Theodore O'Hara

Poet-Soldier of the Old South

  • Author(s): Hughes, Nathaniel Cheairs, Jr., and Thomas Clayton Ware
  • Series:
  • Imprint: Univ Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 1998-05-27
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Hardcover - Cloth: Price $32.00 | Buy Now

On Fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.
—from “The Bivouac of the Dead” by Theodore O’Hara

One of the most quoted poets in American history is also one of the least known. Key lines from Theodore O’Hara’s “The Bivouac of the Dead” can be found in cemeteries and on monuments throughout the country, especially the South, and as far away as Europe. During the 1880s, the elegy became the official verse chosen by the U.S. government to commemorate the Civil War dead. Yet O’Hara’s name has never appeared with those inscriptions and until now little has been known about his life. With this book, Nathaniel Hughes and Thomas Ware offer the first complete biography of O’Hara and also analyze how “The Bivouac of the Dead”—originally written in honor of Kentuckians who had died in the War with Mexico—became so famous even as its author fell into obscurity.

Hughes and Ware have meticulously researched O’Hara’s life to present as complete a picture as possible of this forgotten figure. Born in Kentucky of a first-generation Irish educator, he was trained as a classicist and a lawyer and became a newspaper editor, adventurer, and soldier. Though most of his undertakings ended in failure, his life touched many of the major historical events of his day. He skirmished with Indians on the western frontier, fought in the Mexican War, participated in the ill-fated efforts to free Cuba from Spain, and, finally, served in the Army of the Confederacy.

O’Hara led a footloose existence, leaving his whereabouts unknown for long periods and never settling in one place long enough to become identified with it. Thus, reconstructing his career was a particular challenge for his biographers. Hughes and Ware combed every possible source of information to trace the often disastrous twists and turns in the life of this talented, well-educated Southern gentleman who yearned to become a hero. Ultimately, they reveal O’Hara as both a gifted intellectual passionate about the issues he embraced and a tragic figure cursed with alcoholism, bad luck, and the inability to bring into steady focus his impressive energies, versatility, and aspirations.

The Authors: Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., is the author of a dozen other books, including biographies of Generals William J. Hardee and Gideon J. Pillow.

Thomas Clayton Ware, who has published a number of articles and reviews, is professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he specializes in Victorian and Irish literature.