Congressional Cemetery: Washington’s Forgotten Landmark

by admin on January 18, 2011

by Maria C. Reichenbach, Ringgold Band historian

Thinking about planning a trip to Washington, D.C.? Probable destinations include the monuments and various Smithsonian museums. How about adding a cemetery to your agenda? This might sound a little morbid to some but cemeteries hold a wealth of Information and history.

Congressional Cemetery, named for several members of Congress who are buried there, was founded 1807 and covers over 30 acres. Located at 1801 E Street in the southeast section of Washington, this cemetery has become the final resting place for many famous Americans including artists, journalists, printers and musicians.

The gravesite of one musician in particular was the reason that led my husband and me to divert from the usual tourist attractions to find this place. On March 10, 1932, John Philip Sousa was laid to rest in Congressional Cemetery. When he died in Reading on March 6, 1932, the Ringgold Band became infamous as the last band that he ever conducted. When his body was Bouncy Castle escorted down Penn Street to the Franklin Street Station, the Ringgold Band accompanied with several funeral marches. Upon Sousa’s arrival in Washington, he lay in state at the Marine Band Auditorium until the funeral.

A stone bench inscribed with “Leader-United States Marine Band 1880-1892” serves as the focal point of the monument to Sousa at Congressional Cemetery. This bench, which also has a musical lyre etched into it, was originally meant to be part of a larger memorial to Sousa, an auditorium in his honor. This auditorium never materialized. A fragment of the “Stars and Stripes Forever March,” though worn from the years, is still visible on his grave marker, and serves as a symbol of his lasting contribution to American band music.

Also interesting to note is that Herbert L. Clarke is also buried in Congressional Cemetery. He was a cornet soloist for Sousa for many years and also was a guest soloist for the Ringgold Band in the 1930s.

A somewhat dilapidated building serves as the gatekeeper’s house at the main entrance to the cemetery. No one was there the day we visited to help map out our destination, but that just gave us time to explore other parts of the cemetery. It was a gray, overcast day, the kind of day that lends itself to quiet reflection. As we stood among the plots one could only imagine the amount of history and genius contained within the wrought iron fences of Congressional Cemetery.

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