Theodore O'Hara (1820-1867) was a prominent journalist and editor of the Mobile Register and a decorated military officer. He is best remembered, however, as the author of an extremely popular poem, "The Bivouac of the Dead," written to honor fallen soldiers of the Mexican War. The work became a frequent source of quotations to honor soldiers of subsequent wars.
O'Hara was born to Kean and Mary Hardy O'Hara on February 11, 1820, probably in Frankfort, Kentucky. Educated first by his father, he graduated from St. Joseph's College in Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1838, where he then briefly served as a tutor of Latin and Greek. After studying law, he was admitted to the bar in 1842 but soon went into journalism. He next accepted employment with the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington (1845-46).
From June 1846 to October 1848, O'Hara served with the U.S. Army in the Mexican War. It was during this time that he wrote "The Bivouac of the Dead." In 1850, he then served as essentially a mercenary with forces attempting to overthrow Spanish rule in Cuba. Later he re-entered regular U.S. Army service and was a cavalry captain in campaigns against the Indian nations of the West during 1855 and 1856.
In 1857, O'Hara became the editor of the Mobile Register where he was a great proponent of southern rights and, after Lincoln's election, of southern independence. He remained in that position until 1860 when, as the Civil War was about to begin, he raised a company of soldiers that was immediately deployed on the Gulf Coast. Later, he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of the Twelfth Alabama Infantry and went on to serve as a staff officer for generals Albert Sidney Johnston and John C. Breckinridge.
"The Bivouac of the Dead" was written to eulogize Kentuckians killed at the battle of Buena Vista in February of 1847. If not the first, an early printing was in the Mobile Register in 1858, with reprints in the Louisville Courier in 1860 and again in 1863. The Courier appearances were responsible for the poem being associated most closely with the Civil War. The poem itself exists in several different versions, both because of O'Hara's own revisions and careless editors. It quickly became a favorite source of inscriptions for battlefield markers and military cemeteries and provided the lines selected to appear at the original entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.
The first stanza is often quoted:
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.
After the war O'Hara went into the cotton business in Columbus, Georgia, until that enterprise was ended by a devastating fire. He died of malaria on June 7, 1867,
at the plantation of a friend near Guerryton in Bullock County. He was buried in Columbus but was reinterred with great fanfare at Frankfort Cemetery in Kentucky in 1874. O'Hara never
Hughes, Nathaniel Cheairs Jr. and Thomas Clayton Ware. Theodore O'Hara: Poet-Soldier of the Old South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998.
Published August 13, 2009
Last updated January 25, 2010