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America’s First National Cemetery

July 2024
8min read

Buried here, along with hundreds of congressmen and various Indian chiefs, are Mathew Brady, John Philip Sousa, and J. Edgar Hoover

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.”

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.

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.


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