Bivouac of the Dead
The Bivouac of the Dead is a poem written by Danville, Kentucky native, 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.
When war against Mexico was declared in May 1846, O'Hara left Washington, D.C. to return to his native Kentucky in order to enlist. Within a month, he was appointed Captain of the Kentucky Volunteers, and served as their assistant quartermaster. Before he returned to Kentucky in 1847, he was made a brevet major. After hearing of the severe losses that the 2nd Kentucky Infantry and Kentucky cavalry suffered from the Battle of Buena Vista, O'Hara wrote the Bivouac of the Dead in dedication of the fallen troops. When many of the fallen Kentuckians were buried in Frankfort Cemetery on July 20, 1847, future congressman and U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge spoke for an hour at the event. Whether or not O'Hara spoke Bivouac of the Dead is disputed, but it is commonly believed that he did. It is agreed he spoke the poem in 1850 at the same cemetery, for the interment of William T. Barry and General Charles Scott. Bivouac of the Dead would later be called "a worthy contribution to American Literature." It was first published in the Frankfort Yeoman in 1850. However, modern historians have also claimed it was not written until 1851, after Narciso López's failed attempt to remove Cuba from Spanish control.
O'Hara was known to change the lyrics to Bivouac. Alternations included removing mentions of specific places, and removing various stanzas. In 1858 the Mobile Register published what is believed to be the original version, with the Louisville Courier publishing the original with an introduction stating it was the version spoken at the 1847 ceremony, reflecting the changes in the poem. In 1900 The New York Times devoted an article decrying all the alterations to the poem, and stressed returning to the original version.
When O'Hara was reinterred at Frankfort Cemetery, a friend used Bivouac as the eulogy.
The first monument to the fallen Confederate States of America in Kentucky, the Confederate Monument in Cynthiana, used a verse from the Bivouac of the Dead. Six other monuments in Kentucky also used parts of the poem on memorials to fallen Confederates. Portions of the poem are also displayed on 7 plaques at Finn's Point National Cemetery in Pennsville, New Jersey, where a significant number of Confederate Soldiers who died in captivity during the American Civil War are buried.
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.
During the late 1920s and 1930s, instances of Bivouac on markers throughout national cemeteries were removed, leaving only fourteen with Bivouac verses on tablets. In 2001, the National Cemetery Administration began returning the first stanza to any national cemetery in which the poem is missing.
Parts of the poem may be found at Marye's Heights in Fredericksburg, Virginia Also, The national cemetery (Union soldiers only) at Antietam in Sharpsburg MD has phases from the first stanza on markers at various points.
- Bivouac of the Dead - Arlington National Cemetery
- Bivouac of the Dead - Burial & Memorials
- Dixon, Susan Bullitt. THEODORE O'HARA.; His "Bivouac of the Dead" -- The Correct Version and the Incorrect Ones. The New York Times August 11, 1900
- Kleber, John E. Encyclopedia of Louisville. (University Press of Kentucky). pg.666.
- Dixon, August 11, 1900
- Civil War in Kentucky