I want to share something about the Fredericksburg National Cemetery upon Maryes Heights. When I first visited the small park in September of 2019, it had been my first time stepping foot onto a military cemetery. I was awed by the rows upon rows of white and cream tombstones, all neatly placed and carved with the names and ranks of the fallen. There are a few monuments worth visiting within the cemetery if one cares to walk down the gravel and cement lanes of these places, but there’s one thing I want to bring particular attention to. Plaques, simple in their construction and containing a few lines of pretty and morbid prose about those who had given their last full measure of devotion.
I’m talking about the inscriptions of the poem “Bivouac of the Dead”. They’re sprinkled in no particular order throughout several national military cemeteries across the country. Fredericksburg is just one of them. Others include Winchester, Gettysburg, and Antietam. But I’ve seen them in lesser known places like Poplar Grove Cemetery around Petersburg.
This poem was written by Theodore O’Hara, a Kentucky veteran of the Mexican War. He penned these beautiful words more than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, but their sentiment ring true for any war, no matter the century. It was published in the Frankfort Yeoman in 1850, and had been recited at the interment of veterans and fallen soldiers. The first monument to the fallen Confederate States of America in Kentucky, the Confederate Monument in Cynthiana, used a verse from the poem, and soon six other monuments followed suit. It was Montgomery C. Meigs who chose to quote “Bivouac of the Dead” for the entrance into Arlington, due to its solemn appeal.
However, around the first few decades of the 20th century, these plaques and inscriptions were removed, leaving a little over a dozen to commemorate O’Hara’s words. A resurgence of the popularity in the poem occurred in 2001, and the plaques were placed in the places we now know today.
If you’ve never walked the grounds of a cemetery that honors “Bivouac of the Dead”, you can find a portion of the poem at this link associated with Arlington: “Bivouac of the Dead”