Bivouac Of The Dead – By Theodore O’Hara (Written in memory of the Kentucky troops killed in the Mexican War – 1847)

Portions Of This Haunting Poem Are Inscribed On Placards
Throughout Arlington, As Well as On
The McClellan Gate There

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.No rumor of the foe's advance
Now swells upon the wind;
Nor troubled thought at midnight haunts
Of loved ones left behind;
No vision of the morrow's strife
The warrior's dreams alarms;
No braying horn or screaming fife
At dawn shall call to arms.

Their shriveled swords are red with rust,
Their plumed heads are bowed,
Their haughty banner, trailed in dust,
Is now their martial shroud.
And plenteous funeral tears have washed
The red stains from each brow,
And the proud forms, by battle gashed
Are free from anguish now.

The neighing troop, the flashing blade,
The bugle's stirring blast,
The charge, the dreadful cannonade,
The din and shout, are past;
Nor war's wild note, nor glory's peal
Shall thrill with fierce delight
Those breasts that nevermore may feel
The rapture of the fight.

Like the fierce Northern hurricane
That sweeps the great plateau,
Flushed with triumph, yet to gain,
Come down the serried foe,
Who heard the thunder of the fray
Break o'er the field beneath,
Knew the watchword of the day
Was “Victory or death!”

Long had the doubtful conflict raged
O'er all that stricken plain,
For never fiercer fight had waged
The vengeful blood of Spain;
And still the storm of battle blew,
Still swelled the glory tide;
Not long, our stout old Chieftain knew,
Such odds his strength could bide.

Twas in that hour his stern command
Called to a martyr's grave
The flower of his beloved land,
The nation's flag to save.
By rivers of their father's gore
His first-born laurels grew,
And well he deemed the sons would pour
Their lives for glory too.

For many a mother's breath has swept
O'er Angostura's plain —
And long the pitying sky has wept
Above its moldered slain.
The raven's scream, or eagle's flight,
Or shepherd's pensive lay,
Alone awakes each sullen height
That frowned o'er that dread fray.

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.

Thus ‘neath their parent turf they rest,
Far from the gory field,
Borne to a Spartan mother's breast
On many a bloody shield;
The sunshine of their native sky
Smiles sadly on them here,
And kindred eyes and hearts watch by
The heroes sepulcher.

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.

Yon marble minstrel's voiceless stone
In deathless song shall tell,
When many a vanquished ago has flown,
The story how ye fell;
Nor wreck, nor change, nor winter's blight,
Nor time's remorseless doom,
Can dim one ray of glory's light
That gilds your deathless tomb.

Poet pens monument with ‘Bivouac of Dead'

Kentucky native Theodore O'Hara found adventure and everlasting fame. A lawyer, journalist and soldier, O'Hara wrote “The Bivouac of the Dead,” a poem that is inscribed upon scores of Confederate monuments across the South.

Although written to honor Kentuckians slain during the Mexican War, the poem was commonly used to remember veterans of the Civil War. Scores of obituaries in Confederate Veteran magazine refer to soldiers who have joined their comrades at the “bivouac of the dead.”

Despite the fact that O'Hara served the Confederacy, both sides used his verse to commemorate their slain companions. Even the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery bears an inscription from O'Hara's most noted poem.

O'Hara was born in Danville, Kentucky, on February 11, 1820, the son of a prominent local teacher. lthough the family eventually relocated to Frankfort, Kentucky, O'Hara returned to Danville to attend Centre College, where he was a classmate of future U.S. Vice President and Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge's. Before graduation, however, O'Hara left Centre to attend St. Joseph's College in nearby Bardstown, graduating in 1839. The future poet then studied law and, in 1842, was admitted to the bar.

Three years later, O'Hara moved to Washington, where he secured a position at the U.S. Treasury Department. His adventurous spirit did not let him stay in Washington long. When war was declared on Mexico in May 1846, O'Hara quickly responded to the call for troops. Within a month, he was appointed captain and assistant quartermaster for the Kentucky volunteers. Because of gallantry displayed during the conflict, he was promoted to brevet major.

By 1847, O'Hara had returned from Mexico and was again living in central Kentucky. That was the year in which his famous poem was heard. In February, scores of Kentuckians were slain at the Battle of Buena Vista. Josiah Gregg of Louisville, a Kentucky volunteer at the battle, wrote to the Louisville Journal, “The principal attack of the enemy was directed upon our left, which was defended by the 2nd regiment of Kentucky infantry, and second and third of Indiana, supported by the Kentucky and Arkansas cavalry.”

Gregg added: “The firmness and bravery of the Kentucky regiment, and the third Indiana, have been particularly lauded. But they suffered greatly, as well in officers as privates.” When the smoke cleared, among the dead was Henry Clay Jr., son of the famous Kentucky compromiser. When many of these Kentuckians were buried at the Frankfort cemetery, throngs attended the solemn occasion. The principal speaker, young lawyer John C. Breckinridge, spoke for nearly an hour. After Breckinridge's remarks, O'Hara read “The Bivouac of the Dead,” a poem Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clark has termed “a worthy contribution to American Literature.” The first two stanzas of the poem are:

“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.

“Sons of the Dark and Bloody Ground! / Ye must not slumber there, / Where stranger steps and tongue resound / Along the headless air; / Your own proud land's heroic soil / Should be your fitter grave: / She claims from war its richest spoil / The ashes of the brave.”

Despite the acclaim he received, O'Hara's nature would not let the young Kentuckian stay confined to the bluegrass. During the summer of 1849, O'Hara began recruiting troops for one of Narciso Lopez's expeditions to annex Cuba.

Between 1848 and 1851, Lopez attempted four times to wrest Cuba from Spanish domination. Although he had been born in Venezuela and had served as a general in the Spanish army, the hopes of land influenced Lopez and many others to invade the island. Although U.S. policy officially condemned him, the public wholeheartedly endorsed his expeditions. Within several months, he had raised enough troops to lead his own invasion.

On May 19, 1850, O'Hara led his Kentuckians in several unsuccessful attacks against a Spanish garrison at Cardenas, Cuba, during which O'Hara was severely wounded in the leg. The surviving Kentuckians took O'Hara back to their ship and fled. Although Spanish ships pursued, the crew escaped to Key West.

Once his wound healed, O'Hara returned to Kentucky, where he became a reporter for the Frankfort Yeoman. In 1852, he left to work at the Louisville Daily Times.

When the Civil War erupted, he exchanged his pen for a musket and joined the Confederate army. By March 2, 1861, with experience in Mexico and Cuba under his belt, the poet took command of Fort McRee near Pensacola, Fla. After just a few months, he was discharged “as a disgrace to the service” by General Braxton Bragg, who commanded the coast between Pensacola and Mobile. It is probable that Bragg, a strict disciplinarian, loathed O'Hara's adventurous spirit.

O'Hara was ordered to report to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he was “detailed for the recruiting service.” Despite his previous success in recruiting men for the Cuba expedition, this mission was short-lived. On July 1, he was ordered to report to Richmond to serve as lieutenant colonel of the 12th Alabama Infantry Regiment. He was again transferred, however, before he saw combat with this unit. He went west and secured a position as inspector general on the staff of Kentucky-born Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston.

O'Hara was present when the beloved general was killed at Shiloh Church in southwestern Tennessee in 1862. Johnston's army had encountered Ulysses S. Grant's Union troops there, and as troops under John C. Breckinridge attacked the Union left, Johnston rode to the front to direct the fighting. As he neared the Union lines, bullets tore Johnston's uniform, and one shot peeled away his boot heel. A staff officer noticed blood running from the heel and asked the commander to take cover. Johnston refused. Moments later, O'Hara saw that Johnston's horse had been shot. O'Hara said, “General, your horse is wounded.” Johnston replied, “Yes, and his master, too.” Johnston had been shot below the right knee. O'Hara rushed off to find a surgeon and encountered the general's aide-de-camp, who later wrote that O'Hara “conducted me to the spot [where Johnston was lying] and went for a surgeon whom he could not obtain until too late.” The bullet had severed an artery, and although a tourniquet might have saved his life, Johnston bled to death on the field.

Without a command of his own, O'Hara joined the staff of now-General Breckinridge, former vice president of the United States and O'Hara's Centre College classmate. At the December 1862 Battle of Murfreesboro (or Stones River), O'Hara served as his adjutant general.

On the field, O'Hara's military experience became evident. As the Confederate lines surged ahead, he saw a Federal artillery battery that was prepared to fire upon the Southern troops. Breckinridge dispatched him to find Confederate cannon to counterfire, which O'Hara personally placed. It was obvious that Breckinridge trusted the poet, for O'Hara spent much of the day placing infantry in position and delivering orders for his commander.

The fighting raged for another day. On January 2, Bragg ordered Breckinridge's command to attack an impregnable Union position on the Confederate right. Breckinridge, who believed the attack to be suicidal, advanced with his 4,500 troops. As the men moved forward, he later wrote, “The quick eye of Colonel O'Hara discovered a force extending considerably beyond our right.” Thanks to the poet, the Rebel line was extended. The advance was doomed from the start, however, and the Confederates faced massed fire from 58 artillery pieces. Beaten back, Breckinridge lost nearly 1,700 men.

O'Hara's disdain for Bragg, first forged when he was removed from Pensacola, was heightened after Murfreesboro. As Bragg always blamed others for his failures, he began scheming against Breckinridge, and O'Hara warned his former classmate that Bragg “is evidently preparing and marshalling all his resources of shallow cunning and foolish chicanery, energized by a ranting hate, to make war upon you & wreak to the utmost his ignoble spite against you.” Bragg blamed Breckinridge for not supporting his 1862 Kentucky Campaign (which culminated at the Battle of Perryville), an animosity that lasted for the entire war.

O'Hara ended his military career in Georgia as a soldier under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. When the war was over, the poet moved to Columbus, Ga., and then to Alabama, where he became editor of the Mobile Register. O'Hara died from a fever at Guerrytown, Alabama, on June 6, 1867; he was buried at Columbus.

In 1873, however, the Kentucky state legislature decided that the Kentucky native should be in the bluegrass of his birth. With funding from the legislature, his remains were moved to Frankfort, to rest near the graves of the soldiers who had inspired his famous verse.

Stuart W. Sanders is director of interpretations at the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association in Kentucky.

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