Sunday, December 16, 2018

An Unknown Place -- America’s First National Cemetery

Dear Friends,

I've talked about how during my travels while working around the country, my love of history had me stopping at Indian burial grounds, both Civil War and Indian-War battlefields of all sorts, places where stage coaches were held up, places where gunfights took place, places where vigilantes took folks out for a necktie party. I've been fortunate to have visited many small out of the way museums from Northfield, Minnesota, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to Skagway, Alaska, to Virginia City, Nevada.

In Northfield, I saw first hand what took place at the Northfield Raid where the James and Youngers met their Waterloo. In the Manitowac maritime museum, I saw Earnest Hemingway's fly fishing gear and was absolutely shocked to learn that we Americans built submarines there in World War II. Yes, in Wisconsin. As for the small museum in Skagway, it was there that I found the small pistol that Soapy Smith was carrying the night that he was killed. A pistol that contradicted the claims of his gang who said that he was unarmed. And while there is still a great museum in Virginia City, sadly a smaller museum there closed.

As morbid as it may sound, I've also visited a number of graveyards over the years. I've visited the grave site we all know as the Little Big Horn, Arlington National Cemetery, Boot Hill in Tombstone, Arizona, and many others. I cannot count how many out of the way tiny pioneer graveyards that I walked through. The first was a pioneer graveyard out the back gate of Camp Pendleton which lead to the town of Fallbrook. It was the first time that I realized that settlers lived a long time after coming West. For some reason, I thought they all died young which wasn't the case at all. And as for those solitary graves out in some pasture or standing vigil in some patch of ground that used to be a cemetery of sorts, I cannot tell you how many lone weathered headstones that I've tried to read.

In 1992, while visiting Washington D.C. after a job ended, I had some time to explore the area. I remember finding what turned out to be America's First National Cemetery. Yes, it was established long before Arlington National Cemetery. It is a place where rests hundreds of congressmen, a few Indian chiefs, American composer and conductor John Philip Sousa, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, Elbridge Gerry who is a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as well as J. Edgar Hoover who was the first director of the FBI. And yes, Veterans from every American war can be found there.

It is the small District of Columbia’s Congressional Cemetery. And I'm not kidding when I say it is America's First National Cemetery.

Congressional Cemetery is a 35 acre historic burial ground located on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Initially known as the Washington Parish Burial Ground, Congressional Cemetery became the first truly national burial ground as Congress bought sites, buried noted civil servants, and funded the infrastructure. While still active, there are scores of noteworthy citizens who left their mark on that city and the nation.

While it is said that to be buried there reflected no "special status," because of its location, Congressional had served for more than half a century as America’s national cemetery. Its 35 acres cover a bluff on the west bank of the Anacostia River, and it lies less than two miles from Capitol Hill. It was seen "as a place most desirable for the interment of members of Congress, any heads of departments of General Government and members of their families."

On the cemetery grounds is what looks like a round bomb shelter, but in fact is an iron-doored vault. It actually functioned as a morgue for many years. For example, it held the bodies of a few presidents before permanent arrangements were made. Believe it or not, the "storage fee" for holding a body there was $5 per month.

President William Henry Harrison take the oath of office in 1841. He died of pneumonia 31 days into his term. Yes, his was the shortest tenure in presidential history. Because he was the first president to die in office, his death sparked a Constitutional crisis regarding presidential line of succession. Harrison was the first of three Presidents to be temporarily entombed there, and his body remained for two months before being transported to North Bend, Ohio.

Ex-President John Quincy Adams died in the Speaker’s chambers and was taken to the vault prior to his return to Quincy, Massachusetts. Zachary Taylor became a national hero as a result of his victories in the Mexican–American War. He died in 1850 during his second year in office. Yes, just 16 months into his term.

It's said that when he was placed in the vault, that he wasn't alone. Taylor was there with none other than Dolley Madison. Here full name was Dorothea "Dolley" Dandridge Payne Todd Madison. She was the wife of President James Madison. She was noted for holding Washington social functions in which she invited members of both political parties to gather and socialize in a somewhat cordial manner. It's said that she sort of spearheaded the whole concept of "bipartisan cooperation" before the term was ever in use.

As for meeting socially to discuss political policy, Thomas Jefferson would only meet with members of one party at a time. It's said his gatherings would often turn into brawls and even result into duels.

Dolly Madison helped to create the idea that members of each party could amicably socialize, network, and negotiate with each other without things becoming violent. It's said that she did a great deal to define the role of the President's spouse. And no, the term "First Lady" came about later. As for helping Thomas Jefferson with social events, she did that after he became a widow.

Dolly Madison was in that vault for a year before Taylor arrived. She would remain there for 18 months before being moved to a family vault for six years, before finally joining her long-departed husband James Madison at Montpelier, Virginia.

In the early 1800s, congressional funerals had post-ceremony gatherings which included paying their respects while drinking free brandy and biscuits -- all paid for at government expense. Then they would join the procession to make the trek to the graveyard on foot. They were called "walking funerals" and they were known to stretch from Capitol Hill to the cemetery.

Later, coaches and carriages were included in the ceremonies. It was then that more mourners rode than walked. And here's something that must have been a sight for those watching. It's said that if the mourners who hired the coaches and carriages didn't show up for some reason, the hired carriages and coaches would simply join the funeral procession even though they were empty.

And here's something else, while we all associate black with funerals, it was customary at the time for the coach drivers to wind white bands around their stovepipe hats, and attending officials flung white linen scarfs over their shoulders as badges of mourning. And believe it or not, another strange custom was that the black bunting that was draped on buildings along the route were left in place for the wind to shred.

In 1812, newspaper reports of the funeral of Vice President George Clinton described his funeral as "a concourse of people greater than has ever been gathered in this city on any similar occasion."

When Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts succeeded to Clinton’s office, he was only there for two years before he died in his carriage on the way to the Senate. President James Madison had first lost Vice President Clinton and then Gerry back to back.

Vice President Gerry's precession was the same as Clinton's on the route to the Congressional Cemetery. But unlike Clinton who was removed from the vault to rest in his home state of New York, Gerry was interned in Congressional Cemetery. His memorial is a marble pyramid capped with urn and flame, with the inscription, "It is the duty of every citizen, though he may have but one day to live, to devote that day to the good of his country." By the way, he is what "gerrymandering" is name after.

In the process of setting electoral districts, gerrymandering is a practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries to create partisan-advantaged districts. The resulting district apportionment is known as a "gerrymander" but the word can also refer to the process.

Near Gerry’s grave is the grave of Tobias Lear who was George Washington's personal secretary. During the Barbary Wars, Lear served as consul who negotiated the release of American prisoners. It was his decision to pay the pirates for their release. It was a decision that would destroy his life. Because of that decision, his career was over and he had to take minor government positons, once as an accountant, to feed his family. It's said that he was so disliked for bowing to the Muslim pirates, that people crossed the street to avoid him. He was shunned and later committed suicide.

Among those buried there is Sergeant-Major John W. Hunter, who was a drummer boy in the Revolution. Annie Royal is buried there. She was sentenced to a ducking in the Potomac for ranting in court. David Herold is buried there. He was hanged for helping John Wilkes Booth escape after Booth shot President Lincoln. For a long time the parish had regulations which prohibited the burial of "persons of color," but that rule was broken when a former slave became a member of the church.

According to sources, there is at least one request inscribed in stone in the cemetery. That inscription is on the monument of Choctaw Chief Pushmatahaw. It reads, "When I am gone, let the big guns be fired over me."

Chief Pushmatahaw died while in Washington negotiating payment for tribal lands. I read where his Choctaw delegation charged the government about $7,500 for "living expenses" while in Washington. It's said that a great deal of that money was spent on liquor and cigars. False reports later said that the Chief had died because he drink himself to death but that was just a vicious rumor. Fact is, Chief Pushmatahaw's death was medically diagnosed as being the result of Croup.

Croup, also known as laryngotracheo-bronchitis, is a type of respiratory infection that is usually caused by a virus. The infection leads to swelling inside the trachea, which interferes with normal breathing and produces the classic symptoms of "barking" cough and a hoarse voice. Fever and runny nose may also be present. These symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe. Often it starts or is worse at night. It normally lasts a few days.

The croup is still a relatively common condition that affects about 15% of children at some point. Back in the day before antibiotics and vaccination, croup was frequently caused by diphtheria and was often fatal.

As for Chief Pushmatahaw, it's said that over two thousand mourners attended his funeral. It was led by Andrew Jackson himself. As per his dying request, it was granted. His funeral was held on the day after Christmas in 1824. And on that day, Andrew Jackson ordered cannon fire which roared from Capitol Hill and three musket volleys echoed at Chief Pushmatahaw's graveside.

Why such honor you ask? It was Chief Pushmatahaw and his braves that had fought beside Jackson and the American forces during the Battle of New Orleans. It was Chief Pushmatahaw and his braves who helped stop the British Invasion during the War of 1812. Some believe his help was the factor that turned the tide of that battle.

Of course not all of the Indians seeking redress of abuses were treated as well. The story of Chief Scarlet Crow, a Santee Sioux chief from Minnesota, is one of those stories. Chief Scarlet Crow was actually accosted on a Washington D.C. street and kidnaped. Sadly, even though the federal government paid his kidnappers the ransom that they demanded for the Chief’s release, his kidnappers killed Scarlet Crow anyway. His body was interned at Congressional Cemetery. Chief Scarlet Crow's funeral was well attended and given military honors befitting the respect given to fellow warriors.

That wasn't the case for Taza who was son of Cochise. Taza succeeded his father Cochise as Chief of the Chiricahuas when his father died in 1874. That was two years after the Chiricahua Reservation was established by General Howard. In 1876, the tribe was removed from the Chiricahua reservation and relocated to San Carlos. In September of the same year, Chief Taza was one of a delegation of Apaches taken to Washington D.C. for a visit. During that visit, he fell ill and died there of pneumonia on September 26, 1876. He had only been Chief for about two years.

After his burial in Congressional Cemetery, an Indian agent being too interested in leaving Washington D.C. to get married made the mistake of forgetting to order Chief Taza's headstone. Since that Indian agent didn't order one before leaving the city, because of that horrible mistake, Taza’s grave remained unmarked until the 1970s when a granite headstone bearing his likeness was donated. Yes, almost 100 years later, Taza's grave finally received a proper marker.

Of course, there were those who didn't want to be buried in Congressional Cemetery. Some were very vehement about not being buried there. For example, one congressman once stated, "I would not die in Washington, be eulogized by men I despise and buried in the Congressional Burying Ground. The idea of lying by the side of so-and-so! Ah, that adds a new horror to death!"

In modern times, it's said homeless would break into the vault to sleep or get out of the weather. From about 1930 to 1976, the cemetery went into decline. It's disrepair during that period has been described as follows: "... like the neighborhood in which the cemetery lies, and except for the government owned areas and the few privately maintained sites, the old burial ground deteriorated sadly. Waist-high weeds and climbing vines obscured modest stones such as those marking the graves of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and his family. Stray dogs roamed the grounds and snakes slithered through the tall grass. Broken stained glass littered the turn-of-the-century stucco chapel that stands in the center of the cemetery. Toppled stones and sunken graves bore witness to the years of neglect, and vandals recently damaged more than a hundred of the tombstones."

As shocking as it may sound, the expense of maintaining the private part of Congressional Cemetery actually had their administrators considering a plan to remove the remains of thousands of graves. The land would then be sold to developers. But fortunately, in 1977 a group of concerned citizens joined together to save the neglected landmark.

They formed the non-profit Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery and assumed the growing financial burden for the old burial ground. The group raises funds from various civic and patriotic groups and from individuals. Events are also scheduled to help as fund raisers.

The Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery is strives "to maintain the historic, cultural, and aesthetic qualities of this natural landscape along the Anacostia River." To do that, each year the Association has over 1,000 volunteers to help maintain and promote the cemetery. The association has over 500 members and is also well staffed with preservation experts.

The future preservation of that important place appears in good hands.

Tom Correa

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