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Reading 4: "Bivouac of the Dead" by Theodore O'Hara
Poet and Mexican War veteran Theodore O'Hara, who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, wrote the poem "Bivouac of the Dead". Although written in the mid 1850s about the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican War, the verse was extremely popular during and after the Civil War. As a result, key stanzas, including these (1, 2, 11, 12), were cast in metal and placed in the national cemeteries. The words also appear on many individual memorials in the North and South. The poem is 12 stanzas in its entirety.
Dayton National Cemetery is one of a small number of national cemeteries that still have the original Bivouac of the Dead tablets cast at the Rock Island Arsenal.
Questions for Reading 4
1. O'Hara was not publicly credited for the poem in the national cemeteries. Why might this have been?
2. What is it about this poem would account for its long-term popularity, in which the patriotic sentiments of the Mexican War also applied to the Civil War and transcend issues of politics or foe?
3. Explain how military elements and terminology are used to evoke feelings of heroism, valor, patriotism, sacrifice and loss in a cemetery setting.
4. Many of the original castings of "Bivouac of the Dead" have been removed. Why was this poems' message more poignant 100 years ago? Can you think of a contemporary source that may have a similar message?