Bivouac of the Dead

In Memory of

JAMES A. T. McGrath

Lieut. Co. A. 15th Ky. Vol. Inf.

fell at the battle of Perryville, Ky.

Oct. 8, 1862.

On Fate’s eternal camping-ground

His silent tent is spread,

And glory guards, with solemn round

The bivouac of the dead.

The white marble grave marker in the Grove Hill Cemetery at Shelbyville, Kentucky, is constructed of three distinct parts—the tablet, the plinth, and the base.  This gravestone is put together by drilling two holes in the base into which metal rods are positioned.  These metal rods also run through the plinth (or substructure underneath the tablet), and then up into the tablet to give the gravestone stability from toppling over.  In this case, the marble split where the two rods penetrated the bottom of the tablet.  When the tablet was cemented in an effort to stop the split some of the epitaph was lost.

However, enough of the epitaph survives that it is clear the epitaph are lines from the second quatrain of a poem by Danville, Kentucky native Theodore O’Hara titled, “Bivouac of the Dead.”  The poem was written by O’Hara to honor Kentucky soldiers who had lost their lives in the Mexican-American War.

The elaborate carvings on the gravestone signal that this was the grave of a soldier.  McGrath, as the inscription on his gravestone states, fell in battle—the Battle of Perryville which has also been referred to as the Battle for Kentucky.  The Union forces were led primarily by Major General Don Carlos Buell and the Confederate forces were primarily led by General Braxton Bragg.  Both sides had heavy casualties—the North had 845 killed and 2,851 wounded and the South lost 510 in battle, with 2,635 wounded.  The Southern forces retreated from Kentucky, which the North held for the remainder of the Civil War.

The tablet features an inset oval festooned with a floral spray of mixed flowers atop that has an intricate carving of an eagle surmounted on a stripped shield with three stars in the top third of the shield.  At the base of the shield there is an olive branch on one side and on the other oak leaves and acorns symbolizing peace and strength alternatively.  Behind the eagle on either side are flags.  Rays emanate above the entire motif.   The plinth has a carving of a sword that is crossed with its sheath and tied in the center with an elaborate bow, a nod to McGrath’s standing as a soldier and military officer.


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.

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 dream alarms;
No braying horn nor 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 the triumph yet to gain,
Came down the serried foe,

Who heard the thunder of the fray
Break o’er the field beneath,
Knew well the watchword of that 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 gory 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 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.

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,
Shall dim one ray of glory’s light
That gilds your deathless tomb.

This entry was posted in Symbolism. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Bivouac of the Dead

  1. Lou Malcomb says:

    The beautiful carving made me curious about the carvers…given at the base of the stone “Muldoon Bullett & Co.” I explored this and found that there were excellent pieces about them. See for brief information about Muldoon; and for what provides a start to the bullett part, but the carver Charles Bullett died in 1863 so could not have carved this specific stone. Wonderful post especially on Veterans’ Day! thanks.

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