The City of Silence

The City of Silence

By Mrs. Detwiler, 1955
(Used by the guides as part of "The Tour of Capitol Hill Homes" (1955)
in which Christ Church and Congressional Cemetery were included.)

 

Congressional Cemetery is our unknown shrine of Americana. As cemeteries go, it is not an ancient one, but Washington is not an old city. Like Washington, it is peopled with those who made up a cross section of Capital life; the dramatic and the drab, the great, the near-great, and the wished to be great. Probably no burying ground in America, with the exception of Arlington, is more stirring to the imagination. Here, too, is a happy hunting ground for epitaph collectors.

When the Federal City was a brash young capital, full of mud and magnificent distances, Washington Parish Burial Ground was laid out by the residents of the eastern quarter of the city. They needed a responsible, self-perpetuating body to administer it and therefore deeded the property to the vestry of Christ Episcopal Church, Washington Parish. Meanwhile it became clear that human life being frail and transportation uncertain, a suitable resting place would have to be found for officials who died in office as well as for foreign dignitaries who succumbed to the rigors of the swamp-built city. Not wishing to go actively into the cemetery business, Congress made liberal donations of land and money, thus giving the burial ground a quasi-official status and the name - Congressional Cemetery.

A few famous people used the cemetery as a temporary stopover on their last journey. Travel at best was an ordeal in those days; travel with a coffin, no matter how distinguished the occupant, often had to wait for favorable conditions.

John Quincy Adams, President, Senator and Representative, lay in the Public Vault until he could be taken to Massachusetts. William Henry Harrison, who died a few short weeks after his inauguration, used this same vault for a time. Dolley Madison, beloved arbiter of Washington society, was a guest in the Causten family vault for six years before her final journey to the Madison family burial ground in Orange, Virginia.

But many remain. Walking down the brick and gravel paths, you will see names from the history books: Tobias Lear, Commodore John Rodgers, Dr. William Thornton, Matthew B. Brady, John Phillip Sousa, and dozens of others.

You will find Annie Royall, who was honored with a tombstone erected fifty years after her death by "a few Gentlemen from Philadelphia and Washington." A group of Indians in Washington to see the Great White Father (Andrew Johnson) succumbed as a man to smallpox, and they are here, not far from the grave of Count Adam Gurowski, who was the man Lincoln feared might one day assassinate him.

A.R. Johnson, the Superintendent of Congressional Cemetery, is a serious, bespectacled man who relishes his job with the appetite of a natural scholar. His eighty thousand tenants are a source of never-ending interest to him, and he spends his spare time compiling a biographical card catalogue system of their lives.

The records of burial lot sales, opening and closing of graves, documents in any way pertaining to the cemetery administration in days gone by are cliché of his historical curiosity. In view of the present cost of labor, he shakes his head in wonder at such items as

      "digging grave in Col. Wharton's Ground for Major Miller's Daughter aged 3 years Died in the Measels - $3.00"

The old record books carry their own stories of the hardships that faced our legislators in those early days. Clay and Calhoun buried children here; so did many another congressman. Opening one of the big volumes at random, I counted the number of burials between April and December of 1820. Sixty-six people were interred during this period, thirty-one of them were young children. By way of contrast, records of the last five years show only one funeral for a child.

This pious resignation to infant mortality is reflected in the inscription on the stone of William Miller, aged one year, four months, and eleven days:

 

"Parents, for me do not lament.
I was not yours, but only lent."

 

There were numerous deaths "in the Typhus" during the hot summer of 1829, and from time to time "cholera morbus spread its fetid wings over the young city. But notations of departures "in the mortification" or "in the decline" can be found at any time of the year. Incidentally, the decline seemed to carry off as many young men as it did maidens.

The first time I visited Congressional Cemetery, Mr. Johnson was waiting for a funeral procession. When the long train of automobiles followed the hearse through the iron gates, he solemnly tolled each one in with the ancient bell.

We walked out to see the tombstone of Push-ma-ta-ha, the Choctaw chief who died of the croup on Christmas Eve, 1824. A loyal friend of the White Man, Push-ma-ta-ha raised an army of five hundred warriors to fight for Jackson at New Orleans. He was honored with one of the biggest funerals ever held in Washington. A full thousand, headed by Old Hickory himself, came down the muddy road to pay their respects and to see the fulfillment of his final wish, which is inscribed on his tombstone:

 

"When I am gone, let the big guns be fired over me."

 

Beside Push-ma-ta-ha is the table tomb of Mme. De Bresson, the young wife of the Secretary of the French Legation, who died a year and two days after her marriage. One feels something of the bewildered grief of the husband in the words:

 

"…you, O your
so perfect and so peerless…created
of every creature's best…"

 

Next to the number of young children buried here, one is struck by the appalling mortality among young married women, a commentary on the obstetrical care of the time.

Some of the epitaphs are long, baroque tributes, others recount the terminal illness in every detail, always borne with great fortitude, others are moving because of what is left unsaid.

One of these is the gravestone of Tobias Lear, the bright young Harvard graduate who became first the private secretary, then military secretary to George Washington. There was something about him in Lydia Bailey, I recalled. It pertained to his part in signing a treaty with Yusuf Pasha during the Barbary Wars, and gave a picture of the man which suggested cowardice and stupidity. I glanced through several history books and found the bare facts, he had signed a treaty with Tripoli which was, in the minds of many, as humiliating to the United States as it was unnecessary. What today we might brand as appeasement was in 1805 anathema, for we were a cheeky young nation and National Honor was a chip on our youthful shoulders. To be sure, the price the Pasha asked for the return of American prisoners was less than the going rate for healthy male slaves in Virginia, and five of our sailors were already dead from inhumane treatment at the hands of the savage Barbary pirates. Lear agreed to pay the tribute, and his action became a political football.

The circumstances were fresh in the public mind in 1812, when all American nationals were sent home as persona non grata to the pro-British Algerian government. Colonel Lear was forced to spend his remaining days, not as a diplomat, but as a minor accountant in the War Department. His unpopularity must have been agonizing for a man who had once basked in the sun of George Washington's glory. It is said that people even crossed the street to avoid meeting him. And so, on an autumn day in 1816, he took his own life. On his stone, beneath the simple name and dates, are the words:

 

"His desolate Widow and mourning Son
have erected this monument
to mark the place of his abode>br? in the
CITY OF SILENCE"

 

The flat stone nearby will interest those given to historic speculation. It marks the grave of Cornelia Louisiana Livingston, Consort of Commodore C.G. Ridgeley. Noting her middle name, one sees that she died in 1827 at the age of 24. That would make the year of her birth 1803, the year of Mr. Jefferson's great bargain, the Louisiana Purchase. One is moved to wonder if many little Alaska's were born in 1867, the year of Seward's Folly.

Elbridge Gerry, Vice President under Madison and Monroe and originator of the still current political practice of "gerrymandering," is here. Nearby is a stone erected by order of Frederick William III, King of Prussia, for his Minister who died while he was envoy to this country.

Down the brick and gravel path, in neighboring graves, lie two of our great architects, both of whom contributed to the design and creation of the Capitol. They are George Hadfield, brother of the lovely Maria Cosway and friend of Thomas Jefferson, and Dr. William Thornton, the Quaker physician from the West Indies who turned architect and built three of the most beautiful houses we have around Washington today - The Octagon, Tudor Place, and the lovely and gracious Woodlawn, recently restored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thornton was the artist and dreamer, the visionary whose architectural designs were full of grace and grandeur; whose imagination soared past the point of practicality. Hadfield was the trained, practical, painstaking architect who was given the job of translating Thornton's dreams of the Capitol into limestone, marble and mortar. The infant city resounded with the clash of genius, and finally the great Benjamin H. Latrobe took over the job and is generally considered the architect of the Capitol.

Latrobe is also the man who designed the amazing cenotaphs in Congressional Cemetery, which, row on row, memorialize the early statesmen who died in office. Some lie beneath their cenotaphs, some are honored in absentia. The practice was abandoned in 1877, when Senator Hoar of Massachusetts, in an address before the Senate, declared that the prospect of being interred under one of those atrocities added a new terror to death.

Another famous architect buried here is Robert Mills, who designed the Washington Monument. His indirect contribution to the Cemetery is evident at a glance, miniature obelisks were a favorite tombstone design for a full half century.

Captain Thomas Tingey and his two wives lie close to the cemetery office. As the first commandant of the Navy Yard, he lived in the Commandant's House for so long that when his will was read it was learned that he had left the official residence to his wife. The facts of life were explained to the family and they reluctantly moved away to make room for the succeeding commandant. The captain's ghost refused to budge, and it is said to haunt the house to this day.

General Archibald Henderson, who was commandant of the Marine Corps for 39 years, longer than any other man, is buried here too. He was a stalwart old character, one of the most legendary figures that the colorful leathernecks ever produced. One day callers at his headquarters found the place closed and a sign tacked up over the door. "Have gone to fight the Indians. Back when the war is over." The latest anecdote goes back only a few years to the early days of World War II, when General Holcomb, then Commandant, announced the organization of the Women's Marine Corps. At that moment General Henderson's portrait crashed down from the wall and damaged, of all things, the silver tea service which had been the gift of the Imperial Japanese Government.

Congressional Cemetery has its failures as well as its successes. It was here that a lonely cortege bore the body of John Todd Payne, the wastrel son of Dolley Madison, and laid him to rest near his mother (whose body was later moved to the Madison burial ground at Orange, Virginia.) Only three mourners were at the graveside --one white man and two Negroes.

Not far away, in an unmarked grave, lies Davy Herold, hanged for complicity in the Lincoln assassination. An apple-cheeked lad with buck teeth and a foolish smile, his chief value to the conspirators lay in his knowledge of the Maryland countryside where he used to hunt and fish. His grave can be found only by someone who knows the mystifying cemetery code which tells who is buried where.

The Civil War Round Table, an organization devoted to the study of history and anecdotes pertaining to the War Between the States, once made a pilgrimage to the grave of Matthew B. Brady, the first great news photographer. But they missed the grave of one of the most amazing personalities of that era.

Count Adam Gurowski, the man Lincoln feared, lies almost directly behind the little chapel. In his Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865, Ward Hill Lamon says:

"From this man Gurowski, and from him alone, Lincoln really apprehended danger by violent assault, although he knew not what the sense of fear was like. Mr. Lincoln more than once said to me: 'So far as my personal safety is concerned, Gurowski is the only man who has given me a serious thought of a personal nature. From the known disposition of this man, he is dangerous where ever he may be. I have sometimes thought that he might try to take my life. It would be just like him to do such a thing."

Count Gurowski was a Polish exile who was persona non grata at home because of his anti-Russian activities. He made his way to the United States, and under the patronage of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, he was given work in the State Department. There it was his duty to read and translate Slavic and German newspapers and periodicals and interpret the East European mind to the men who shaped our diplomatic policies. Contemporary writers called him a revolutionist by nature, revengeful, with an ungovernable urge to contradict and disagree. He was cordially hated, and considered to be rather romantically sinister, but Margaret Leech, in Reveille in Washington, looks back on him with a milder eye as a rather comic opera character who took out most of his bad temper in snarling into his badly written diary. It was this diary that finally lost him his job. Someone found it in his desk and was scandalized at the scathing words he had for everyone, particularly his patron, Senator Sumner, William H. Seward, the Secretary of State, and President Lincoln.

Some people said that his disposition was owing to his adversities, but most agreed that his adversities were derived from his disposition. Mrs. Eames, a well-known Washington hostess, was one of the former, and he was always a welcome caller at her home. At tea one afternoon early in 1866, Mrs. Eames remarked that he did not look well, that he must stay until he felt better. He did just that; stayed until May, when he died. He still makes his home with the Eames' in their family plot.

Rounding the corner of the twentieth century one comes to a grave of vast portent. When the newspapers of 1904 recorded Washington's first traffic fatality caused by a new-fangled automobile, they could not then foretell the tragic and endless line of victims who were to follow. Marion Ooletia Kahlert, ten years old, met her death on an October day. Her parents commissioned an Italian sculptor whose fame is now dim to do a statue of Marion as she was at the time of the accident. And there she is, with stiff cigar-like curls, high button shoes and deep bertha, read to lead a sad little parade of children into infinity beneath the wheels of the horseless carriage.

Another strange marker, somewhat reminiscent of the famous bedstead at St. Michael's Churchyard in Charleston, is the marble replica of the china closet of the deceased. The lady's ashes are in a bronze urn on the middle shelf, behind glass doors.

He could have been buried at Arlington, of course, but it seems fitting that the March King should rest at Congressional Cemetery. John Phillip Sousa set to music the flamboyant and joyous patriotism of the brave young nation which in essence is a nation of individuals not easily memorialized by similar chaste markers, row on row. Standing beside his grave and looking across the acres of flat marble slabs, table tombs, obelisks, cenotaphs, monuments of every conceivable design, it seems that here indeed is American soil, made of the dust of people who helped create our country. It is quite fitting that the last tombstone you see as you leave by the 17th Street gate records the resting place of a man named

 

THOMAS AMERICA.
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