by Breana Walton
Seeming out of place on a college campus, there is a small private family cemetery located on the corner of Augusta State University. Surrounded by a chain link fence intertwined with ivy and a locked, rusting iron gate, this cemetery belongs to the Walker family and is still in use. The Walker cemetery is adjacent to the Arsenal Cemetery also located on campus. How did this piece of history from the Walker family find their way onto this college campus?
Born just after the American Revolutionary War, in October, 1780, Freeman Walker, for whom Walker County, Georgia, is named, started his life in Charles City County, Virginia. In the year 1797 he moved from Virginia to Augusta in order to study law under his older brother George. He entered his brother’s office after he had finished a course of study at Richmond Academy, and once he began practicing law in 1802, “he soon became one of the most successful lawyers in the country,” due to his unwearied attention to his profession (Cordle 11). Seeing himself in a good position to get married, he wed Mary Garland Creswell on April 29, 1803. In the opinion of his contemporaries, Walker was “a man of the first rank and ability, of spotless character, and a patriot who was an honor to his country” (Pendleton 404). Walker’s friend, the poet Richard Henry Wilde, echoed similar opinions when he wrote Walker’s epitaph (404).
Freeman Walker had an extensive political career. In 1807, the accomplished lawyer was sent by Richmond County to the legislator, and in 1810 he was elected as a trustee to the Richmond Academy Board. By 1817 the city council had elected him to be intendent. The Augusta city limits had been expanded under the previous administration; and one of the new streets had been named after Walker; so, before he was even elected for the first time, he had already had a street named in his honor (Cashin 167). During Walker’s second term as intendent, the title was changed to mayor, making Freeman Walker the first official mayor of the city of Augusta (Pendleton 404). He was re-elected consecutively three times before he resigned to serve in the Senate to fill a vacancy from 1819-1821 (Callahan 26). After resigning from the Senate, he was then re-elected once again be to the mayor of Augusta for the fourth time in 1822 (Jones, Colcock, Dutcher, and Rowland 234).
In addition to his law and political career, Walker was an active member of St. Paul Church. He was also a trustee of the Protestant Episcopal Society of Augusta. The society was incorporated by the General Assembly and made to oversee the third erection of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. With authorization from the legislature, the Trustees of Richmond County gave an acre for the rebuilding of the church. The St. Paul’s project was completed in 1820, and this third erection on the same site is the one that still stands today in downtown Augusta (Callahan 26).
Walker’s tract of land was known as Bellevue, and campus lore holds that Bellevue Hall was the Walker summer home, although more recent research reveals that it was built after the Walker family sold the land. An old map of Bellevue shows that there were two buildings on the tract of land, but only Bellevue Hall remains standing today. Originally the house was occupied by the Galt family (Pfadenhauer 7; Black 12; Schofe).
In a deed dated November 9, 1826, Freeman Walker sold his Bellevue plantation to the U.S. Government for the relocation of the Augusta Arsenal. Land that Walker had purchased from William Skinner in 1818 was also included in the sale to the government (Reynolds 9). The Arsenal at that time was located on the Savannah River, and in the year 1820, a yellow fever epidemic, also known as the “plague,” “swamp fever,” or “black fever” epidemic, seized the garrison. All of the enlisted men died including the lieutenant and the surgeon. The only survivor was Captain Matthew Payne, the commander of the Augusta Arsenal, who was away visiting the Walker family at Bellevue when he came down with the fever. The Walkers nursed Payne back to health during his illness. When Colonel George Bomford wrote and asked Major Payne to recommend a site for the relocation of the Arsenal, Payne recommended the Walker plantation for the new site of the Arsenal. Payne gave the credit of his recovery to the “good water, the fresh peaches, good nursing care, and the location of Bellevue on a high spot away from the river and its swampy surroundings.” His suggestion was approved by the Secretary of War, and an Act of Congress was passed in May 1826 which provided for the purchase of land for the relocation of the Arsenal. Walker sold his 72 acre tract of land for $6000 with one stipulation: that one acre be reserved as a burial plot for the family (Pfadenhauer 6-7).
It wasn’t until 5 military men unrelated to the Walkers were buried in the Walker plot that the government decided to survey the land to find a location for a military burial ground. The Government chose a spot adjoining the Walker Cemetery (Pfadenhauer 13). In 1921, an investigation into the Government’s title to the Walker burial ground uncovered these facts: “The original deed, transferring the title of the reservation from the Walker family to the Government, shows that one acre was retained by that family for the purpose of a cemetery. Later on, a fence was constructed separating the burial section of the Walker family from the area utilized by the Government burial plot and the plot retained by the Walker family, together cover the exact area of one acre. It is believed that the Government has entered its dead on the ground to which the Walker family has complete title” (History – Augusta Arsenal).
The Arsenal’s construction was completed in 1829, and the buildings were occupied until 1955, when the Arsenal was abandoned after its 127 years of service (Pfadenhauer 8; Augusta State University History Walk, Marker 4). Two years after the government shut down the Augusta Arsenal, the Richmond County Board took an interest in the property for educational reasons. On February 12 and 18, 1957, two separate deeds conveying 38.93 acres (including thirty-four buildings) and 5.65 acres respectively were transferred. Three more acres were purchased from the former Arsenal property for the sum of $19,600. In September of 1957 the Junior College of Augusta moved from its location on the Academy of Richmond County’s campus to its own new campus on the former Arsenal grounds (Augusta State University History Walk, Marker 13). During that same year the Junior College was incorporated into the University System of Georgia. By June 1958 the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia had assumed control of the college. The name was then changed to Augusta College. In 1959, 15.59 more acres of former Arsenal land were purchased. One more additional acre was deeded by the Government for the college’s use in 1965 (Editor’s note, Pfadenhauer 30, Christenberry 5). Augusta College was renamed to Augusta State University in 1996 (Augusta State University History Walk, Marker 17). The university kept that name until the recent merger with Georgia Health and Science University in 2012.
Augusta State University has inherited a rich history from Freeman Walker. It was him after all who sold his land to the Government for the relocation of the Augusta Arsenal – the land which eventually the college moved onto. Whether a student is driving past the cemetery on his way to college, or parking next to it, or whether he is running on his way to class (as to not be late!) past Bellevue Hall, pieces of Walker history can be seen throughout Augusta State’s campus. Not many college campuses have students and faculty who can truthfully claim to have such a rich history on site. Augusta State’s rich Augusta history involving both the Arsenal and Freeman Walker make the university unique and different from other colleges and universities. Students and faculty alike should appreciate the special pieces of Walker history preserved on their campus and be proud of it.
Black, Terra. “Hosting Ghosts.” Augusta State University’s Phoenix 17.1(2010):12. Print
Callahan, Helen. “The Walker Cemetery: the First Seventy Years.” The History of Augusta Arsenal in Augusta, Georgia Story of Augusta.” Richmond County History 12.1 (1980):26. Print
Cashin, Edward J. The Story of Augusta. Augusta, Ga.: Richmond County Board of Education, 1980. Print.
Christenberry, George. “Welcome.” Richmond County History 6.2 (1974):5. Print
History – Augusta Arsenal. [Augusta, Ga, 1943. Print.] Vol. 3, page 285
Jones, Charles Colcock, Salem Dutcher, and A. Ray Rowland. Memorial History of Augusta, Georgia: From Its Settlement in 1735 to the Close of the Eighteenth Century. Syracuse: D. Mason & co., 1890. Print.
Pendleton, Agnes. “Freeman Walker.” Men of Mark in Georgia: A Complete and Elaborate History of the State From Its Settlement to the Present Time, Chiefly Told in Biographies and Autobiographies of the Most Eminent Men of Each Period of Georgia’s Progress and Development. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Co., 1974. Print.
Pfadenhauer, Ruby. “The History of Augusta Arsenal in Augusta, Georgia Story of Augusta.” Richmond County History 2.2 (1970):6-8. Print; 12.1 (1980):13. Print.
Schofe, Kathy. “hauntings on campus.” E-mail to Rhonda Armstrong. 23 October 2013.