America’s First National Cemetery


Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts—who inspired the term “gerrymander” for the redrawing of an election district—succeeded to Clinton’s office; two years later he died in his carriage on the way to the Senate. Madison had lost Vice Presidents back to back. Gerry followed Clinton to Congressional, but unlike his predecessor, who was removed to his home state of New York, he stayed. Gerry’s memorial, an ornate marble pyramid capped with urn and flame, bears the inscription: “It is the duty of every citizen, though he may have but one day to live, to devote that day to the good of his country.”

A few steps away from Gerry’s tomb stands the crumbling stone marking the grave of Tobias Lear, personal secretary to George Washington. During the Barbary Wars he served as consul, negotiating for the release of American prisoners. His decision to pay the pirates tribute was politically unpopular in a time marked by the reckless heroics of Stephen Decatur. Lear, his diplomatic career finished, took a minor post in government as an accountant. People crossed the street to avoid him. He died a suicide.


Perhaps the most evocative inscription in the cemetery is that of the Choctaw Chief Pushmatahaw: “When I am gone, let the big guns be fired over me.” His dying request was granted. The day after Christmas, 1824, minute guns thundered on Capitol Hill, echoed by three musket volleys at graveside. Two thousand people attended the funeral, led by Andrew Jackson; Pushmatahaw and his braves had fought beside Old Hickory at New Orleans.


Pushmatahaw died while in Washington negotiating payment for tribal lands. His Choctaw delegation charged the government about seventy-five hundred dollars for living expenses; more than a quarter of the money went for liquor. Although it was whispered that Pushmatahaw died from drink, the medical diagnosis was croup.


Indians seeking redress of abuses journeyed to Washington at considerable risk. Scarlet Crow, a Santee Sioux chief from Minnesota, was kidnaped while strolling the streets of the capital. Although the government paid a ransom for the chief’s release, he was killed anyway. His body was taken to Congressional Cemetery. Yellow Wolf, a Kiowa warrior from Colorado Territory, died of pneumonia only a week after shaking hands with President Lincoln. He was buried in Congressional Cemetery wearing the Thomas Jefferson Indian peace medal given to his tribe by Lewis and Clark.

Not all the Indians entombed there received elaborate funerals, however. Taza, son of Cochise, was even deprived of a tombstone after his death from pneumonia in 1876. The Indian agent in charge had failed to order one before leaving the city to get married. Taza’s grave remained unmarked until a few years ago, when members of the American Indian Society of Washington donated a granite headstone bearing his likeness.

Not traditional granite or marble memorials but sandstone cenotaphs- empty tombs—most distinguish Congressional. They also justify the use of the burial ground’s popular name over its proper one—Washington Cemetery. Congress commissioned Benjamin Latrobe to design the cenotaphs as a means of honoring congressmen who died in office, whether they were buried at Congressional or not. Mindful of costs, the famed architect devised a plain Egyptian Revival monument, one that stonecutters could turn out quickly and cheaply.

Frances Trollope, witnessing a congressman’s funeral in 1827, dismissed the cenotaphs as “square blocks of masonry, without any pretension to splendour.” Some, made of inferior sandstone, have weathered the years poorly. But even under the best conditions the cenotaphs stirred passions. John Randolph had them as well as Henry Clay in mind when he spat out this denunciation: “I would not die in Washington, be eulogized by men I despise and buried in the Congressional Burying Ground. The idea of lying by the side of ____! Ah, that adds a new horror to death.”

Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts adopted a similar sentiment, declaring from the Senate floor in 1877 that the monuments “add a new terror to death.” Afterward, state funerals filed across the Potomac to Arlington, which replaced Congressional as the national cemetery.

For more than a century no more cenotaphs were raised. Congress briefly revived the tradition in the spring of 1981, salvaging some of the Capitol’s original sandstone—now replaced by marble—for a memorial to Hale Boggs, the Louisiana congressman who disappeared in a flight over Alaska in 1972. His cenotaph takes its place with others near the old public vault.

There are now some two hundred cenotaphs clustered at Congressional, about a third of them marking occupied graves. Aligned in close-order ranks, the sandstone sentinels dominate two sections of the cemetery. Several of the memorials, however, stand majestically alone. The cenotaph marking the grave of Dr. William Thornton, the first Architect of the U.S. Capitol, rests in the shade of a fugitive holly tree.