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The Congressional Cemetery Offers a Reflective Look at DC’s More Ordinary History

Washington, DC had an interesting beginning, founded not by pilgrims or pioneers, but by an act of Congress in 1790 to establish a “federal city” that would be the seat of government.  Over time, the new city found its character, but almost entirely lost to history are the stories of the people who helped build it into a real, thriving place where everyday life occurred.  Luckily, the Congressional Cemetery preserves theses narratives, and many more.

The cemetery, tucked between the Potomac Avenue and Stadium Armory metro stations along the Anacostia River, has been called “America’s first de facto national cemetery.”  Founded in 1807 as the Washington Parish Burial Ground, the need for a close graveyard was a sign that the young capital had grown into its own.

Today, the Congressional Cemetery, which is still open for new burials, is the final resting place for approximately 55,000 individuals, who lie in 30,000 burial sites and under 14,000 headstones.  Famous figures interred at the site include J. Edgar Hoover and John Philip Sousa.  Others include Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Robert Mills, designer of the Washington Monument; and Belva Lockwood, who in 1884 was either the first or second woman to run for president (apparently there is debate on this topic, see here).

A number of more “ordinary” interesting characters buried at the Congressional Cemetery who have added their unique flair to DC include Mary Ann Hall, a high-end brothel owner; Marie Claire Fuller, a once famous silent film actress who died forgotten in a mental institution; and Matthew Brady, the father of photojournalism who covered the Civil War.

All of this and much more history can be learned during free Saturday tours at 11am, March through October.  Additionally, Civil War tours are held once a month on the afternoon.

In addition to the vast history that the Congressional Cemetery provides, the 35 acres of grounds are a serene haven in the midst of the bustling city.  Many nearby residents walk their dogs in the park, and birds and squirrels are easily observed in the large oak trees.

Whether you are a history buff or just curious to get a glimpse of the past, the Congressional Cemetery will offer you new insight into both our city and our nation.

To visit:  1801 E Street SE, (202) 543-0539, a few blocks from the Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue metro stations, and close to the 96 and other bus lines.  Open every day from dawn until dusk.

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