America’s First National Cemetery

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Among the privately maintained graves are those of J. Edgar Hoover, who was buried in a manicured family plot (his crony Clyde Toison lies a few graves away) and the John Philip Sousa memorial. The march king was born and raised just up the street. Marines take good care of his shrub-enclosed resting place, and on his birthday the band he once led comes to lay a wreath and play his marches.

The years from 1930 to 1976 marked a decline in the neighborhood in which the cemetery lies, and except for the governmentowned areas and the few privately maintained sites, the old burial ground deteriorated sadly. Waist-high weeds and climbing vines obscured modest stones such as those marking the graves of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and his family. Stray dogs roamed the grounds and snakes slithered through the tall grass. Broken stained glass littered the turn-of-the-century stucco chapel that stands in the center of the cemetery. Toppled stones and sunken graves bore witness to the years of neglect, and vandals recently damaged more than a hundred of the tombstones.

In mowing the grass around government-owned graves, the military grounds keepers have always picked up their mowers to avoid cutting a single blade of nongovernment grass. The expense of maintaining the private part of Congressional forced church advisers to consider removing the remains of some eighty thousand graves and selling the land to a developer.

 

But in 1977 a group of concerned citizens joined together to save the neglected landmark. They formed the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery and assumed the growing financial burden for the old burial ground. In over six years they have managed to raise $350,000 from various civic and patriotic groups and from individuals. An annual All Hallows’ Eve festival on cemetery grounds has become a popular fund raiser. The association now has about five hundred members and is well staffed with preservation experts. They have restored the chapel, whose stainedglass windows are now protected by transparent plastic shields. Fences and walls have been repaired, and the grass is now cut on a regular f ive-times-a-year schedule. As each mowing takes a month and costs forty-five hundred dollars, however, the association is appealing for government help. Efforts to get some assistance from Congress have so far been unsuccessful.

A guide to the cemetery published in 1842 noted that “here repose the statesman, the orator, and the warrior; the illustrious and obscure.” Among them are Annie Royal, a public scold, who was sentenced to a ducking in the Potomac for ranting in court; young David Herold, hanged for helping John Wilkes Booth escape after he shot Lincoln; the gambler Beau Hickman, reburied by friends in Congressional so he wouldn’t have to remain in potter’s field; Sergeant-Major John W. Hunter, a drummer boy in the Revolution. For a long time parish regulations prohibited the burial in Congressional of “persons of color,” but a former slave who became a member of the church eventually broke that rule.

One more name deserves to be mentioned, just for the name’s sake. Near the Seventeenth Street gate stands the tombstone of Thomas America.

EARLY VICTIM of the AUTO AGE