Established in 1807, Congressional Cemetery is located in the southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., overlooking the Anacostia River. The National Cemetery Administration has jurisdiction over 806 burial plots located throughout the larger cemetery, including some of the oldest and most significant historic resources maintained by the agency.
The original 4.5 acres of Congressional Cemetery was purchased by a group of Washingtonians for a private burial ground. On July 19, 1807, Uriah Tracy of Connecticut became the first congressman buried in the cemetery. In 1812 the group deeded the cemetery to Christ Church as The Washington Parish Burial Ground. Five years later, Christ Church set aside 100 burial lots for members of Congress who died in Washington. From this time forward, the nickname Congressional Cemetery has been used, although in 1849 the official name was changed to Washington Cemetery.
By the 1820s, Congressional Cemetery was the traditional burial site of senators, congressmen, and other high-ranking federal officials who died in Washington. In 1823, the church donated an additional 300 gravesites for congressional use, and in 1834 Congress appropriated funds for the erection of a keepers house, planting trees, and placing boundary stones. Since 1849, the piecemeal expansion of additional ground led to its present size of approximately 30 acres.
The National Cemetery Administration is the steward of the most significant collective structures in the cemetery; the unique cenotaphs designed by America’s first professional architect, Benjamin Latrobe. Fabricated from Aquia Creek sandstone, the monuments are carved in blocks with a squat base and a conical cap. The inscriptions are on small marble panels affixed to the block. Latrobe’s design, characterized by clean, straight lines and a lack of ornamentation, was quite distinct from the typical grave markers of the period, and foreshadowed modern architecture by almost a century. For a period of time, the cenotaphs were whitewashed.
The term cenotaph is defined as a tomb or monument erected in honor of a person or group of persons whose remains are elsewhere. The original cenotaphs did not remain true to this term, as they mark the burials of senators and congressmen. The date of the first cenotaph installation in Congressional Cemetery is unknown. Latrobe’s earliest sketch dates to 1812, but it is unclear if any cenotaphs were extant at this time.
For many years, congressman and senators who died locally were buried under cenotaphs in Congressional Cemetery. This was largely attributable to the significant cost of transporting the deceased back to their home districts, and to the lack of modern embalming techniques. After 1835, interments of non-local federal officials in the cemetery began to wane, and by the 1855 this practice essentially stopped.
Despite the change in tradition, monuments continued to be erected in the cemetery, honoring congressmen who died in office and were interred in other cemeteries. These cenotaphs are not distinguished from the true burial markers. Reportedly, the installation of cenotaphs ceased in 1876 when Congressman George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts caustically remarked that being buried beneath one would add new terrors to death…I cannot conceive of an uglier shape to be made out of granite or marble than those cenotaphs now there.
Of the 169 cenotaphs at Congressional Cemetery, 113 remain true to the term, honoring those who are interred elsewhere. The identical design was used for 56 monuments erected as grave markers.
Many of the cenotaphs in Congressional Cemetery are in an advanced state of deterioration, due to the poor quality of Aquia Creek Sandstone, and years of neglect. Starting in 2007, the National Cemetery Administration has partnered with the Historic Preservation Training Center (HPTC) of the National Park Service to rehabilitate and stabilize the cenotaphs. HPTC will document, clean and repair the cenotaphs using appropriate methods, with the goal of preserving as much of the original fabric of the monuments as possible.
Congressional Cemetery, including the lots administered by the National Cemetery Administration, was listed on the National Register for Historic Places in June 1969.
Monuments and Memorials
The U.S. Arsenal Monument honors the women who died in an explosion at the Washington Arsenal on June 17, 1864. The tragedy resulted from the accidental ignition of fireworks stored in a lot next to the Arsenal Building at 4-1/2 Half St., SW. Lit by the summer heat, sparks from the fireworks blew into the arsenal as 108 women were making gunpowder cartridges, causing an explosion which killed 21. The memorial was erected on the first anniversary of the fire. The marble and granite structure was produced by sculptor Lot Flannery of the Flannery Brothers Marble Manufacturers, and rises to about 25 feet tall. A small, allegorical female figure symbolizing Grief sits atop a shaft, which is inscribed with the names of the women who perished.