly the most well-known shipwreck that had this fate was the C.S.S. Georgia, an ironclad warship. Due to its lack of offensive prowess, it was used as a floating battery in the Savannah River.[xiii] It took over a century to rediscover the C.S.S. Georgia through the dredging of the river in 1968.[xiv] Currently, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but is being excavated before the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project can take place.

Lesser known shipwrecks also share tales of heroism, such as the Canadian ship, the Mary E. Chapman. Wrecked on the Stonehorse Reef near the coast of Tybee Island, the Mary. E. Chapman seemed doomed in the face of treacherous weather and sinking.[xv] Peter Dodge and Dr. Joseph Graham risked their lives by braving the perilous waters and rowing out to the ship. Because of their bravery, all sailors aboard were rescued. Both Dodge and Graham were recognized for their heroism by the Canadian government; Graham was awarded a gold watch and Dodge a silver medal.[xvi]

Though not wrecked along the Georgia coast, the S.S. Savannah still made its way in history as the first American steamship to cross the Atlantic (Fig. 7). Built in 1818, she made the voyage from Savannah, Georgia to Liverpool, England in twenty-nine days. The start of her voyage, May 22, 1819, marks National Maritime Day, which began its observance in 1933.[xvii] The S.S. Savannah was not considered a commercial success and in 1821, was wrecked off the coast of Long Island.[xviii]

The fascination with ships lost to the waves may relate to their status as symbols of the time in which they were lost. Though many shipwrecks and their stories are attentively documented, many more remain missing in their watery graves. According to the National Park Service, shipwrecks “…are archaeological sites that provide opportunities for scientific and historical research. More importantly, these wrecks serve as memorials to the work and sacrifice of the men and women who have made their lives on the sea.”[xix]

Other notable shipwrecks of Coastal Georgia include:

Adonis Kragero, shipwrecked in the Tybee River. (Fig. 8)

Manchester Packet; a British ship that was driven ashore on Tybee Island on April 25, 1815.[xx]

SS Republic; a steamship wrecked off the coast of Savannah in a hurricane in October of 1865.[xxi] It was rediscovered in November of 2003 with over 51,000 gold coins and over 14,000 artifacts.[xxii] These artifacts related to 19th century goods used during the Civil War era.[xxiii]

Thomas G. Haight, a sidewheel steamer that caught fire while at Miller’s Wharf in Savannah in   1856. To stop the spread of fire, she was cut loose from the wharf and drifted with the tide before being grounded on Fig Island.[xxiv]

USS Water Witch, a side-wheeled gunboat and part of the Union fleet used as part of the naval blockade of the Georgia coast during the Civil War. When it was captured by Confederate troops in 1864, a former slave serving in the Union ranks lept aboard and swam ashore to warn other blockaders. The Union ships went on the offensive before the Confederates could use the USS Water Witch to their advantage. Though the Confederates escaped with the ship, they later burned it as Sherman’s forces neared (Fig. 9).[xxv]

Sensationalism of Shipwrecks

“Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity. We are flung into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them.”

— “On the pleasures of the Imagination,” Joseph Addison

When we seek out tales of shipwrecks and hardship, we do so with our own sense of safety.[xxvi] There is no harm in reading a tale about a shipwreck, nor are we thrown into danger. The fact is, humans love tales of disaster, as they become spectators at a safe distance. With the stakes raised high, tales of life or death are intrinsically human. According to Andrew O’Connell, author of The Synthesis, disaster remains interesting to us for a variety of different reasons. The biggest reason for this fascination regards our own moral dilemma and whether we ourselves could survive these disasters.[xxvii] At times, the worst situations bring people together and force them to harness their own sense of ingenuity to survive an otherwise hopeless situation.[xxviii] At their very core, shipwrecks embody the will to survive and the spirit of adventure. Treasure hunts, tales of pirates, sacrifice and heroism, being lost at sea or stranded on an island, have become common tales within our own literary and artistic canons. Their sensationalism inspires artists to appropriate the real-life disasters for their own means. Such was the Romantic Era of painting.

In the nineteenth century, artists struggled to define the sublime, a feeling of overwhelming awe and terror all at once. In an attempt to capture the sublime effect in their own work, artists looked to nature, seeing that “nature could in themselves have deep significance.”[xxix] Because of this, many paintings from the era capture the tension of mankind versus nature and the primal force of the elements. This often appeared as ships—an object of mankind—being tossed about by the ocean and wrecked—an object of nature. One famous artist known for his depictions of the swell of the sea was Joseph Mallord William Turner. According to Tate, “Turner defines the essence of such an experience through overwhelming impressions of realism and horror. The dark tonality, characteristic of Turner’s early paintings, provides a foil to the white crests and swirls of the waves.”[xxx] (Figure 10).

Yet shipwrecks appear beyond this era. Often times in art and literature, they are portrayed tragically and serve to illustrate some moral theme. As in the case of the Titanic, which has spawned over forty different film and television adaptations, it is often credited as being the “…call to the end of an age of luxury, self-indulgence and overconfidence that would soon be destroyed by World War I.”[xxxi] Though not endorsed as the most disastrous peacetime shipwreck (that title belongs to the MV Doña Paz, where over 4,000 lives were lost in 1987), it has arguably become the most famous thanks in part to the role of popular culture.  Other works, such as H.G. Wells’ Island of Doctor Moreau include commentary on the ethics of genetic engineering well before its time.[xxxii] In Wells’ tale, Edward Prendick is shipwrecked and stranded on an island where he encounters strange creatures. Folktales such as the Flying Dutchman are based around a ship thought to have sunk near the Cape of Good Hope.[xxxiii] It serves as a warning to inattentive captains that do not recognize brewing storms. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is shipwrecked twice: once on his way to Charybdis (where all of his crew was lost) and the other in Thesprotia. The list of literature based around shipwrecks goes on and on.

A few other shipwreck-themed works include Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe; The Tempest and Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare; Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift; The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David Wyss.


[i] Harry J. Pearson to Alexander A. Lawrence, April 17, 1953. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society.

[ii] Bethany L. Ford, A List of Mayors and Aldermen of the City of Savannah, Georgia, 1790-2012

[iii] Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Yale’s Confederates: A Biographical Dictionary (University of Tennessee Press, 2008), 40.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Barry Sheehy, Cindy Wallace, and Vaughnette Goode-Walker, Civil War Savannah: Savannah, Immortal City. (Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group, 2011), 294.

[vi] Harry J. Pearson to Alexander A. Lawrence, April 17, 1953.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] JW Kennickell to SB Adams, April 5, 1953. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society.

[ix] Associated Press, “Georgia’s Rich Maritime History Largely Unknown,” OnlineAthens, last modified July 7, 2013,

[x] Buddy Sullivan, “Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified August 29, 2014, accessed May 24, 2017,

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “Port of Savannah,” World Port Source, accessed May 22, 2017,

[xiii] “Raising History: Raising the CSS Georgia,” US Army Corps of Engineers, accessed May 26, 2017,

[xiv] Jeremy Buddemeier, “Civil War Ironclad CSS Georgia Recovers From Savannah River,”, last modified August 21, 2015, accessed May 21, 2017,

[xv] Canada. Department of Marine and Fisheries, Canada. Marine Branch, Annual Report (J.O. Patenaude, I.S.O., printer to the King, 1894), 173.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] “National Maritime Day,” MARAD Marine Administration, accessed May 25, 2017,

[xviii] “Logbook for First Transatlantic Steamship Savannah, 1819,” Smithsonian The National Museum of American History, accessed May 20, 2017,


[xx] “The Marine List,” Lloyd’s List (4978). 9 June 1815.

[xxi] “SS Republic Artifacts and Treasures,” Odyssey Marine Exploration, accessed May 24, 2017,

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] E. Lee Spencer, “Shipwrecks of April 25,” Shipwrecks, accessed May 24, 2017,

[xxv] Brad Wood, “USS Water Witch,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified January 10, 2017,

[xxvi] Riding, Christine. “Shipwreck, Self-preservation and the Sublime in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.).” The Art of the Sublime. Tate Research Publication. Last modified January 2013. Accessed 29 May 2017,

[xxvii] Andrew O’Connell, “Why We Love Disaster Stories,” Harvard Business Review, March (2014),

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Christine Riding, “Shipwreck, Self-preservation and the Sublime in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.).”

[xxx] “Joseph Mallord William Turner The Shipwreck exhibited 1805,” Tate, accessed May 28, 2017,

[xxxi] Model label, Titanic, Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, William Scarbrough House and Gardens, Savannah, GA.

[xxxii] “Ferry Collides with Oil Tanker Near Manila,”, accessed May 24, 2017,

[xxxiii] “The Ship Wrecks of the Cape of Good Hope,”, accessed May 28, 2017,

Associated Press. “Georgia’s Rich Maritime History Largely Unknown.” Last modified July 7,2013.

Buddemeier, Jeremy. “Civil War Ironclad CSS Georgia Recovers From Savannah River.” Last modified August 21, 2015. Accessed May 21, 2017.            Savannah_River.

“Ferry Collides with Oil Tanker Near Manila,” Accessed May 24, 2017.

Ford, Bethany L. A List of Mayors and Aldermen of the City of Savannah, Georgia, 1790-2012. City of Savannah Research Library and Municipal Archives.

Hughes, Nathaniel Cheairs. Yale’s Confederates: A Biographical Dictionary. University of Tennessee Press, 2008. 40.

“Joseph Mallord William Turner The Shipwreck exhibited 1805,” Tate, accessed May 28, 2017.

“Letter to Alexander A Lawrence from Harry J Pearson.” Harry J. Pearson to Alexander A           Lawrence. April 17, 1953. MS 2019. Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, GA.

“Letter to SB Adams, from JW Kennickell.” JW Kennickell to SB Adams, April 5, 1953. MS 2019. Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, GA.

“Logbook for First Transatlantic Steamship Savannah, 1819.” Smithsonian The National Museum of American History. Accessed May 20, 2017.

O’Connell, Andrew. “Why We Love Disaster Stories.” Harvard Business Review. March (2014).   

“Port of Savannah.” World Port Source. Accessed May 22, 2017.

“National Maritime Day.” MARAD Marine Administration. Accessed May 25, 2017.

“The Ship Wrecks of the Cape of Good Hope.” Accessed May 28, 2017.

Spencer, E Lee. “Shipwrecks of April 25.” Shipwrecks, accessed May 24, 2017.

“SS Republic Artifacts and Treasures.” Odyssey Marine Exploration. Accessed May 24, 2017.

Sullivan, Buddy. “Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. Last modified August 29, 2014. Accessed May 24, 2017.

“Raising History: Raising the CSS Georgia.” US Army Corps of Engineers. Accessed May 26, 2017.

Riding, Christine. “Shipwreck, Self-preservation and the Sublime in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.).” The Art of the Sublime. Tate Research Publication. Last      modified January 2013. Accessed 29 May 2017.

Wood, Brad. “USS Water Witch.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. Last modified January 10, 2017.