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.
"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.”
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.
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.