Washington’s historic cemeteries: Where the nation’s past lives

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For a bustling, thriving capital of a world-class superpower, Washington, D.C. offers a surprisingly lively scene for the nonliving as well.

In addition to the Capitol, the White House and the Mall, history-minded visitors to the city can track the nation’s political, military and cultural course through the quiet final resting grounds of the famous and near-famous who lived and died here, from former presidents and generals to authors, Indian chiefs and famous lawmen.

Five historic cemeteries offer visitors a brief escape from the present and a chance to pay homage to remarkable figures from the country’s past, often far from the tourist hordes.

Washington National Cathedral

Perhaps the most prominent of the locations is Washington National Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral that is the sixth-largest in the world, occupying a site at the highest point in the city, atop Mount St. Alban in Northwest Washington.

The tomb for the only U.S. president interred within the city’s borders can be found inside the cathedral doors: Woodrow Wilson, whose two terms were highlighted by World War I and the unsuccessful fight to have the U.S. join the League of Nations, was buried here following his death in 1924. The grave of his wife, Edith, who died much later in 1961, is next to his.

Though the cathedral is not officially a cemetery, several other notable persons are interred here as well. Deaf-mute author and advocate Helen Keller and her longtime tutor and friend, Anne Sullivan, were placed here in 1968 and 1936, respectively. Famous Spanish-American War hero Adm. George Dewey was interred here in 1917.

Historic Congressional Cemetery

Across town and along the shores of the Anacostia River lies Historic Congressional Cemetery, the oldest national cemetery, with origins dating back to 1807.

More than 55,000 persons are buried in the cemetery grounds, many of whom helped in solidifying Washington as the capital city in the early 1800s. The cemetery also contains several lawmakers who died while Congress was in session. The grave of Elbridge Gerry, vice president under James Madison who unwillingly gave his name for the dubious practice of gerrymandering, can be found here.

One of the biggest attractions is the monument to founding father George Clinton, the vice president for both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who died while in office in 1812. The grave of J. Edgar Hoover, who grew up nearby and was the first director of the FBI, is another point of interest.

One of the cemetery’s more arresting attractions, though, is the grave of a respected American Indian chief: Pushmataha, a Choctaw leader at the time of the War of 1812 who fought alongside the U.S. and was buried with full military honors.

Mount Olivet Cemetery

Two people convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln are buried in Northeast Washington’s Mount Olivet Cemetery, which has gained notoriety for some of the controversial figures laid to rest there.

John Lloyd and Mary Surratt, who became the first woman executed by the U.S. government, were convicted of aiding in Lincoln’s murder by concealing in a local tavern carbine rifles, ammunition and rope intended for use in the plot hatched by John Wilkes Booth.

Also buried in Mount Olivet is Henry Wirz, the Confederate officer in charge of the brutal Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War. The camp at one point held as many as 32,000 Union soldiers, and as many as 13,000 died there during the war. Wirz ultimately was captured and executed by Union soldiers under charges of conspiracy and murder.

Despite some of the disreputable persons buried there, the roughly 85-acre cemetery is home to the graves of more than 100,000 others and is the largest Catholic cemetery in the area. The original architect of the White House, James Hoban, is also buried in Mount Olivet.

Arlington National Cemetery

No tour of Washington’s cemeteries would be complete without a trip through Arlington National Cemetery, perhaps the country’s best-known burial ground.

More than 400,000 graves of military veterans stretch across 624 acres of beautiful landscape along the Virginia bank of the Potomac River, directly across from the Lincoln Memorial. The cemetery dates back to the outbreak of the Civil War, when the Union Army took possession of property on the estate belonging to Confederate General Robert E. Lee and used a portion of it to bury its dead.

Today, the cemetery remains an active burial ground for approximately 7,000 veterans and notable U.S. leaders each year. The cemetery is second in size only to the Calverton National Cemetery in New York.

Arlington National Cemetery draws visitors year-round and is home to the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame, the memorial at the slain president’s grave site, where he lies alongside his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Another U.S. president, William Howard Taft, also is buried at Arlington.

The Tomb of the Unknowns commemorates all U.S. soldiers who died in conflicts without their remains being identified. The tomb sits atop a hill that overlooks Washington and has been guarded perpetually by service members since 1937.

Oak Hill Cemetery

Far less well-known but worth a visit is Oak Hill Cemetery, which sits on 22 acres in Georgetown and also features a large botanical garden. The cemetery is centered around a Gothic-style chapel built in 1850.

Despite the cemetery’s relatively small size, the graves of dozens of former lawmakers and leaders can be found within its grounds.

Among the most notable is that of Dean Acheson, master diplomat and secretary of state under President Truman who redefined foreign policy during the Cold War, helped author the Marshall Plan after World War II and played a key role in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Oak Hill’s historic chapel was designed by architect James Renwick, whose other works include St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the Mall’s Smithsonian Castle. Former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, former ABC newscaster Howard K. Smith and David Levy Yulee, the Florida lawyer believed to have been the first Jewish member of the Senate, are among the other notables buried in the bucolic setting.

Rock Creek Cemetery

A final notable cemetery in the District spans 86 acres just blocks away from onetime Civil War site (and now Metro stop) Fort Totten. Rock Creek Cemetery dates back as early as 1719, when it was established as a churchyard for the Rock Creek Parish, an Episcopal church that still stands and is the oldest religious institution in the D.C. area.

Inside the cemetery grounds is the grave of Patricia Roberts Harris, a member of President Carter’s Cabinet and the first black woman to serve as an ambassador. Also buried at the site are such figures as muckraking author Upton Sinclair, department-store magnate Julius Garfinckel, Alice Roosevelt Longworth and “Meet the Press” anchor Tim Russert.

Rock Creek Cemetery also contains one of the most famous sculptures in the city, the grieving hooded figure that serves as the grave marker for famed Washington author and historian Henry Adams and his wife, Marian Hooper “Clover” Adams, done by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White.

The cemetery is across the street from the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, a historic site whose ground contain the summer cottage Abraham Lincoln used during the Civil War.

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