MEMORIAL DAY “Bivouac of the Dead”

MEMORIAL DAY “Bivouac of the Dead”
We Say: This poem by Theodore O’Hara, “Bivouac of the Dead,” written in 1847 in memory of Kentucky troops killed in the Mexican War, is famous today as a Memorial Day poem because of various lines, including the first stanza, which are inscribed at places in Arlington Cemetery, including at the McClellan Gate.  As a veteran who has lost friends and family on active duty in wars and peacetime, and after their time in uniform has passed, it captures my mood on this Memorial Day. –

Tom Shumaker
Lt Col, USAF, Retired
Guest Commentator – Image Credit:

 Bivouac of the Dead –
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 to spread, 
And glory guards, with solemn round 
The bivouac of the dead. –
No rumor of the foe’s advance 
Now swells upon the wind; 
Nor troubled thought at midnight haunts 
Of loved ones left behind; 
No vision of the morrow’s strife 
The warrior’s dreams alarms; 
No braying horn or screaming fife 
At dawn shall call to arms.
Their shriveled swords are red with rust, 
Their plumed heads are bowed, 
Their haughty banner, trailed in dust, 
Is now their martial shroud. 
And plenteous funeral tears have washed 
The red stains from each brow, 
And the proud forms, by battle gashed 
Are free from anguish now.
The neighing troop, the flashing blade, 
The bugle’s stirring blast, 
The charge, the dreadful cannonade, 
The din and shout, are past; 
Nor war’s wild note, nor glory’s peal 
Shall thrill with fierce delight 
Those breasts that nevermore may feel 
The rapture of the fight.
Like the fierce Northern hurricane 
That sweeps the great plateau, 
Flushed with triumph, yet to gain, 
Come down the serried foe, 
Who heard the thunder of the fray 

Break o’er the field beneath, 
Knew the watchword of the day 
Was “Victory or death!”
Long had the doubtful conflict raged 
O’er all that stricken plain, 
For never fiercer fight had waged 
The vengeful blood of Spain; 
And still the storm of battle blew, 
Still swelled the glory tide; 
Not long, our stout old Chieftain knew, 
Such odds his strength could bide.
Twas in that hour his stern command 
Called to a martyr’s grave 
The flower of his beloved land, 
The nation’s flag to save. 
By rivers of their father’s gore 
His first-born laurels grew, 
And well he deemed the sons would pour 
Their lives for glory too.
For many a mother’s breath has swept 
O’er Angostura’s plain — 
And long the pitying sky has wept 
Above its moldered slain. 
The raven’s scream, or eagle’s flight, 
Or shepherd’s pensive lay, 
Alone awakes each sullen height 
That frowned o’er that dread fray.
Sons of the Dark and Bloody Ground 
Ye must not slumber there, 
Where stranger steps and tongues resound 
Along the heedless air. 
Your own proud land’s heroic soil 
Shall be your fitter grave; 
She claims from war his richest spoil — 
The ashes of her brave.
Thus ‘neath their parent turf they rest, 
Far from the gory field, 
Borne to a Spartan mother’s breast 
On many a bloody shield; 
The sunshine of their native sky 
Smiles sadly on them here, 
And kindred eyes and hearts watch by 
The heroes sepulcher.
Rest on embalmed and sainted dead! 
Dear as the blood ye gave; 
No impious footstep here shall tread 
The herbage of your grave; 
Nor shall your glory be forgot 
While Fame her record keeps, 
For honor points the hallowed spot 
Where valor proudly sleeps.
Yon marble minstrel’s voiceless stone
In deathless song shall tell, 
When many a vanquished ago has flown, 
The story how ye fell; 
Nor wreck, nor change, nor winter’s blight, 
Nor time’s remorseless doom, 
Can dim one ray of glory’s light 
That gilds your deathless tomb.

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