Last updated: April 7, 2021
Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC, contains the remains of some of the nation’s most respected leaders, luminaries, and activists. From the time of its establishment in 1807 until the end of the Civil War, seventy-five Senators and Representatives, as well as 10 former mayors of Washington and many high-ranking executive, judicial and military officers were interred at Congressional Cemetery. Because of this, some see it as the first true national cemetery in the United States.
When a group of citizens recognized the need for a suitable cemetery for the growing capital of Washington, they joined together to establish the Washington Parish Burial Ground in 1807. That summer, 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. Over the next decades, the parish added a superintendent’s house in 1834, a chapel in 1903, and a gatehouse in 1923. It also expanded the grounds several times to its present 35 acres.
The most iconic markers in the cemetery are the 165 cenotaphs for members of Congress. Each cenotaph consists of a stout block of Aquia Creek sandstone set atop a stepped base. A conical top surmounts the block. This design was quite modern for its time and stood in contrast to most other gravestones of the era.
This site is also the final resting place of many other notables including Tobias Lear, personal secretary to George Washington, and William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol. Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who served as vice president under James Madison, and Robert Mills, the architect who designed the Washington Monument, are both interred here. Choctaw Indian Chief Push-Ma-Ta-Ha, who fought alongside Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, is also buried at the cemetery. 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. More recent burials include Matthew Brady, Civil War photographer, Belva Lockwood, first woman to practice law before the Supreme Court, and J. Edgar Hoover, first director of the FBI. In 2008, Congressman Thomas Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, was buried in the cemetery. One of the most recent memorials at the cemetery commemorates former DC mayor, Marion Barry.
The U. S. Arsenal Monument, located near the western border, is one of the largest monuments at Congressional Cemetery. On June 17, 1864, while workers packed gunpowder cartridges, an incendiary ammunition exploded, sending sparks flying and setting off a massive explosion. This memorial honors the 21 women who perished. 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.
Unlike most burying grounds, Congressional Cemetery is home to a distinct LGBTQ section.Dr. Franklin E. Kameny and Barbara Gittings, who began the modern gay rights movement in the 1960s, rest here. The poignant grave of Leonard Matlovich, the first named gay person to appear on a mainstream magazine (TIME), reads, “A Gay Vietnam Veteran: When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one." Matlovich ceaselessly campaigned for gay rights in both civilian and military life in the 1980s. In a different area of the cemetery, Alain LeRoy Locke, a prominent LGBTQ 20th century African American philosopher, also lies at rest.
Congressional Cemetery stands out for its beauty and its famous interments. The visual layout resembles that of Pierre L’Enfant’s plan of Washington, DC. 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. Further, there are perhaps more early historical figures buried within this unique "American Westminster Abbey" than in any other cemetery in the country. Within the gates of Congressional Cemetery, notable burials serve as touchstones sending visitors back into key episodes of America’s past by memorializing its actors.
Congressional Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 23, 1969 and designated a National Historic Landmark on June 14, 2011.
National Historic Landmark Nomination of Congressional Cemetery
National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are historic places that possess exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States. The National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program oversees the designation of such sites. There are just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks. All NHLs are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
A project through the Save America's Treasures Grant Program, which helps preserve nationally significant historic properties and collections, funded work to conserve the collection of markers at Congressional Cemetery in 1999.