Theodore O'Hara

Historical Marker #24 commemorates Danville native Theodore O'Hara, a Civil War veteran and poet who wrote the famous poem "The Bivouac of the Dead." Today, O'Hara's poem is inscribed on monuments across the nation, including the gates of Arlington National Cemetery.

Born in Danville on February 11, 1820, O'Hara was an attorney, journalist, and Mexican War veteran. He rose to fame when some Kentuckians who were slain at the Battle of Buena Vista (Mexican War) were reinterred in the Frankfort cemetery. John C. Breckinridge gave the primary address and O'Hara read "The Bivouac of the Dead," a poem that historian Thomas D. Clark called "a worthy contribution to American literature."

In 1849, O'Hara recruited troops for the annexation of Cuba. On May 18, 1850, he led several unsuccessful attacks against a Spanish garrison at Cardenas, Cuba. There, he was severely wounded in the leg, and he and the other American attackers escaped to Key West. Following his Cuban adventures, O'Hara became a journalist in Frankfort and in Louisville.

During the Civil War, O'Hara joined the Confederate army. After briefly commanding a fort in Florida, he recruited soldiers and then joined the staff of Kentucky-born general Albert Sidney Johnston. O'Hara was present when Johnston was killed at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, in April 1862. Eventually, O'Hara joined General John C. Breckinridge's staff, and, at the Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro), he delivered orders and helped place artillery and infantry regiments.

After the Civil War, O'Hara became a newspaper editor in Alabama. He died there on June 6, 1867. First buried in Alabama, his remains were reinterred in Frankfort in 1873.

Selected stanzas from "The Bivouac of the Dead" by Theodore O'Hara:

(Stanza 1)
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.

(Stanza 9)
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.

(Stanza 11)
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.

Images

Theodore O'Hara

Theodore O'Hara

Danville native Theodore O'Hara wrote "The Bivouac of the Dead," a famous poem that commemorated dead from the Mexican War. Born in Danville, he is buried in Frankfort. Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Theodore O'Hara

Theodore O'Hara

Danville native Theodore O'Hara was a poet, editor, and soldier. He fought in filibuster expeditions in Cuba, in the Mexican War, and in the Civil War. As a poet, he wrote "The Bivouac of the Dead," which is now inscribed at cemeteries across the nation. Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Theodore O'Hara's sword and scabbard

Theodore O'Hara's sword and scabbard

Danville native Theodore O'Hara carried this sword and scabbard during the Mexican War. O'Hara, a famous poet, served in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Theodore O'Hara's sword, hilt and grip

Theodore O'Hara's sword, hilt and grip

Poet Theodore O'Hara carried this sword during the Mexican War. According to the item description at the Kentucky Historical Society, "the gilded brass hilt has a floral and leaf pattern on the pommel. The knuckle-bow has floral scrolls which end at a rosette at the quillon. The grip is fish skin with brass cording." Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Theodore O'Hara monument

Theodore O'Hara monument

A 1936 photograph of the Theodore O'Hara monument in the Frankfort Cemetery. O'Hara, who wrote the poem "The Bivouac of the Dead," was buried in Frankfort. Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Postcard of Theodore O'Hara Monument

Postcard of Theodore O'Hara Monument

This 1917 postcard depicts O'Hara's grave in the Frankfort, Kentucky, cemetery. Words from O'Hara's famous poem, "The Bivouac of the Dead" are included on the postcard. Courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Theodore O'Hara monument

Theodore O'Hara monument

Danville native Theodore O'Hara, famous for his poem "The Bivouac of the Dead," died in Alabama but was eventually interred in the Frankfort, Kentucky, cemetery. Photo courtesy Russ Hatter and the Capital City Museum, Frankfort. View File Details Page

Theodore O'Hara letter to Mrs. Richard Wintersmith, January 15, 1865

Theodore O'Hara letter to Mrs. Richard Wintersmith, January 15, 1865

Writing from Columbus, Georgia, on January 15, 1865, Theodore O'Hara wrote Mrs. Richard Wintersmith: "By a series of contretemps I only [received] on the day before yesterday your esteemed favor of Nov. 1st forwarded from Albany. I am glad to learn that Dick [received] the pakcage &c. It is the last time I shall borrow money, so much trouble I've had about this loan from R.C. Tell him I will forward the other $100 soon. Would have done so long ere this, had I had any assurance that the package sent had reached him, or known that he was still at Mobile. On reaching here some fornight ago, I got the Express agent here to write to Mobile to ascertain if the package had ever been [received], and had ascertained the fact before your letter informed me of it . Should you be communicating soon with Mrs. Hawkins, please convey her my regards as also [illegible] Hawkins. I have written to her several times in reply to letters from her in regard to a good place for them to take up their abode, but in no occasion ever heard from her or Hawkins any more. I start to Richmond in three or four days to report for duty & probably have a fuss with Jeff Davis and his [concerns] before I get away." Letter courtesy the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Sanders, “Theodore O'Hara,” ExploreKYHistory, accessed March 26, 2017, http://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/105.
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