WASHINGTON: Visitors and residents in D.C. should plan a spring visit to Congressional Cemetery. The very old burial place is the final resting place of J. Edgar Hoover, John Philip Sousa, Civil War photographer Matthew Brady and other notables.
The cemetery is the site of a large Indian totem, as well as other graves and cenotaphs, monuments or empty tombs that honor a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere.
It is the only place in Washington where one can be buried in a site directly on L’Enfant’s original 18th-century city plan. Standing just inside the old iron gate at the top of the property, look to the south. Facing the Anacostia River, it is easy to imagine it is 1807 when the cemetery was founded.
Like many old cemeteries, the Congressional Cemetery was forgotten and neglected.
The grass grew waist high Headstones were neglected. The Congressional Cemetery had the dubious distinction of being added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the most endangered historic sites in 1997.
The cemetery continues to accept new interments, including “Green Burials”, wherein the deceased body or ashes are buried in a wooden box or shroud, allowing for natural decomposition.
It is also the final resting place of 17 of the 21 young women and girls
It was just a year before the Civil War would end, but munitions were still much in need by both sides. The Union authorities were managing an arsenal on the site of the present-day Fort McNair, near Hains Point in the District.
Cartridges were packed, defective ammunition was unloaded and repacked, and a full-scale factory was in operation for the war effort.
The workers in this extremely dangerous facility were young women and girls, mostly indigent Irish young people.
It was said that the small, nimble fingers of these young girls were better suited to the fine task of packing cartridges than the larger fingers of adults. Irish families with few sources of income were happy to “rent out their children” even though the working conditions left much to be desired.
On the morning of June 17, 1864, the unfortunate but inevitable occurred.
A spark ignited a massive explosion in one of the buildings in the complex. Chaos ensued as the panicking workers all tried to escape the inferno.
When it was over, 20 young girls and their adult woman supervisor were dead. The deaths had a marked impact on the community—soldiers being killed in battle was one thing, but innocent young women were something else.
It was said that the funeral procession three days later saw 150 carriages that stretched for more than a mile, from the Arsenal site to Congressional Cemetery for the burials in a mass grave. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were in the procession.
Victims of the explosion are Melissa Adams, Emma J. Baird, Lizzie Brahler, Kate Branahan, Elizabeth Brannagan, Mary Burroughs, Emily Collins, Susan Harris, Eliza Lacy, Louisa Lloyd, Julia McEwen, Ellen Roche, Pinkey Scott, Mrs. W. E. Tippett, and Maggie Yonson.
They rest together in one large grave.
Annie Roche and Sallie McElfresh were buried in family plots. Mt. Olivet Cemetery was the final resting place of Johannah Connor, Bridget Dunn, Catherine Horan, and Catherine Hull.
The grief-stricken families and numerous residents of Washington reaction to the explosion.
The sum of $3,000 went toward a tall marble monument on its granite base. The memorial was carved by an Irish sculptor, Lot Flannery.
Rising 30 feet into the air, the monument was “a statue of grief exquisitely carved.” (Evening Star July 18, 1885). On two sides are engraved the names of the victims. On the other two sides are the legends, “Died by an explosion at the U.S. Arsenal, Washington D.C., July 17, 1864. Erected by public contributions by the citizens of Washington, DC, June 17, 1867.”
A similar explosion occurred at a Confederate arsenal in Richmond, Va., and again, young Irish lassies were the victims.
Congressional Cemetery is a lovely, peaceful place to walk around. It is a chance to visit the history behind its occupants, which include 71 senators and congressmen. It’s in Southeast Washington, overlooking the Anacostia River, and reachable by Metro, at the Stadium/Armory station.
Washington Arsenal Explosion Monument, photo by John Stanton 22 May 2013