The Presbyterian Cemetery

John Thomas Newton: a Respected Navy Officer and Hero of the War of 1812

John Thomas Newton, born on May 20, 1794, and passing away on July 28, 1858, finds his final resting place in Alexandria’s Presbyterian Cemetery. A distinguished figure in the early history of the United States Navy, Newton’s legacy is etched in his remarkable 48-year service to the nation, commencing in 1809.

Notably, he held the esteemed rank of Lieutenant aboard the USS Hornet, a ship that played a pivotal role in the War of 1812 by successfully sinking the HMS Peacock off the South American coast. As a testament to his courage and valor, the US Congress bestowed upon him a Silver Medal, while the ship’s commander, Captain James Lawrence, received a Gold Medal for his contributions.

In recognition of his exceptional heroism during the War of 1812, the citizens of Alexandria also honored John Thomas Newton with a symbolic gift – a sword, symbolizing his dedication and service to his country.

USS Missouri (1841)

In 1841, John Thomas Newton assumed command of the USS Missouri, a steam frigate side-wheeler, setting sail on a crucial mission to transport American Ambassador Caleb Cushing to Gibraltar—this journey aimed to initiate negotiations for the first commercial treaty with China.

The burning of the USS Missouri August 26, 1843, in Gibraltar- Image from Wikipedia

Tragic Fire in Gibraltar.

Tragically, disaster struck on the night of August 26, 1843, shortly after the ship’s arrival in Gibraltar on August 25. A crew member accidentally broke and ignited a container of turpentine in the storeroom, leading to a rapid and devastating fire that engulfed the USS Missouri. With no recourse but to abandon the ship, the crew faced a perilous situation.

In a stroke of luck, Ambassador Cushing managed to salvage his official letter to the Daoguang Emperor of China, preserving the critical document and enabling him to fulfill his mission at a later time.

Regrettably, the incident led to a court-martial for John Thomas Newton, who was held responsible for the calamitous events aboard the USS Missouri. Consequently, he was dismissed from the Navy. This incident had a lasting impact on the US Navy, as it established the tradition of holding the ship’s Captain ultimately accountable for all occurrences onboard.

Death and Burial

Subsequently, he made his way back to the Navy, where he achieved the rank of Commodore. Tragically, while still dutifully serving in Washington, he breathed his last. In another aspect of his life, his sister entered into matrimony with the Wise family, renowned for their active engagement with Alexandria’s Presbyterian Meeting House.

John Thomas Newton’s Obelisk in the Presbyterian Cemetery –  Picture by D. Heiby
to the memory of
commodore U.S.N.
born in Alexandria, VA
20th May 1794
died in Washington, DC
28th July 1857
Entered the Navy in 1809, was an
officer in active service during
the war of 1812 and died while
in the performance of his duty
and celebrated 48 years of his life
to the service of his Country
42:45, Obelisk

Sources of Information

The Alexandria Association April 12- May 12, 1956. Our Town 1749-1865 at Gadsby’s Tavern Alexandria, Virginia. The Dietz Printing Company. 1956.

Pippenger, Wesley E. Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia: Volume 1, Family Line Publications, Westminster, MD, and Heritage Books, Inc., Bowie, MD. 1992.

Van Horn, Hugh M. The Presbyterian Cemetery Alexandria, Virginia 1809 – 2009. The Arlington Press, Arlington, Virginia for the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. 2009.

Dahmann, Donald C., Archivist, Old Presbyterian Meeting House member. The roster of Historic Congregational Members of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. Updated 2022. 

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By David

Hello. My journey has taken me through various paths, from owning businesses to delving deep into the annals of history. For many years, I dedicated myself to researching and leading tours of Civil War Battlefields, bringing the past to life for those eager to learn.

In 2015, I assumed the role of Superintendent of the Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium within the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex in Alexandria, Virginia. This cemetery holds a profoundly special place in my heart. It's owned by the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, where I was baptized and raised, and my parents are laid to rest. It's also the place where I will one day be buried. This responsibility allowed me to assist families during pivotal moments and opened a unique avenue for me. Most Saturdays, I lead tours within the complex, combining my passion for teaching history with the stories of the 35,000 souls resting there. To further share these narratives, I established this blog focusing on the lives and tales of those buried in Alexandria.

In addition to my work at the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, I am honored to serve as a dedicated Board member of the Alexandria Historical Society and the Lee-Fendall House Museum. I am a Northern Virginia Cemetery Consortium member dedicated to preserving endangered cemeteries throughout the region, representing the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex.

If you're intrigued by history or curious about the stories that shaped Alexandria, I invite you to join me on my tours, read my writings, or connect with me on Facebook or Instagram.

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