Mapping Georgetown: On Saints, Souls and Cemeteries

We celebrate Halloween in Georgetown on this Eve of All Saints and All Souls Day. Many Georgetowners also celebrate or are familiar with Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) the Mexican holiday from Halloween through Nov. 2 that’s like a family reunion with the departed — except one’s dead ancestors are the guests of honor and are fêted by the living with food, drink and remembrances. 

Now picture a time in Georgetown stretching back to the mid-19th century, at the height of the U.S. Civil War, when the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, mourns his recently deceased and beloved son Willie. In the dark of the night, the president trods his horse Ol’ Bob along the unpaved road that is today Pennsylvania Avenue. Soon he bids Ol’ Bob to turn along M Street, through Georgetown and then upward toward Oak Hill Cemetery at 3001 R Street NW.

So many saints and souls seem to inhabit Georgetown’s legendary cemeteries.

Courtesy Mapping Georgetown.

In the Booker Prize-winning novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” author George Saunders describes the seen so evocatively:

…They buried Willie Lincoln on a day of great wind, that tore the roofs off houses and slashed the flags to ribbons.

In the procession to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown two white horses drew the hearse bearing the little boy who had known only happiness. But black horses drew the carriage in which sat the worn and grief-stricken President.

The gale blew the roofs off tall houses, shattered glass windows, leveled fields of military tents, turned muddy streets into canals and canals into rapids. Gusts of wind destroyed several churches and many shacks, uprooted trees, blew out the skylights of the Library of Congress; waves inundated the Long Bridge over the Potomac to Alexandria.

The father drove, unseeing, through the wreckage.

Booker Prize-winning novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders. Courtesy Random House.

The carriages of the funeral procession stretched for so many blocks that they took a long time to wind their way up to the heights of Georgetown to the beautiful Oak Hill Cemetery with its crown of oak trees….

…the head of the cortege reached Oak Hill Cemetery…. and proceeded eastward to the cemetery, where the body of William Wallace Lincoln was to be placed in the vault of W. T. Carroll, on lot 292….

Some time later woke to the sound of horse’s hooves —- I summoned Grace & she helped me into the wheeled chair & to the window —– and who should be leaving but mr. L himself — I swear it —- Looking ever so weary and stooped in the saddle as he rode away…. It was indeed the Pres —- What must be the extent of his heartache for him to have come here at this cold & cruel hour of the night?….

As Pres emerged from the chapel I highlighted it out of the guard house to unlock gate Pres went out saying nothing seeming distracted reached over gave my forearm a warm squeeze then hopped upon the back of his little horse and I thought whole caboodle might go over on its side but no that little horse steeling himself clopped away quite dignified as if he meant to protect Pres’s reputation by acting as if Pres’s feet were not nearly scraping the ground and I tell you Tom that ole nag might have been bearing Hercules or G Washington for all the pride in his step as they disappeared down R Street into chilly night….

Best wishes to our Georgetown neighbors as we honor our deceased loved ones, appreciate our cemeteries and adjust to the time change bringing long dark winter nights. Happy Halloween!

To learn more about the Mapping Georgetown project see–butlers-vision-for-mapping-georgetown/.

To submit your Georgetown recollections to Mapping Georgetown go to  or visit the Georgetown Public Library to pick up a physical map-story form to fill out.

Marilyn Butler can be reached at:



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