Historical Marker #24 commemorates Danville native Theodore O'Hara who wrote the famous poem, "The Bivouac of the Dead."
Born in Danville on February 11, 1820, O'Hara was an attorney and journalist. He served in the US Army during the Mexican-American War, as a filibuster in Cuba, and in the West in the 1850s. He rose to fame when some Kentuckians who died at the Battle of Buena Vista 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." While some uncertainty remains around the writing and publication of the poem, it was in popular circulation by the Civil War.
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 exploits, O'Hara became a journalist in Frankfort and in Louisville. In 1857, he became the editor of the Mobile (Alabama) Register, where he advocated for Southern secession.
In 1861, 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 worked as a cotton merchant, until a fire destroyed his stock. He died of Typhoid Fever on an Alabama plantation on June 6, 1867. First buried there, his remains were reinterred in Frankfort in 1873.
Selections from “Bivouac of the Dead” are on moments throughout the United States. Though often associated with the Confederate dead, the poem’s first stanza is inscribed on the gates of Arlington National Cemetery. Selected stanzas are below:
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.
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.
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.
Marker #24 was created by the Danville Chamber of Commerce in the late 1940s and re-erected in 1978. It reads:
POET, LAWYER, AND SOLDIER
Theodore O’Hara was born in this
City, Feb. 11, 1820. He read law
With Judge Wm. Owlsey. Newspaper
Work included editing Frankfort
Yeoman and and Louisville Times. He
Served in Mexican War, Cuban
Rebellion and Civil War; on staffs
Of Generals J.C. Breckinrdige and
A.S. Johnston, CSA. Died 1867;
Reinterred with military honors,
1874, in Frankfort Cemetery
O’Hara’s memorable poem, “The
Bivouac of the Dead,” was written
To commemorate the burial of
Kentucky soldiers who fell at
Battle of Buena Vista. By act of
Legislature O’Hara was reinterred
Beside his Mexican War comrades.
“On Fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.”