1810s

The Congressional Cemetery: Forgotten and Found

View of the Congressional Cemetery in the 1930s

In the 1970s, the Congressional Cemetery was in trouble. After years of neglect, it looked abandoned: broken headstones littered the ground, family vaults caved in, and the grass was waist high. Fifty years later, the cemetery has undergone a stunning transformation. As well as being an active burial ground, it serves as a community garden, urban wildlife sanctuary, place of remembrance, and historic site. Volunteers, many from the local Capitol Hill neighborhoods, work tirelessly to keep up the grounds and reverse the damage of decades past. Because, as it turns out, the Congressional Cemetery has always been a people’s effort. Despite its official-sounding name, and despite its importance to national history, its story is much more local.

Portrait of John Quincy Adams ca. 1818

Anne Royall and the President's Clothes

When the stresses of life in Washington became too much, John Quincy Adams calmed his nerves by taking early-morning swims in the Potomac River. In a move that might be considered questionable by today’s standards, he especially liked to soak in the brisk, cold water wearing nothing but his own skin. According to local lore, it once got him into a bit of trouble: Anne Royall, a trailblazing journalist, caught him in a very awkward situation. But is there any truth in the tale?

Dolley Madison in 1848, seated at a table

Dolley Madison, the Queen of Washington

Today she is widely remembered for her heroism during the War of 1812, when she saved a portrait of George Washington from being taken and burned by British invaders. But during her lifetime, Dolley Madison was best known as a prominent socialite, hostess, and politician in her own right — one of the country’s first celebrity personalities. 

Postcard depicting Tomb of Female Stanger (Credi: By Boston Public Library - Tomb of a female stranger, Alexandria, Virginia, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41983533)

The Female Stranger of Alexandria

Two hundred years ago, an unknown woman breathed her last in room 8 of Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town Alexandria. Her husband prepared her body for death in secret and sealed her coffin personally. After seeing that she was placed in a local graveyard, he vanished. It’s the sort of story that would condemn a person to be lost to history, but the circumstances surrounding this woman’s death and interment sparked centuries of questions and outlandish theories. Even now, no one alive knows her name. She remains the Female Stranger of Alexandria.

Fire and Rain: The Storm That Changed D.C. History

British soldiers set fire to Washington on August 24, 1814, prior to the worst storm that had been seen in Washington for years. (Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

On Aug. 24, 1814, for the first and only time in our country's history, Washington, D.C. was overrun by an invading army. The British army had easily defeated inexperienced American defenders, and set the city ablaze. The President fled to Brookeville, MD, and many of the citizens had fled along with the army. Those few residents of the capital who hadn't already fled may well have prayed for anything that could stop the flames. What they got, however, was something far more than they were hoping for: a "tornado" more powerful than any storm in living memory.

Emergency Quarters for Congress

August of 1814 was a pretty hot month, thanks to Mother Nature… Oh, and the British. After trouncing local militia troops at the Battle of Bladensburg, the redcoats burned the majority of important government buildings in D.C. and chased President Madison out of town. In addition to the White House, the fires destroyed the Senate’s wing of the Capitol and turned much of the Library of Congress’ books and manuscripts into smoldering ash. The intense heat melted the marble chamber into limestone, transforming the room into “a most magnificent ruin.”

Beyond cleaning up the damage, there was the obvious problem of getting the government back up and running. Sound familiar?

Painting of the white house on fire, Summer 1814

Impressions of Washington: By the Light of the White House being Engulfed in Flames

Washington, D.C. has had many visitors since it’s inception, but it cannot be said that everyone was a huge fan. Actually, in 1814, there were quite a number of people who were a bit upset with the Capitol. You might have heard of them... The British?

Yes, on August 24, 1814, the British attacked and burned Washington, D.C. One of their number, George Robert Gleig, apparently found enough time whilst attacking the city at night in the middle of a hurricane to take in the sights and form some opinions.