The Civil War created death on a larger scale than had ever been seen before in the history of the young country. The generally accepted number of 620,000 dead from battle wounds, complications and disease has been challenged with recent scholarship that suggests the number may be closer to 750,000. Even the conservative number exceeded the total number of dead in prior wars (20,978) by more than an astounding 29 times. The deaths accounted for nearly 2% of the country's total population. To put that into perspective, if the same percentage of the country's total population today were killed, that would amount to 6,473,000 lives lost.
One of the ways that the Civil War has shaped who we are today is in the way we, as a nation, deal with death. Fittingly for today, one of the summer's most popular three day weekend holiday's--Memorial Day-- came about as a way for people to remember the northern dead who had lost their lives in the service to their country during the Civil War. Former Union General, John "Blackjack" Logan, as the national commander of the Union veteran fraternal organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order on May 5, 1868 proclaiming May 30 as a day to decorate Civil War graves with flowers. The celebration, originally called Decoration Day, became a national holiday in 1967.
While Decoration Day helped a wounded country emotionally deal with the grand scale of death, the country couldn’t wait three years after the war to address the physical issues associated with the death the war created.
In July 1862, Congress authorized President Abraham Lincoln to purchase land for the creation of cemeteries for “soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country.” That year, 14 National Cemeteries were created, including one in the tiny town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, where 4,476 Union soldiers were buried after the battles in Maryland. Antietam, the most famous, became (and remains) the bloodiest day in American history with 3,650 Americans dead (by contrast, 2,499 Americans died in Operation Overlord on D-Day).
There are currently 136 National Cemeteries across the country. Most are administered by the Veterans' Administration, but 14 are administered by the National Park Service as part of Civil War battlefields and historic sites and two (including Arlington) are still administered by the Army.
Almost every battlefield I have been to has a National Cemetery on the battlefield or nearby. It is a highlight of my visit to stroll among the quiet headstones, reading names and giving thanks. Almost uniformly, these parks are quiet, solemn places of rest for Civil War veterans and others from the area who died in combat. Some, like the cemeteries at Shiloh and Fredericksburg, provide scenic views. Others, like Gettysburg, were the site of other historic action.
At every national cemetery I've visited, I've been greeted by low black metal markers lining the sidewalks. The words, painted in white, present a fitting tribute to those who lie nearby in eternal repose.
The verse contained on the markers is Bivouac of the Dead, written by Kentuckian Theodore O'Hara in honor of his fellow Kentuckians who died at the Battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican American War. Though most of the National Cemeteries only include a few select verses, the poem in its entirety is a fitting way to remember all of the men who fell during the Civil War, and in all American wars before and since.
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.
Bivouac of the Dead
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.