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Determining the Facts

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.

Stanza 1.
The muffled drum's sad roll has beat
The soldier's last tattoo;
No more on life's parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On Fame's eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.

Stanza 2.
No rumor of the foe's advance
Now swells upon the wind;
No troubled thought at midnight haunts
Of loved ones left behind;
No vision of the morrow's strife
The warrior's dream alarms;
No braying horn nor screaming fife
At dawn shall call to arms.

Stanza 11.
Rest on, embalmed and sainted dead!
Dear as the blood ye gave;
No impious footstep shall here tread
The herbage of your grave;
Nor shall your glory be forgot
While fame her records keeps,
Or Honor points the hallowed spot
Where Valor proudly sleeps.

Stanza 12.
Yon marble minstrel's voiceless stone
In deathless song shall tell,
When many a vanished ago hath flown,
The story how ye fell;
Nor wreck, nor change, nor winter's blight,
Nor Time's remorseless doom.
Shall dim one ray of glory's light
That gilds your deathless tomb.

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?

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National Park Service arrowhead with link to NPS website.