As a teenaged tourist to Civil War battlefields (and the accompanying cemeteries), it was impossible to escape The Bivouac of the Dead. The morbid, dreary stanzas were mounted on plaques around every cemetery. My parents being eager to continue the drive down to the beach (the battlefield visits were a holiday concession; exchanged for 3 weeks of fair-skinned, easily-sunburned me shutting up about how boring beaches were), I was usually being chivvied back to the car by the time the acres of headstones were reached. Consequently I never had time to write down the whole poem, so at Shiloh resorted to taking pictures of each plaque. My mother, who can give Ebenezer Scrooge a run for his well-hoarded money, was none too pleased at having to develop photo after photo of leadfooted Victorian eulogy.
Reminiscing aside, here’s the history of the poem, as well as an interesting historical footnote: “It was Montgomery C. Meigs who chose to quote Bivouac of the Dead for the entrance into Arlington, due to its solemn appeal. However, at Arlington and many other national cemeteries, O’Hara was not credited due to having fought for the Confederacy.” Nobody held a grudge quite like Monty Meigs.
The Bivouac of the Dead is a poem written by Theodore O’Hara to honor his fellow soldiers from Kentucky who died in the Mexican-American War. The poem increased its popularity after the Civil War, and its verses have been featured on many memorials to fallen Confederate soldiers in the Southern United States, and are even to be found on many memorials in Arlington National Cemetery, including Arlington’s gateway.