Uncover history on a tour of Congressional Cemetery
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, Oct. 4, 2013
Congressional Cemetery is one of the most interesting places to hang out in Washington, whether you have got a pulse or not. More than 55,000 people are buried in grassy fields on the banks of the Anacostia, including one vice president, 80 members of Congress and former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
But the diversity of individuals is more impressive than the roster of illustrious names. Wander the 35 acres and you’ll see memorials to veterans of every American war, Native American chiefs, famous musicians, Washington’s most successful madam, the first female presidential nominee and one of the conspirators in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. There are endless rows of decorated gravestones and burial chambers and some amazing statues. (Don’t miss the headstone decorated like a Library of Congress catalog card.)
Free docent-led introductory tours are offered every Saturday at 11 a.m. from April through October. Guides also lead monthly tours focusing on figures involved in the War of 1812 (the first Saturday of the month) and the Civil War (third Saturday of the month).
But if you really want to explore the cemetery, try one of the 11 self-guided walking tours created by cemetery historians, covering such themes as “Men of Adventure” (explorers, surveyors, a Pony Express rider), “Educators, Agitators and Lawyers” (notable women) and “A House Divided” (the Civil War). Each of the eight-page brochures offers short biographical sketches of 11 to 16 individuals, illustrated with portraits and prints from the Library of Congress.
You may not recognize all of the names, but the bite-size life stories bring out some unsung heroes of America. On a ramble through the cemetery, you’d probably walk by Stephen Pleasonton’s nondescript tombstone. If you’re following the “Burning of Washington” tour, you’ll learn that, as the British troops approached, this Treasury Department clerk spirited important documents out of the city, including the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, preventing them from being burned with the Capitol.
Several tours will lead you to the grave of Belva Ann Lockwood. Her modest headstone doesn’t mention that she was the first woman to run for president (on the National Equal Rights Party ticket in 1884 and 1888, before women could vote) or that she was the first female lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court. In fact, she wrote the legislation that allowed women to do so.
The most jam-packed tour is “American Indians,” which lists Native American chiefs from the Apache, Chippewa and Choctaw tribes, among others. It has more than twice as many graves as any other tour. (I did a double-take at the grave of Push-Ma-Ta-Ha, who fought with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, and is remembered “on all occasions & under all circumstances the white man’s friend” on his stone.)
A box at the cemetery gate is stuffed with free brochures and maps, though the vast majority are usually copies of the “Introductory Tour.” On my last visit, the only options were “Men of Adventure” and “The War of 1812.”
So instead, try printing PDFs from the Congressional Cemetery Web site and bring them along.
Of course, you don’t have to just read from a piece of paper. Dozens of headstones, including those of William Thornton, the first architect of the Capitol, and the unmarked resting place of Lincoln assassination conspirator David Herold, feature long stakes topped with QR codes. Scan the code with your smartphone and you’ll be taken to that person’s Wikipedia page. It’s very helpful if you want to know more about Maj. Gen. Alexander Macomb after seeing his impressive monument, topped with a Greek helmet and decorated with laurel wreaths.
A number of other graves are part of a cellphone tour: Call 202-747-3474, followed by the number on the grave. The recorded messages are long and fact-filled.
And don’t feel compelled to stick to the maps. An elaborate gravestone featuring reliefs of a Union shield and a sword caught my eye during the Civil War tour. It belongs to Brevet Lt. Col. Elisha E. Camp, who was a friend of Ulysses S. Grant and a sutler at Fort Vancouver before fighting with the Ninth New York Infantry during the war. At his funeral in 1867, four of his eight pallbearers were generals.
There are some things for amateur historians to nitpick. The “Introductory Tour” brochure says that “Elbridge Gerry is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence buried in the Mid-Atlantic region,” which would certainly surprise such patriots as William Paca (buried in Queen Anne County, Md.) or Samuel Chase (buried in Baltimore).
Congressional Cemetery is a refuge on the edge of Capitol Hill, providing a nice place to take a stroll. Learning about American history is just a bonus.