When someone knows the history of a place, it’s often said they know where the bodies are buried.
In Oscar Covington’s case, that statement is literally true, especially when referring to the Christ Church Cemetery, on the grounds of Christ Church, Frederica, on St. Simons Island.
Covington, who has served as the church’s cemetery superintendent for years, bade farewell to his post and retired at the beginning of the summer.
The Savannah native attended Clemson and Southern Tech, and also served 13 years as an artillery officer in the Army National Guard. He is married to Zoann Covington, and they are the parents of three children, all of whom were raised at Christ Church. Covington has been involved with Christ Church for many years, and even served as its junior and senior warden simultaneously at one time. He’s also been a Sunday School teacher and superintendent.
Sitting with Covington and Harrison Branch, the new cemetery superintendent in the cemetery office just inside the parish house doors, is an eye-opening experience. Maps of each section of the graveyard hang on the walls, and file cabinets and binders, full of notes and rosters, line the room’s many shelves.
The cemetery has been there for far more than 200 years. Its earliest grave belongs to Harriet Ross, who was buried there in 1803. Little is known about her, except she was the wife of a merchant, and may have been visiting the island. She died at the age of 26.
The graveyard is interesting in that it is a visual display of a portion of American history one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. With graves dating back to the early 1800s, inhabitants include the remains of British and American veterans of the Revolutionary War, Confederate soldiers, and veterans of most every other war in which the U.S. has been engaged since 1800. Also to be found are the graves of island settlers, many of whom have had streets or neighborhoods on St. Simons Island named after them, a famous writer or two and others.
The roots for Christ Church were planted in 1736 when General James Oglethorpe and the first English settlers arrived on St. Simons Island, and subsequently when the Rev. Charles Wesley, Oglethorpe’s chaplain, began ministering to the colonists. Georgia then became a royal colony in 1752, and Christ Church was not established until 1808. The first church building was built in 1820.
Christ Church is the second oldest Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Georgia.
The newer building, in which parishioners worship today, was the work of the Rev. Anson Green Phelps Dodge, after seeing it following the U.S. Civil War. The church was the only house of worship on the island at the time, and was attended by plantation owners and their families.
“The church was desecrated during the War Between the States,” said Covington. “It was bad when Anson Dodge saw it in 1866.”
In fact, The Hazzard Vault, which contains the graves of Col. Wigg Hazzard, and his brother, Dr. Thomas Hazzard, was desecrated by the Union Army during the Civil War. The damage was so extreme, that Capt. Miles Hazzard, a relative of the men, left a note for the commander of the island’s occupying forces during the Civil War. It reads:
I have more than once been informed … that the graves of our family … and a friend had been desecrated by your forces. … This rumor I could not believe, as the custom, even of the savage, has been to respect the home of the dead. But the sight which I now behold convinces me of the truth of the report I shuddered to think of. … But let me tell you, sir, that beside these graves I swear to heaven to avenge their desecration. If it is honorable to disturb the dead, I shall consider it an honor, and will make it my ambition to disturb your living.
William Miles Hazzard”
Miles Hazzard eventually received a response from President Abraham Lincoln.
Dodge became rector, and as such, he was responsible for the cemetery.
“We have records in Dodge’s handwriting dating to the 1860s,” said Covington.
It seems Covington indirectly inherited that characteristic from Dodge.
“Oscar has records of everything,” said Brnach. “He knows what book to look in for a lot.”
There are also index cards for each lot that detail who is buried where and when.
Even with all the meticulous record-keeping, there are still three or four unmarked graves in the cemetery.
Cemetery grounds are open six days each week, and closed on Mondays. They may also be closed during weddings and funerals.
The walled cemetery is a sanctuary for some, with many visitors coming out to walk under the ancient live oaks and amongst the plethora of azaleas.
“People are welcome to come during daylight hours,” said Covington. “We have tour buses and school buses visit; we encourage children to come.”