1801 E Street SE, Washington, DC 20003
Size: 35 acres
Number of Interments: 67,000 burials and more than 14,000 stones
Open: Daily from dawn to dusk. Free tours are available on Saturdays at 11 AM from April through October.
The original plan for Washington, DC made no provision for a burial ground. In 1798, two squares on the borders of town were finally set aside as the eastern and western burial grounds. Turns out the eastern spot was prone to flooding, so residents of that area chose another small piece of land—less that five square acres—and purchased it from the city for $200. Their plan was to sell grave plots for $2 each. Once the space was paid off, it would be overseen by Christ Church. The graveyard, named the Washington Parish Burial Ground, was paid off by March 30, 1812.
In 1807, Connecticut senator Uriah Tracy died in office and was buried in the new cemetery. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the Capitol Building, was asked to design a monument to mark Senator Tracy’s grave—and the graves of those Congressmen who might follow him to the cemetery. Latrobe believed that the tablet headstones common to that era were not sturdy enough to honor members of Congress. The wide, heavy monuments he designed are made of Aquia Creek sandstone, same as the Capitol.
By 1816, the Vestry of Christ Church set aside 100 burial sites for members of Congress. In 1820, they expanded those set aside to include space for family members of congressmen, along with other government officials who might need a burial plot. Eventually the government owned almost 1000 plots. Practically every Congressman who died in Washington until the 1830s was buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Until 1877, every congressman who died had a monument in his name placed in the Congressional Cemetery, whether he was buried there or not.
At some point after Tracy’s death, the cemetery’s name changed again to the name by which we know it now. When the new front gate was erected in 1923, its iron archway proclaimed the Congressional Cemetery.
Among the government officials buried here is J. Edgar Hoover, who served as Director of the FBI under eight presidents, dying before the last one—Richard Nixon—was impeached for covering up the Watergate break-in. Hoover established the FBI Laboratory in 1932 and the National Crime Information Center in 1967, but was criticized for not enforcing civil rights laws or facing down organized crime. He died suddenly of what was called heart disease, although no autopsy was performed. Congress voted to allow him to lie in state in the Capital Rotunda, followed by a state funeral. President Nixon delivered Hoover’s eulogy. The iron fence around his grave was purchased by a retired agent in 1996. New FBI agents still visit Hoover when they join the bureau.
Hoover shares a headstone with his parents and a three-year-old sister who died before he was born. Hoover’s father purchased the plot in 1893, when Sadie died.
Also buried in the Congressional Cemetery is John Philip Sousa, one of the most prolific composers of his time. “His simple, catchy music both reflected his devout patriotism and represented the spirit of America,” according to the book Tombstones by Gregg Felsen. Sousa became the first American-born conductor of the US Marine Corp Band in 1880. He remained with them for 12 years and led his farewell concert on the White House lawn.
He died of a heart attack in 1932. His coffin lay in state in the Band Auditorium of the Marine Barracks in Washington DC, before he was buried at the Congressional Cemetery in a short service without a eulogy.
Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, the father of American photojournalism, went blind as a result of the chemicals he used in his darkroom. He hoped to sell his photographs to the government as a record of the Civil War, but they rebuffed him. He died nearly destitute and was buried in his wife’s family plot in the Congressional Cemetery. His photo of President Lincoln is the basis of the portrait on the $5 bill.
Ann Royall, who died in 1854, was been called a “prototypical muckraking journalist, pioneer feminist, and patron saint of women journalist.” Her career spanned four decades. Francis Scott Key, Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war John Eaton, and Washington Intelligencer publisher Joseph Gales got together to try her for being “a common scold.” When the court found her guilty, she was fined $10. Two fellow reporters paid the fine for her as a way to uphold the First Amendment.
Belva Lockwood, a widow with a young daughter, moved to DC in 1865. She was allowed to attend the National University Law School, but was denied her diploma until she personally petitioned President Grant. In 1879, Lockwood became the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court. She won a $5 million settlement for the Cherokee to compensate them for their forced removal from their ancestral lands. In 1884, Belva Lockwood was the first woman to run for president. She died in 1917, three years before women were given the vote.
Originally, the Congressional Cemetery banned “infidels” and persons of color. This was waived in 1824, on the death of Pushmataha, a Choctaw chief who had allied his people with the US Military during the War of 1812. Chief Pushmataha was poisoned in Washington, DC after President James Monroe summoned him to DC in order to break the American treaty with the Choctaw.
Survivor of the Trail of Tears, William Shorey Coodey drafted the Cherokee Constitution which united the Eastern and Western Cherokee as one nation. He served as a delegate from the Cherokee Nation to Washington, DC in 1849, where he died.
Also here lies Massachusetts signer of the Declaration of Independence and fifth vice president Elbridge Gerry, who we remember for giving his name to the term gerrymandering.
Finally, Leonard Matlovich received the Bronze Star for his service in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. He was discharged from the service for admitting he was gay. Afterward, he fought for gay rights, particularly for people in the military. Matlovich designed his own headstone in the same black granite as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His epitaph reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men—and a discharge for loving one.” His gravesite continues to be a rallying place for gay activists.
For a while, the Congressional Cemetery was neglected. In 1997, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added it to their list of most endangered historical sites. Luckily, the hundreds of members of the K9 Corps at Historic Congressional Cemetery pay an annual fee to let their dogs off-leash in the cemetery. Thanks to the money they’ve raised—as well as volunteer hours put in by armed forces, school groups, churches, and descendants—the cemetery has been rescued. Now it’s a National Historic Landmark,overseen by the nonprofit Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
Events at Congressional Cemetery
A Brief History of the Congressional Cemetery homepage
How the Congressional Cemetery Got its Name
The Marines Band celebrates at Sousa’s grave in 2016.
Blog post about Belva Lockwood
Images of America book about the Historic Congressional Cemetery on Amazon.