Arlington National Cemetery and Memorial Day

May 21st, 2013

Rest on embalmed and sainted dead!
Dear as the blood ye gave,
No impious footstep shall here tread
The herbage of your grave.

These lines are inscribed on the west face of the McClellan Gate at Arlington National Cemetery. During the Civil War, as the cemetery was being established (1864), Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs ordered lines from the poem inscribed on the cemetery’s gate, although without attributing them to their author—Kentucky-born journalist and poet Theodore O’Hara. 

O’Hara (1820–67) was an officer in the United States Army during the Mexican-American War. After the Battle of Buena Vista (1847), he wrote his famous poem, “Bivouac of the Dead,” as a memorial tribute to the dead of this battle. Although O’Hara later fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, his poem became deeply connected with the mourning of Union dead.

Read the poem, and then consider the following questions. What is the meaning of the title of the poem? Explain how the image of the camp of the dead functions and resonates throughout the poem. Why does O’Hara personify Fame and Glory (first stanza)? Why, according to this poem, is being buried at home—and with other soldiers—so important for the dead? Can one properly memorialize those who gave their lives in battle without speaking of the cause for which they died? Follow the movement of thought and feeling through the poem. What, according to the last two stanzas, are our duties to the dead? How realistic is the ultimate promise that their glory will not fade? Can this promise be kept? If so, how?

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