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–by  Ronald M. Johnson

Among the individuals who played prominent roles in the building of the United States Capitol was Montgomery Meigs (1816-1889) who, as a Captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, served as the financial and engineering supervisor of the Capitol extension between 1853 and 1859. That effort, and others on his part before the Civil War, would lead President Lincoln to appoint him as the Quartermaster-General of the Army after hostilities broke out. He served long and honorably in that critically important assignment. One of his lasting accomplishments was the founding, in 1864, of the Arlington National Cemetery. During the last year of the conflict, and in the initial years after it ended, Arlington became a major burial site for thousands of the fallen dead, many of them unidentified remains.

As the numbers increased, and as the years passed, Meigs sought to elevate the site to a special status. Essentially, he proposed to broaden Arlington National Cemetery into a “national public burial ground.” In his 1879 Annual Report to the Secretary of War, he urged that “the attention of Congress be invited to the propriety of making this [site] the National Public Cemetery, and authorizing the interment therein of any public officer, Senator or Member of Congress dying in office in the vicinity or elsewhere . . .” Over the next two years, he more forcefully declared that Arlington should “be declared by law a national public cemetery” and that it “be used for the burial of officers of the United States, legislative, judicial, civil, and military . . .” He envisioned that Arlington become a national shrine for all who had served in the national government.

Gen. Montgomery Meigs during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Gen. Montgomery Meigs during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Where did this idea of a national “public” cemetery originate? The story is complex and fascinating, and very much involves Congress and the federal government. The origins can be traced, in part, to the emergence of Congressional Cemetery after 1812, when the Congress sought to create an antebellum version of a national memorial site at a privately-owned burial ground near the Capitol. Beginning that year and continuing into the 1850s, Members of Congress, all branches of the military, Vice Presidents, and even three United States Presidents received either permanent or temporary burial at the cemetery, which became known as Congressional. Impressive private and public monuments were placed over these graves, including the congressional cenotaphs designed by Benjamin Latrobe that marked members of the House and Senate who died while serving in office.

With regard to military burials, Congressional served as the first national military burial ground, including two Generals of the Army, and officers and enlisted from all American conflicts, particularly the War of 1812 and the Mexican War in 1846-48. In the latter, three officers—Colonel Truman Cross, Colonel William Montrose Graham, and Captain Charles Hanson—were honored with full military funerals and public processions to Congressional Cemetery accompanied by President James Polk, members of his cabinet, and Members of Congress. Indeed, the military processions to Congressional established its status as being in part the nation’s first national military cemetery.

Montgomery Meigs was intimately familiar with Congressional Cemetery. Many members of his family rested there, including his prominent father-in-law, Commodore John Rodgers; his mother-in-law, Minerva Rodgers; his brother-in-law Frederick Rodgers; and his uncle John Forsyth, who served as Secretary of State during 1834-41. In addition, numerous professional associates and friends had been interred at Congressional. Standing at the graves of John and Minerva Rodgers, he was just a short distance from the other major military burials there as well as the graves of Vice Presidents George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry. In Congressional Cemetery, Meigs found a compelling model for his later vision of a national public cemetery.

Thus, as he reached the end of his term of Quartermaster-General, Meigs sought a course for Arlington that would transform it into a national memorial site, one that would be inclusive of both military and civil leaders who had served the nation. And in so doing, he turned to what Congress had attempted in the development of Congressional Cemetery during the antebellum period. He was aware, of course, that Congressional was, in fact, a privately-owned cemetery. Thus, he sought to utilize a government-owned site to establish a national public cemetery, and Arlington’s location and role as a national military cemetery served that purpose very well.

In the end, however, Montgomery Meigs’ vision for Arlington did not materialize. The cemetery would remain a site under control of the U.S. Army, and limited to those who had served in the military. Popular sentiment dictated that “national” meant “military,” largely as a result of the Civil War. Any return to the antebellum attempt at creating a “national public cemetery” no longer had support in either Congress or the military ranks, particularly within the Army. Today, Congressional—located only a mile and half from Congress and maintained by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery—still contains the antebellum monuments from its period as America’s first national cemetery. Meanwhile, Arlington serves as the nation’s memorial and emotional center as those who die on the battlefield are laid to rest by their fallen comrades. Few today know of the historic connection between the two sites or that Meigs once sought to shape Arlington into a “public” national cemetery based on the Congressional Cemetery model.

Note on Sources:  The documentation for this blog can be accessed in Abby and Ronald Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol:  Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2012), see chapters 3 and 4, pp.  96-104 and 144-49.