Theodore O’Hara: Poet Soldier of the Old South, by Nathan Cheairs Hughes, Jr., and Thomas Clayton Ware, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1998, $32.
Few American poets are as widely quoted yet as little known as Kentucky-born Confederate soldier Theodore O’Hara, whose poem “The Bivouac of the Dead” became the official requiem for Civil War dead at dozens of battlefields in the decades immediately following the war. Selected stanzas or the entire 96-line poem were engraved on tombstones and monuments, often without the author’s name at the end. And despite being called “Uncle Sam’s Official Poet,” O’Hara never received a penny for the use of his work at Arlington National Cemetery, Custer Memorial Battleground and other federal sites. It was as if the familiar lines somehow appeared by magic on the monuments.
Two Tennessee authors, Nat Hughes and Tom Ware, have undertaken to correct that misperception by providing the fullest account possible of the shadowy O’Hara’s brief and unhappy but quite eventful life. The son of an Irish immigrant, O’Hara studied the classics at St. Joseph’s College in Bardstown before switching to the legal profession. He also dabbled in journalism and worked as a Treasury Department clerk in Washington before obtaining a Regular Army commission during the Mexican War.
Following his Mexican War service, O’Hara recruited a regiment of fellow Kentuckians for an ill-advised filibustering expedition to Cuba. The subsequent death of 14 Bluegrass volunteers and the wounding of 26 others, including O’Hara, may have inspired him to write “The Bivouac of the Dead” in 1850, although it would be another decade and a half before the poem became widely known.
O’Hara subsequently rejoined the U.S. Army and served under Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment on the Indian frontier before the Civil War. Unfortunately for O’Hara, he made a bad impression on Lee, and he was forced to resign his commission after the future Civil War general preferred charges against him for “conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.” O’Hara had gotten drunk, and the notably abstemious Lee saw him in that same disheveled state.
Relocating to Mobile, Ala., as editor of the Mobile Daily Register, O’Hara raised a regiment of militia in the days preceding the Civil War. He subsequently became a lieutenant colonel of the 12th Alabama Infantry but resigned his command in a dispute over rank. He next joined the staff of General Albert Sidney Johnston and, after Johnston’s death at Shiloh, escorted the general’s corpse to New Orleans. At the Battle of Stones River, he served as chief of staff to Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge. At this point, O’Hara fell victim to intra-army politics, and he spent the remainder of the war without a command. He died in 1867 at the age of 47 from “bilious fever” exacerbated by a lifetime of heavy drinking.
Ironically, the former Confederate soldier never lived to see his poetic masterpiece selected as the official poem for use in the various federal cemeteries dedicated to the Union dead. Still, the words are there for all to read: “On Fame’s eternal camping-ground/Their silent tents are spread,/And Glory guards with solemn round/The bivouac of the dead.” In a Frankfurt, Ky., cemetery, O’Hara himself lies beneath those words.
Roy Morris, Jr.