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

As a public historian, I am dedicated to preserving and sharing the rich history of Alexandria, Virginia, and the surrounding region. With a deep passion for bringing the past to life, I serve my community in this meaningful role.

Before this, I enjoyed a fulfilling career as a businessman and entrepreneur. Now retired, I have found a new sense of purpose in my work as a public historian.

Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as the Superintendent of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium, located within the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex in Alexandria. This cemetery holds a special place in my family's history, as it was started in the early 1800s by the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, a historic congregation dating back to 1772 that is situated one mile east in the heart of Old Town. The cemetery is the final resting place of my parents, and the Meeting House is where I have worshipped for over 60 years.

As a public historian, I am thrilled to lead tours of the Wilkes Street Cemetery, which has thirteen cemeteries in a complex with over 35,000 interments. It is considered the most historic cluster of cemeteries in the United States. These sacred grounds offer a fascinating glimpse into the story of Alexandria and its people. I also enjoy guiding tours of nearby Civil War battlefields, combining my passion for history with the compelling narratives of those who fought and fell on these hallowed grounds, bringing their stories to life. I primarily lead tours of Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, and the Antietam Battlefields, along with tracing the footsteps of those involved in the Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. I am also a licensed tour guide in Washington, D.C.

To further engage the community, I manage a blog focused on Alexandria's cemeteries, where the many souls buried across the city are memorialized. I am also an active Board Member of the Alexandria Historical Society and the Lee-Fendall House Museum.

Whether you are a resident or a visitor to the area, I invite you to explore Alexandria's rich history by joining one of my cemetery or battlefield tours, reading my blog, or connecting with me on social media. It is my sincere pleasure to bring the city's captivating past to life and serve my community meaningfully.

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