–by Ronald M. Johnson
As the federal government oversaw the process of developing the new capital city in the District of Columbia, an unanticipated need emerged that called into question Peter Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for Washington. Over time there would be many questions raised about the plan but this one called for a more immediate answer.
The L’Enfant plan had not provided for a cemetery. There were existing burial sites both within and on the border of the new city, such as Holmead’s Cemetery and Rock Creek Parish Burial Ground, but for Congress both sites were a challenge to reach over the existing, still undeveloped road system of the District. In 1802, Congress authorized enhanced maintenance of Holmead’s as the Western Burial Ground and a new Eastern Burial Ground, but the difficulty remained of how to integrate these locations into a state funeral that involved a formal procession to the burial site over a long distance on rough roadways.
An example of that challenge occurred on February 6, 1807 when Congress buried Representative Levi Casey of South Carolina, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, who had died in office three days earlier. In his case, the House chose to bury the deceased Congressman in the burial ground of Georgetown Presbyterian Church, situated on the western edge of the city. As described in The National Intelligencer, after the funeral, the remains were escorted down Pennsylvania Avenue–still a rugged, unpaved, dirt road–past the White House by a Marine Corps military unit, chaplains of Congress, ministers, physicians, six generals as pallbearers, members of the House and Senate, officers of the federal government, and members of the general public. The procession had to stop at Rock Creek due to a lack of an adequate bridge and the participants, stepping down from their carriages, crossed the creek on foot and proceeded to the church burial ground for the final graveside ceremony. With even the main roads filled with potholes and barely cleared of thickets and brambles (“as much a wilderness as Kentucky” according to one source), Congress would need a burial ground closer to the Capitol, one that would allow state funerals and burials to take place in less time and more easily accessed than encountered with the burial of Representative Casey.
Within weeks of the Casey state funeral, an answer emerged with the founding of a new eastern burial ground. This one, considerably closer to the Capitol than any other in the area, was established on April 4 by a group of locally prominent citizens who acquired Square 1115 of the L’Enfant plan to be used as a municipal burial ground. Four days later, the new cemetery had its first burial, William Swinton, an expert stone cutter hired by Benjamin Latrobe to work on the Capitol. Two weeks later, the second burial occurred when Margaret Tingey, wife of Commandant Thomas Tingey, head of the Washington Navy Yard, passed away after a long illness. Then, on July 22, the new burial ground was used by Congress for the burial of Senator Uriah Tracy, the first of a long series of members of the House, Senate, and executive branch who would be interred there. For the next nearly sixty years, the burial ground founded on Square 1115–eventually transferred to the care and ownership of Christ Episcopal Church on G Street, S.E. and, after 1820, known popularly as Congressional Cemetery–would become the first national burial ground in the United States.
Never officially incorporated as a federal governmental site, the cemetery nevertheless functioned in that capacity. In 1817, Congress authorized Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Latrobe to design a federal monument to be placed over the graves of all members of Congress buried there and, in the coming decades, the Congressional cenotaphs became the only federal memorials of their kind. Earlier, the deaths of Vice Presidents George Clinton in 1812 and Elbridge Gerry in 1814 laid the basis for what would be recognized as the most elaborate burial processions in the history of the federal government, climaxing in the 1841 temporary burial of President William Henry Harrison and followed by the 1848 and 1850 temporary burials of John Quincy Adams and Zachary Taylor at the site. The role of Congressional Cemetery as the national burial ground came to an end with the Civil War and the post-war rise of Arlington National Cemetery.
After a century of physical decline and near abandonment in the early 1970s, Congressional Cemetery was rescued by a combination of private and public efforts. The former came about under the leadership of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery while the latter was a result of members of Congress, particularly Representative Lindy Boggs, in bringing about federal funding for preserving the Congressional cenotaphs and general maintenance of the grounds.
A key event in this effort was the 1981 placement of the most recent cenotaph in honor of Representatives Hale Boggs and Nick Begich, both who died in an airplane crash in 1972. Inspired by that event, members of Congress in both the House and the Senate worked throughout the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century to create a matching fund mechanism that today provides funding for the preservation and upkeep of the site. The antebellum role of Congressional Cemetery has long been over but today the old burial ground is the focus of national memory and a place of increased public attention and support.
Both the focus and historical sources for this blog can be found in Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Maberry Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol: Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation (New Academia Publishing, 2012).