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New book celebrates Congressional Cemetery's history

Once listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the most endangered historic sites in the country, Congressional Cemetery has come a long way, a shining example of residents taking guardianship of their built environment. A new book, Historic Congressional Cemetery, examines some of the history preserved in the cemetery.

Courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.

"A lot of folks who live right around here in Hill East don't recognize what a real treasure this is to the neighborhood," says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven. "There's so much history here, but it's one of the few places that's not over-run with tourists."

Historic Congressional Cemetery is an introduction to some of the cemetery's more notable, as well as infamous, grave dwellers. Photos are accompanied by a concise paragraph explaining its subject, setting readers up to explore the cemetery themselves. All proceeds from the book's sales go to the cemetery's restoration fund.

In the more than 2 centuries since stonecutter William Swinton became the first burial at Congressional Cemetery in 1807, the grounds have grown from 4.5 acres to a sprawling 35 acres with more than 55,000 interments. Co-author Sandra Schmidt has gathered information on nearly 30,000.

"It took me 18 years to go through every newspaper from 1807 to, well, now I'm up to 1945," says Schimdt. "I started out looking for obits, but then I began to recognize the names and now we have a good deal of information about them while they were alive."

Tomb of Elbridge Gerry. Photo by the author.
The history of the cemetery speaks even to much more recent events, like the heated redistricting process in the District last year. As plans threatened to cede one part of the Cemetery to Ward 7 from Ward 6, Flahaven couldn't help think of the legacy of Elbridge Gerry, who is buried in Congressional. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and 5th Vice President, Gerry is better known as the etymological inspiration for the term "gerrymandering."

When the dust settled, Congressional Cemetery remained in Ward 6, while Ward 7 instead absorbed the DC Jail.

Congressional is the second oldest cemetery still in the city. The oldest is Rock Creek Cemetery. Congressional is the only cemetery within L'Enfant's original plan.

"It's a very democratic cemetery," Schmidt says while walking the grounds. "It's not just rich people, it's people of every occupation scattered together."

Cemetery "residents" range from the notably broke dandy, Beau Hickman, to former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and journalist turned DC Mayor, Joseph Gales.

The scope and diversity of American history is well represented by famed Marine Band leader John Philip Sousa, Choctaw Chief Push-ma-ta-ha, and also the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court, Belva Lockwood. Congressional also holds the remains of the renowned Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, along with Lincoln assassination conspirator David Herold, and even famous Civil War era madam Mary Ann Hall.

A kind of after-life fashion trend can be tracked by the composition and presentation of the graves and monuments of Congressional Cemetery, says docent Kirsten Sloan. Initially, monuments were fashioned from sandstone, and later marble was in vogue. These days, most monuments are made from granite.

The sandstone and marble has not weathered well. Granite better stands the test of time, as evidenced by the nearly pristine Manigold family monument topped by a geographically accurate globe.

John Welsh Van Hook headstone. Photo by the author.
The funerary art of Congressional comes in all sizes and shapes. There are many examples of the traditional tablet that visiting families would often eat their lunches on. The range of styles is reflected in the sedate headstone of Uniontown developer John Van Hook, and the upended cannon monument of Navy Lt. John McLaughlin. The cemetery also contains more than one hundred Victorian-era obelisks, sometimes referred to as "Cleopatra's needle." Other than the tablet, the obelisk is Congressional's most common monument style.

Schmidt's co-author on "Historic Congressional Cemetery" is Rebecca Boggs Roberts, daughter of noted political correspondent, Cokie Roberts. Her late grandfather, the very colorful House Majority Leader, Hale Boggs, is remembered on one of the cemetery's 171 Benjamin Latrobe designed cenotaphs. The family, obviously, feels a strong connection to the cemetery.

When asked about Congressional's management plans, Roberts points out that the cemetery's history calls for something more than short-term plans.

"You don't even need a five-year plan here, you could have a hundred-year plan," Roberts says. "Even those of us who sort of count ourselves in the know are still discovering new things. And the people who still think of this as a secret cemetery they have years worth of things to discover. So there's no point in just thinking five years. We've been here two hundred years, let's think about the next two hundred."

If you're looking for trip back into Washington's and America's history, pick up a copy of the book and go explore Congressional Cemetery, one of DC's greatest hidden treasures, yourself.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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Thanks for highlighting this neighborhood treasure. I live a couple of blocks away and love starting the weekend with a walk around the cemetery. (Makes you not take the weekend for granted maybe?!)

The best part is how sometimes you'll stumble upon a name you know. I only recently figured out that John Quincy Adams is buried there; however, he is buried among the members of Congress since he was a member of Congress after serving as president. Another favorite is Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress. Everyone should check this place out!

by MJ on Jun 15, 2012 2:37 pm • linkreport

Here's a sample of what you'll see at Congressional Cemetery.

A Guide to Civil War Washington by Stephen M. Forman also covers Congressional Cemetery, but I certainly would buy Schmidt and Robert's book.

by DC Doug on Jun 15, 2012 3:00 pm • linkreport

According to The Lincoln Group's Guide to Lincoln sites in and around Washington, D.C., John Quincy Adams was buried at Congressional Cemetery temporarily after his death. His body was eventually moved to his home state of Massachusetts. According to the White House, he was buried near the graves of his father and mother in Quincy.

by DC Doug on Jun 15, 2012 3:21 pm • linkreport

DC Doug, that's correct. His body spent time in the public vault, which was pretty common for prominent people at the time. So he was never actually "buried" at Congressional.

by David C on Jun 15, 2012 4:31 pm • linkreport

"... a shining example of residents taking guardianship of their built environment."

"A lot of folks who live right around here in Hill East don't recognize what a real treasure this is to the neighborhood," says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven.  "There's so much history here, but it's one of the few places that's not over-run with tourists."

Maybe not overrun with tourists, but local dog owners are another issue.  Noted a few the other morning despite notices posted on the locked gates. 

by A different sort of example on Jun 16, 2012 12:56 pm • linkreport

The dog walkers have reclaimed more parkland on Capitol Hill by going out to use it (Lincoln Park another shining example), I can't think of another single force that matches it.

by Read Scott Martin on Jun 17, 2012 1:05 am • linkreport

I made a big mistake and rode my bike (slowly) through the grounds to check it out. I was chased by several unleashed dogs and scolded by dog owners on my way out. I didn't see any signage banning bikes, but oh well. I guess it's offensive to bring a bike to the cemetery but perfectly okay to let your pooch pee on gravestones...

by Will on Jun 18, 2012 12:23 pm • linkreport

I haven't been to the Congressional Cemetery but one of my town's sons, Elbridge Gerry, is buried there; of course I want to see his headstone. I'd love to go there for the quiet, less-crowded, historical experience. If bikes aren't allowed, it should be posted; all rules should be posted. Dog owners should be responsible; we are. Keep your dogs on a leash and bring poop bags. Dogs should not be allowed to run free; Congressional Cemetery is NOT a dog park!

by sarah on Jun 28, 2012 5:56 pm • linkreport

sarah, actually Congressional cemetery is a dog park. They charge membership fees and it is one of the ways they have helped the cemetery to recover. It's a real success story. And dogs are allowed to run around of leash.

by David C on Jun 28, 2012 6:32 pm • linkreport

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