America’s First National Cemetery

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As the truck bearing two coffins rolled out the main cemetery gate onto Potomac Avenue, the spirit of Richard Bland Lee must have sighed, “It’s about time.” In 1980, after 153 years, the brother of LightHorse Harry and uncle of Robert E. was finally going home to Sully Plantation in northern Virginia. Until his remains were disinterred, this little-known Lee, as mild as his middle name, had lain in the District of Columbia’s once-proud Congressional Cemetery.

To be buried there reflected no special status, but because of its location, Congressional had served for more than half a century as America’s national cemetery. Covering thirty acres that crowned a bluff on the west bank of the Anacostia River, it lies less than two miles from Capitol Hill, a logistical fact that prompted the federal government in 1816 to accept from the vestry of Christ Church, Washington Parish, “100 sites close together and most desirable for the interment of members of Congress, any heads of departments of General Government and members of their families.” A few years later, three hundred additional grave sites were acquired. Lee, the first congressman to represent northern Virginia and a commissioner for the District of Columbia after the War of 1812, didn’t happen to be the beneficiary of a government grave. But in his case there was no need. Lee family resources, seldom wanting, extended into Congressional Cemetery. The family plot of Walter Jones and his wife Anne Lucinda, daughter of Attorney General Charles Lee, amply accommodated Uncle Richard during his long but temporary stay.

 

Little known today, the old burial ground once commanded great attention. “No place in the metropolis is visited with greater interest,” noted a guidebook published for visitors who had come to see General William Henry Harrison take the oath of office in 1841. A month after Old Tippecanoe’s spirited inaugural parade—a “showy-shabby” spectacle, sniffed John Quincy Adams—there followed another procession no less gaudy. This one, theatrically somber with military pomp and pallbearers representing every state in the Union, conveyed Harrison’s body to Congressional Cemetery’s public vault. The new President had been suddenly struck down by pneumonia.

 

Squat and rounded like a bomb shelter, the iron-doored vault functioned as a morgue, holding bodies until permanent arrangements were made. The storage fee was five dollars per month, payable to the vestry. Harrison was the first of three Presidents to be temporarily entombed there, and his body remained for two months before being transported to North Bend, Ohio. Ex-President John Quincy Adams, whom Henry Clay once accused of “turning boy again to go into the House of Representatives,” died in the Speaker’s chambers and was taken to the vault prior to his return to Quincy, Massachusetts. The other presidential occupant, Zachary Taylor, died in 1850 during his second year in office. He was not alone in the vault. Dolley Madison had been there a year. She would remain for eighteen months more, plus six years in a nearby family vault, before joining her long-departed James Madison at Montpelier, Virginia.

A contemporary article in Godey’s Lady’s Book captured the mood of the place: “What awe strikes the beholder as he enters this dark and gloomy mansion of the dead! How doleful the solitude! … No vulgar dead were deposited here—none but the illustrious and renowned.” But in more recent times there was a period when the public vault was indeed invaded by the vulgar—vagrants from the streets who had broken in to sleep off drunks.

Early in the nineteenth century, official mourners in congressional funerals slaked their thirst at government expense. They gathered early in the day to pay their respects and partake of free brandy and biscuits before joining the procession, usually on foot. These “walking funerals” sometimes stretched from Capitol Hill to the cemetery. Later, horse-drawn coaches were included in the ceremonies, and more mourners rode than walked. If they failed to show up, as was often the case, their hired coaches continued on, empty. Customarily the drivers wound white bands around their stovepipe hats, and attending officials flung white linen scarfs over their shoulders as badges of mourning. Black bunting draped buildings along the route and was often left in place for the wind to shred.

When Vice President George Clinton died in 1812, his funeral drew “a concourse of people greater than has ever been gathered in this city on any similar occasion.” The procession to Congressional Cemetery was “awful and impressive,” the newspaper account continued. “The martial parade, the glistening arms and nodding plumes of the military corps which preceded the hearse—the solemn melody of the martial band which attuned all hearts to melancholy—the sable hearse attended by eight veteran pall bearers, who partook of the toils of the Revolution—the well-known carriage of the deceased—the Chief Magistrate of the Nation mourning the loss of one of its noblest sons—the Senate deploring the loss of a revered President—.

“But why particularly describe the lengthened train? Suffice it to say that this assemblage of mournful and interesting objects inspired feeling suited to the occasion. When a Clinton descends to the tomb of his ancestors it is fit that the whole nation bewail the general loss and history immortalize his name.”