Recently, Dana Shoaf, editor at Civil War Times, did a live stream from the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. When the guide was asked about the row of Confederate tombstones, he did not really seem sure how they came to be buried in what is considered the nation’s first “national cemetery.” Likewise, the self-guided tour brochure for the Congressional cemetery, states that “Historians believe that these wartime burials were Confederate soldiers who succumbed in nearby hospitals.” Let’s clear this up: these are the graves of Confederate soldiers who died at either the Old Capitol Prison or the Old Capitol Prison Hospital during the war. There are also more graves than the ten tombstones all lined up in a row. According to records, there are at least twenty-five Confederate soldiers interred at the Congressional Cemetery, along with three (or more) civilians.
The Old Capitol Prison has an interesting history. Located right behind the U.S. Capitol, where the U.S. Supreme Court building now sits, the structure was constructed in 1815 to house Congress after the British burned the capitol building in August 1814. It would take time to reconstruct the U.S. Capitol. Congress met in the building until 1819, and President James Monroe was inaugurated here on March 4, 1817. After 1819, the building served as a private school, then as a boarding house until 1861. (John C. Calhoun died here in 1850.)
At the start of the war, the property was acquired by the Federal government and turned into a prison for captured Confederates, spies, political prisoners, prostitutes, and Union officers. Among those incarcerated here were Rose Greenhow, Belle Boyd, John Mosby, Henry Wirz, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Mary Surratt, Louis Weichmann, and John T. Ford. Originally, the building could house up to 500, but the acquisition of adjoining buildings pushed the number to 1,500.
The Old Capitol Prison often served as a funneling spot for other prisons. Most of the prisoners were captured in the eastern theater of the war. Officers passed through and went to Johnson’s Island in Ohio, while privates were sent to Fort Delaware (usually, but not always). According to the official Records, 5,761 prisoners of passed through the Old Capitol Prison. It is unclear if that number covered just Confederate prisoners, or all prisoners. Like other prisons, The Old Capitol Prison had a hospital, although information about this structure (or room), seems to be lacking. At least 457 prisoners died while incarcerated at the prison. Some of these men were buried a mile away at the Congressional Cemetery. (see the Official Records, series 2, volume 8, 990-1004 for additional numbers.)
In 1807, the Congressional Cemetery was established by a private association. In 1812, once the purchase was paid off, the cemetery was turned over to Christ Church and officially named the Washington Parish Burial Ground. According to the cemetery’s web site, if a member of Congress died in Washington, he was likely interred in this burial ground. The first was Connecticut senator Uriah Tracy, who passed in 1807. Congress soon began purchasing plots, eventually owning almost 1,000, hence the name, Congressional Cemetery, although the property is still owned by Christ Church. There are more than 60 members of Congress buried here, along with former mayors of Washington, Vice President Elbridge Gerry, the Choctaw Chief Push-Ma-Ta-Ha, and John Philip Sousa. There are supposedly more than 60,000 graves, although only about half are marked.
It is unclear why the Congressional Cemetery was chosen for Confederate Prisoner of War burials. The first appears to be Thomas Chambers, 6th Alabama Infantry. It is unclear where Chambers was captured, but he was admitted to the “General Hospital, Capitol Hill,” on August 18, 1861 and died on August 22, 1861. (All information on Confederate soldiers was gathered from their Compiled Service Records, Record Group 109, National Archives). Most of the burials took place in 1863. Several who were captured at Hatchers Run in April 1865 died in the following weeks and were buried at the cemetery.
There are undoubtedly more than those Confederates listed below buried within the Congressional Cemetery. There are also quite a few on this online list of burials, who are listed as Confederate soldiers, but who are, in fact, Federal soldiers. Maybe in time, more research can be done and this piece of forgotten history recovered.
Confederates buried at the Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
ANDRESS, SETH A, Company G, 41ST Virginia Infantry. Captured on May 3, 1863, Fredericksburg, Virginia. Arrived in Washington, D.C., May 4, 1863. Transferred to Old Capitol Prison. Died Old Capitol Prison Hospital, May 16, 1863.
TRIGGER, ROBERT, Company E, 15TH Virginia Cavalry. Listed as a deserter on Federal prison records. Took the Oath of Allegiance February 19, 1863. Arrived in Washington D.C., February 21, 1863. Died Old Capitol prison, February 25, 1863, of Pneumonia.