In the Shadow of the United States Capitol: Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation
- Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Maberry Johnson
- New Academia Publishing
- 434 pp.
- Reviewed by Garrett Peck
- March 20, 2013
Older and quirkier than Arlington, the historic cemetery on Capitol Hill has famous denizens ranging from Matthew Brady to J. Edgar Hoover.
Many visitors to Washington, D.C., journey across the Potomac River to pay their respects to the dead at Arlington National Cemetery, the country’s premier military cemetery. It’s a vast site, but also one that’s uniformly solemn, with its endless rows of white marble crosses and hushed crowds. Arlington takes itself very seriously.
Located by another river, the Anacostia, on the east side of Capitol Hill, is a much quirkier cemetery, one that’s more historically significant than Arlington — and a lot more fun. (Have you ever been to a party in a cemetery that turned its Public Vault into a cocktail lounge? I rest my case.) Yet it’s a site that even most Washingtonians have never visited. The place is historic Congressional Cemetery.
Congressional Cemetery is nearly as old as Washington, having been founded in 1807. It now encompasses more than 30 acres and holds the remains of 55,000 people. The detailed history of this fascinating place is the subject of a book by Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Maberry Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol: Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation.
The book charts the cemetery’s changing role as it became the country’s first national resting ground. The authors write: “It is not a national military cemetery, like Arlington across the Potomac River, but a one-of-a-kind national public cemetery, accessible to the broad sweep of the American community, including members of Congress, veterans of all U.S. wars, and everyone else.” They document the first 200 years of Congressional Cemetery’s history.
The book is well written and certainly exhaustively researched, but there are times when authors must take a scalpel to trim their work. So much research can bog down the narrative in excess detail. The authors have a habit of repeating material, whether it’s the list of three presidents whose funerals took place at the cemetery (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and John Quincy Adams) or mentioning dozens of times that Christ Church, near the Navy Yard on Capitol Hill, owned the property. The weight of repetition, lists of people, dates and verbatim quotes of presidential funeral parade orders and newspaper articles can weigh on the reader and cause you to flip ahead.
That said, Johnson and Johnson have painstakingly done their research and fact-checked their information. The only mistake I found, and it’s a minor one, came in a statement indicating that “the first United States Naval Constructor designed Old Ironsides and her five sister frigates, including the Constitution and United States.” There was no ship christened “Old Ironsides;” rather, that was the nickname of the U.S.S. Constitution.
The book has an excellent chapter about how quickly Arlington overtook Congressional as the premier cemetery for military funerals after the Civil War. Arlington had vastly more space to grow; even so, that cemetery is projected to be full by 2030.
The authors wryly observe that Memorial Day, initially created to remember the dead, soon became mostly a day of vacation. Here in Washington, the hordes head to the Delmarva shore on what is the unofficial start of summer, rather than visiting cemeteries to decorate graves.
The book provides biographical information about some of the famous people buried at Congressional Cemetery: Matthew Brady, John Philip Sousa, J. Edgar Hoover, the victims of the 1864 Washington Arsenal explosion and many, many more. The images include a rich collection of photographs of the cemetery.
Two other books about Congressional Cemetery were also published recently, and each is notably different. Historic Congressional Cemetery, by Rebecca Boggs Roberts and Sandra Schmidt, tells the cemetery’s history largely through photographs. In the other, Erin Bergin Voorheis finished the manuscript of her late father, Brian Bergen, published as The Washington Arsenal Explosion: Civil War Disaster in the Capital. Both of those books fill a particular niche, whereas Johnson and Johnson’s book provides a broad, detailed overview of the cemetery.
In the Shadow of the United States Capitol also addresses the most pressing question about the cemetery: How do you keep a historic property financially solvent while preserving it for future generations? As the demographics of Capitol Hill changed after World War II, the cemetery deteriorated financially and physically. Congress neglected to help the cemetery that bore its name.
The book documents the many people involved in helping to rescue Congressional Cemetery, but reading so much congressional testimony can grow tedious. The turning point came in 1997, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the cemetery one of America’s most endangered places.
The history does have a happy ending: The cemetery reached its bicentennial in 2007 on a much sounder financial footing. Community involvement was ultimately what saved Congressional Cemetery from decay and ruin.
Those who helped with the rescue included volunteers from the Armed Forces, Capitol Hill residents and the legion of dog walkers who pay to use the park-like cemetery. (The National Trust’s Preservation magazine published a fascinating article in January 2012 about community involvement in rescuing the cemetery). The dogs, often seen at night wearing Day-Glo collars, chased away the lingering drug dealers, and in the process enhanced the quirky atmosphere that makes the cemetery an inviting and important spot to visit once again.
Garrett Peck (www.garrettpeck.com) is the author of four books, including The Potomac River: A History and Guide and The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry. He also leads tours to Seneca quarry as well as the Temperance Tour of Prohibition-related sites in the Nation’s Capital.