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The McClellan Gate

“On fame’s eternal camping ground their silent tents are spread, And glory guards with solemn round, the bivouac of the dead.” These words, taken from the first verse of Theodore O’Hara’s poem entitled “Bivouac of the Dead”, are inscribed in gold atop the front of The McClellan Gate, which was the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

Contained within the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, located across the Potomac River in Arlington County, Virginia (MAP), The McClellan Gate was constructed in approximately 1871 on Arlington Ridge Road, which formed the eastern boundary of the cemetery at that time. The cemetery was enclosed by a wall with four additional gates, which included Fort Myer Gate, Treasury Gate, Ord-Weitzel Gate and Sheridan Gate,  These gates provided pedestrian and vehicular access to the cemetery, with the McClellan Gate serving as the main entrance.  It served as the cemetery’s main entrance until 1922, when it was rendered obsolete by Congress’s authorization of construction of the Arlington Memorial Bridge.  As part of the bridge project, Congress also approved a wide avenue known as Memorial Drive to link the bridge to the cemetery, and a new entrance to the cemetery, known as the “Hemicycle”, to replace the old entrance gates.

The McClellan Gate is the only gate constructed on the cemetery’s eastern boundary in the 1800’s that remains.  Subsequent expansion of the cemetery eastward in 1971 left The McClellan Gate deep inside what is now designated as Section 33 of the cemetery.

The 30-foot high McClellan Gate is a triumphal arch constructed of red sandstone taken from Seneca Quarry in Maryland. The interior of the structure is in the form of an arch, while the exterior is rectangular with a rusticated facade. On both sides of the arch, a sandstone column with Doric capitals support an entablature. The structure has been described as Victorian in architectural style, although the entablature is Neoclassical. In addition to the verse from the Theodore O’Hara poem, the upper portion of the cornice of the arch is inscribed with the name “McClellan” in gilt capital letters. The lower portion of the cornice is inscribed: “Here Rest 15,585 of the 315,555 Citizens Who Died in the Defense of Our Country From 1861 to 1865”.  Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, who was Quartermaster General of the United States Army and founded Arlington National Cemetery, also had his last name inscribed on the east side of the gate’s south column.

Also sometimes referred to as The McClellan Arch, The McClellan Gate was the first memorial in the D.C. area to honor Major General George B. McClellan. An equestrian statue, known as The Major General George B. McClellan Memorial, was later built in 1907 to honor the former General-in-Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War.

Both sides of the McClellan Gate are inscribed with lines from O’Hara’s poem. Atop the back, or the west face of the gate’s arch, is inscribed, “Rest on embalmed and sainted dead, dear as the blood ye gave, no impious footsteps here shall tread on the herbage of your grave.”

Bivouac of the Dead is believed to have been a favorite poem of General Meigs. In fact, Meigs was so impressed with the poem that in addition to ordering the inscriptions on the McClellan Gate, he also had lines from the poem inscribed on wooden plaques and placed throughout Arlington National Cemetery. The wooden plaques were replaced with either bronze or iron ones in 1881. Further, in his position as superintendent over all Army cemeteries, he also had similar plaques placed in Antietam National Cemetery, Fredericksburg National Cemetery, Gettysburg National Cemetery, and Vicksburg National Cemetery, among others.

Interestingly, O’Hara originally write the poem in 1847 in memory of the Kentucky troops killed in the Mexican War, did not give his permission for his poem’s use to commemorate Civil War dead at Arlington National Cemetery. His family learned of the inscriptions only after the gate became nationally famous in the years after its construction.

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Comments
  1. Thanks for all this good information. I’ve passed through this gate when visiting the cemetery, but did not know any of this background.

    Liked by 1 person

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