Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., contains the remains of some of the early nation’s most respected leaders. Among the 35 acres of burial grounds are 806 lots that the cemetery donated or the government purchased beginning in 1807 to provide a proper resting place for government officials, earning the cemetery the nickname of “National Burial Ground.” The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains these government lots. The most distinctive of these are occupied by geometrically shaped sandstone cenotaphs— monuments erected to honor members of Congress who died while in office.
Recognizing the need for a suitable cemetery for the growing capital of Washington, a group of citizens joined together to establish the Washington Parish Burial Ground in 1807. Located on a 4.5-acre plot of land approximately 1.5 miles southeast of the U.S. Capitol, the new cemetery was outside the city’s developed neighborhoods, yet was much more accessible than the earliest burial grounds along Rock Creek. In the summer of 1807, Uriah Tracy of Connecticut became the first Member of Congress to be buried in the new cemetery.
Five years later, the cemetery was transferred to Christ Church Washington Parish, and in 1817, the church set aside 100 burial plots to be donated to the Federal Government to inter Members of Congress and high-ranking government officials who died while in Washington. The long transport times of the period prevented the return of their remains to their home states, so they were instead buried in Washington. In 1823, the cemetery, by now commonly referred to as Congressional Cemetery, donated another 300 gravesites. Over the next decades, the cemetery added many improvements, building a superintendent’s house in 1834, a chapel in 1903, and a gatehouse in 1923, and expanding the grounds several times to its present 35 acres.
The geometric layout of the cemetery resembles that of Pierre L’Enfant’s plan of Washington, and the pattern of rectangular burial sections and straight pathways intersecting at right angles rejects the curvilinear sections common to the Victorian-era’s garden cemeteries. The cemetery consists of nine major divisions. The two primary axes, which continue the lines of 18th Street SE and G Street SE, intersect at the chapel in the west-center of the grounds.
The most iconic markers in the cemetery are the 169 cenotaphs. Traditionally cenotaphs, which literally means “empty tomb” as derived from the Greek, honor a person whose remains are buried elsewhere. The cenotaphs at Congressional Cemetery are thought to be designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe, and although the date of the first cenotaph dedication remains unknown, sketches of the monuments date to 1816-1819. The markers consist of a stout block of Aquia Creek sandstone set atop a stepped base; a conical top surmounts the block. This design is quite modern for its time and stood in contrast to most other grave markers of the era. Inscribed marble panels affixed to the block of each cenotaph identify the remains below or the monument’s honoree.
Of the 169 cenotaphs, just over 50 of the earliest ones actually mark a burial site. After 1835, the remains of most congressmen and non-local officials who died in Washington were placed in the cemetery's Public Receiving Vault until they could be transported to their homes, and by 1855, virtually all such burials at Congressional Cemetery ceased. After opening in 1864, Arlington National Cemetery replaced Congressional Cemetery as the preeminent burial ground for America’s leaders. The dedication of the cenotaphs was discontinued in 1876 when Congressman George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts said of Latrobe’s design, “the thought of being buried beneath one of those atrocities brought new terror to death.” The cenotaphs are located in two major groupings, one section east of the gatehouse and one just northeast of the chapel.
The most prominent monument at Congressional Cemetery is the U. S. Arsenal Monument, located near the center of the western border and dedicated to the 21 women who perished in an explosion at the Washington Arsenal on June 17, 1864. In all, 108 women were working in the arsenal that day packing gunpowder cartridges when starburst incendiary ammunition exploded, sending sparks flying and setting off the massive explosion. Atop the 25-foot tall marble shaft is a female figure representing grief. The monument was erected in 1865, on the first anniversary of the disaster. The inscribed names of the 21 victims are on the shaft of the monument.
More than five dozen senators and representatives lie in the government lots at Congressional Cemetery, as well as 10 former mayors of Washington. Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who served as vice president under James Madison, is buried in Range 29, Site 9-11. Robert Mills, the architect who designed the Washington Monument and the Treasury Building, is buried in Range 35, Site 111. Choctaw Indian Chief Push-Ma-Ta-Ha, who fought alongside Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, is buried in Range 31, Site 41. The chief was visiting Washington in 1824 to request compensation for the loss of Choctaw lands when he fell ill and died; he was buried with full military honors.
Also buried in a government lot under an impressive marble monument with intricate decoration is Alexander Macomb Jr., who began his military career as a Cornet in the Light Dragoons, an Army cavalry unit, in 1799. After his discharge, he returned to the Army in 1801 as a 2nd Lieutenant and joined the Army Corps of Engineers the following year. During the War of 1812, he quickly distinguished himself, rising to the rank of Brigadier General. His success in fighting off the larger British forces at the Battle of Plattsburgh earned him the brevetted rank of Major General, and a Congressional Gold Medal. In 1828, he received a promotion to the highest rank in the Army—Commanding General—a position he held until his death in 1841. He was buried with the highest military honors in a ceremony attended by 10th President John Tyler, members of Congress, the Secretary of War, and many other dignitaries.