- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2007

Historic Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill is the final resting place of one of the most diverse groups of people to be found in an urban burial site in the country.

Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, vice president under James Madison and the man who gave his name to the gerrymander, lies not far from John Philip Sousa. Only steps apart are J. Edgar Hoover and Leonard Matlovich, the first member of the U.S. military to be discharged because of his homosexuality.

Veterans of every war from the Revolution to Vietnam rest in Congressional, but the single largest group comprises more than 700 veterans of the Civil War. Approximately 600 Union veterans, many of whom served in District of Columbia regiments, are joined by about 100 Confederates.

One might say the cemetery has both the beginning and the end of the Civil War. The beginning is found not far from the main entrance and gatehouse, where a cenotaph honors Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina. The cemetery contains 185 cenotaphs — literally “empty tombs” — designed by U.S. Capitol designer Benjamin Latrobe, placed to honor members of Congress who died in office.

Butler co-authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which many abolitionists thought undermined the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts gave a speech denigrating Butler, even mocking his speech impediment, which was caused by a medical condition.

Two days later, Butler’s nephew, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina (whose cenotaph is about 100 feet away from his uncle’s) defended the family honor. He beat Sumner with a gutta percha cane on the floor of the Senate while a colleague brandishing a pistol held at bay anyone coming to Sumner’s aid. Sumner did not return to the Senate for three years, standing for re-election while convalescing. The attack galvanized both sides of the debate and transformed the struggling Republican Party into a political force.

Not far away lies Mathew Brady, the definitive Civil War photographer. He has two headstones; oddly enough, one lists the date of death as 1895, while the other says 1896. (The latter is correct.) He is buried in the plot of the Handy family — his wife Julia’s family. After his wife’s death in 1887, Brady moved to New York City and eventually died penniless. Members of the 7th New York Infantry raised the funds to have his body transported to Washington and buried at Congressional.

Sorrowful marker

Towering above the 17th Street border of the cemetery is the monument to the victims of the Washington Arsenal explosion. On June 17, 1864, a spark from the spontaneous combustion of munitions drying outside the arsenal at the Washington Navy Yard flew inside the building, triggering an explosion and fire. Contemporary records indicate that 28 women were working there at the time; 22 died, and six were severely burned.

Reports tell of women on fire jumping out of windows. One bystander reportedly was burned grievously when he grabbed a woman fully engulfed in flames and tossed her in the river. Most of the women were young Irish Roman Catholics. Sixteen (eight who were never identified) are buried under the monument, and two others are in family plots nearby.

The funeral procession, at that time the largest in the history of the city, was led by President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. Mourners reportedly hired every cab in the city that day.

The Humphreyses

Near the chapel at the center of the cemetery is the Humphreys family plot. The patriarch, Joshua, and his son, Samuel, were renowned ship designers and builders in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Samuel’s sons— Andrew and Joseph (aka Joshua) — may epitomize this country in the Civil War.

Andrew Humphreys commanded Union troops at Antietam and Fredericksburg, where he led his regiment the farthest up Marye’s Heights reached by the Yankees. By Gettysburg, he had command of a division in the III Corps and five days later was named Gen. George G. Meade’s chief of staff. Later that year, he took command of the II Corps and was breveted to major general.

Joseph Humphreys served in the U.S. Navy until 1853, when he resigned his commission and went into private business. He eventually settled in Fredericksburg and married a local woman. When the war broke out, he joined and served in the Confederate Navy, possibly choosing that side of the war because of his business and marriage ties. Any ideological difference the brothers may have held in life is absent in death, as they were buried close to each other.

Not far away is the marker for the Henderson family. Legendary U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Archibald Henderson, the fifth commandant of the Marine Corps, rests beside his youngest son, Capt. Octavius Henderson. Octavius entered Confederate service directly from the Virginia Military Institute. He led the 1st Virginia Regulars and was severely wounded at the Battle of Second Manassas. There he had his VMI class ring shot from his hand, but the ring was returned to him 32 years later. He eventually returned to his alma mater to teach infantry tactics.

Man without boots

A row of family vaults overlooks the Anacostia River. One of those holds the remains of James Berret, mayor of Washington in 1861, who won that election by a mere 24 votes. That year, as the Civil War erupted, Congress passed a law requiring all public officeholders to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Berret refused, saying he already had done so when he had taken the oath as mayor. The refusal was significant because by August he was arrested for complicity and jailed in New York. His house was searched, but no damning evidence was found, so he was released. Upon returning to the city, he resigned as mayor.

Tucked above the vaults in an unmarked grave in the family plot lies William Smoot. In 1861, at the age of 16, he joined his entire VMI class in enlisting in the Confederate Infantry, possibly the 6th or 34th Virginia. He survived the war and was furloughed in Richmond in 1865.

Smoot walked back to the family home in Northern Virginia, only to find that his family had been displaced. He continued to his mother’s family home in Maryland. As he began to walk up the lane to the home, his mother, working in the garden, saw this unkempt, emaciated man walking toward her and ran toward the house. He reportedly stopped and shouted, “Mother, don’t you know me?” She looked him over and asked, “But where are your boots?” “I ate them before I left Richmond,” was his reply.

In another unmarked grave near the eastern edge of the cemetery lies Jeremiah DuBell Wilson. One of Mosby’s Rangers, Wilson was the owner and rider of a renowned black mare named Jim Banks. The mare was said to be the fastest in the regiment, and reportedly that speed saved Wilson from capture by the Yankees on more than one occasion. In his memoirs, John S. Mosby often refers to the horse as the “finest mount in the Confederate army.” Many officers tried to buy her, but to no avail.

Wilson missed the 1863 “Greenback Raid,” which reportedly earned each Ranger $20,000. His compatriots wanted to buy the mare for Gen. Robert E. Lee, so Wilson offered to sell her if each man gave him $100. They refused, and he rode the horse through the war and eventually sold her to the rector of St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church in Washington.

The Public Vault

The oldest part of the cemetery lies just east of the gatehouse. Several family vaults are in that section along with the Public Vault. There bodies were stored until they could be interred or transported elsewhere for burial. William Henry Harrison served one month as president but remained in the Public Vault more than three months.

The Public Vault also served as a way station for the remains of Col. Edward Baker. A Republican senator from Oregon, Baker was a close friend of Lincoln’s, going back to their days together in Springfield, Ill. They were so close that the future president named his second son after the fellow lawyer. Baker eventually ran for the Senate in California and lost but then stood for and won a Senate seat from Oregon in 1860.

A year later, Baker was authorized to create the Union’s California Brigade, mostly with Philadelphia volunteers. He chose not to resign his Senate seat, so he could accept only the rank of colonel. In October 1861, Baker led troops at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, near Leesburg. He was killed, possibly by a Virginia militiaman who rode directly into the Union lines wearing the Virginia regiment’s original blue uniform. After a public funeral, Baker lay in the Public Vault for three days before being removed for burial in San Francisco National Cemetery.

A ‘businesswoman’

Near the cemetery wall facing the D.C. prison is the plot for Mary Hall and her family. During excavation for the Museum of the American Indian on Independence Avenue, shards of fine pottery and stemware and remnants of expensive liquor bottles were unearthed. Research showed that during the Civil War this was the site of Mary Hall’s brothel, although cemetery records always list her as a “businesswoman” or “entrepreneur.”

In 1862, the Federal provost marshal issued a catalog of 450 brothels in the District. (They were legal until 1914.) Mary Hall’s was rated the best in the city, and it served many military men during the war. However, Hall must have made someone unhappy because in 1864 she was charged with operating a bawdy house and a disorderly house.

The trial was followed breathlessly by the press, and Hall ultimately was found guilty of the former charge and not guilty of the latter. She eventually went into retirement, devoting much of her time to women’s health clinics. Cemetery records show that in addition to the plot she shares with her mother and sister, she purchased several other burial plots, all occupied by single men.

Assassination links

The end of the Civil War is noted at the cemetery by what arguably is the most visited unmarked grave in the city. Just east of the gatehouse lies the properly marked grave of Elizabeth Herold, who died in 1903. Beneath her is the body of her brother, Davy, one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Davy Herold originally was buried on the grounds of Fort McNair near where he was hanged in 1865. In 1869, his family petitioned to have him exhumed and reinterred at Congressional and, fearing vandalism, left the grave unmarked.

Congressional Cemetery has other links to the assassination of Lincoln. Buried there are seven men who were at Ford’s Theatre that fateful night — a doorkeeper, an usher, two audience members, two orchestra members and a member of the box-office staff.

Also there is a man who was wounded defending Secretary of State Seward from Lewis Powell that night; the man who rented John Wilkes Booth a horse that night; the owner of the Star Saloon, where Booth grabbed a drink before he slipped into the Presidential Box; a police officer who helped carry the mortally wounded president across the street to the Petersen House; two of the 16 doctors who tended the dying president; and three men involved in Lincoln’s embalming and undertaking.

The cemetery is closely tied to the history of the city, the region and the country, and its links to the Civil War make it a special historic site in Washington.

Burial ground bicentennial

Historic Congressional Cemetery is located on Capitol Hill. Its main entrance is at 1801 E St. SE, midway between the Potomac Avenue and Stadium-Armory Metro stations.

Founded in 1807, the cemetery is 70 years older than Arlington National Cemetery. It is maintained by the nonprofit Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, but in 1997, the National Trust for Historic Preservation labeled the cemetery one of the 11 “most endangered historic places” in the United States.

Since then, grants from Congress and the hard work of staff and volunteers have rejuvenated it.

On May 19, the cemetery will celebrate its bicentennial. The festivities, which begin at 9 a.m., will feature general and specific guided tours, marching bands, concerts, parades, re-enactors and exhibits about the history of the cemetery, its role in Washington society through the years and related subjects.

For more information, check the Web site at www.congressionalcemetery.org

Steve Hammond of Crofton, Md., previously wrote for the Civil War Page about his great-grandfather and the formation of the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. He is a volunteer docent at Congressional Cemetery.

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