I was recently contacted by the authors of this book and sent a review copy. I had seen it previously and thought that I should probably read it, but thought that it was just going to cover territory that I already knew. As it turned out, I was quite wrong in this assessment. There was so much in here that I did not know, and that deepened my understanding of Congressional Cemetery, and will help me in future in giving tours of the place – as well as giving me multiple ideas for people and events to research for future columns.
When people think of D.C. area cemeteries, the one that most readily comes to mind is, of course, Arlington National Cemetery. With some three million visitors passing through its grounds, it is also an indispensable stop for any tourist to the nation’s capital.
It is not, however, the first national cemetery. In their book In the Shadow of the United States Capitol: Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation, authors Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Maberry Johnson clearly show how Congressional Cemetery, on Capitol Hill near the Capitol Building, was first in this regard.
While mainly being a history of the cemetery, their aim is to show that it not only began as a national cemetery, but that it continues to have this importance today, even as Arlington has vastly eclipsed it in the public eye.
From the earliest days, when it was owned by a handful of local residents who simply wanted to ensure that eastern Washington had a place to bury its dead, through the long stretch when it was owned and operated by Christ Church, to its decline after the second world war and finally its rebirth from the late 1990s onward, the book draws on information gleaned from deep dives into multiple archives to make its case.
Most important throughout is the government’s involvement, in the early days when money was routinely appropriated for the upkeep of the cemetery, a practice that died out with the creation of Arlington Cemetery, to the – failed – attempts in the 1970s to help out the cemetery, including suggestions that it should be taken over by some government institution, to the major support given in its late 20th Century revival.
Along the way, we meet many of the people who ran the cemetery and who were buried there, from Tobias Lear, George Washington’s secretary, to James Croggan, chronicler of old Washington DC, whose articles still are a useful source for those researching the city’s history, to Representative Hale Boggs, whose family was key in the rebirth of the cemetery, first by having a cenotaph to him erected, then by ensuring that the plight of the grounds became widely known and addressed.
These stories, and many others, are told in this deeply researched book. For anyone interested in how we as a country use cemeteries to remember and tell our history, it is a worthwhile read. The breadth of information makes it of interest even to those who have been deeply engaged in learning about the cemetery.