Editor’s Note: Jim Fouts is a local historian who has carefully studied the Civil War Era. He lives part of the year in Gettysburg, Pa. and also has contributed other articles to this newspaper.
GETTYSBURG, Pa. — One hundred and fifty-one years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln was invited here to say a few words during a ceremony to dedicate a new cemetery for the Union soldiers who had died during the great battle there that same year of 1863, on July 1, 2 and 3.
Standing on a wooden platform overlooking the open graves of the as yet unfinished cemetery, Lincoln delivered his now famous Gettysburg Address. But this article is not about Lincoln and his speech nor is it about the 3,512 Union soldiers buried there, but about a poem.
As I have walked among the graves on my visits to the Soldiers National Cemetery, frequently stopping to pay silent respect to the 61 Vermont soldiers resting there, I’ve noticed visitors to Gettysburg’s Cemetery Hill stopping at iron plaques placed at intervals along the perimeter of the cemetery to read the stirring lines of a poem that seems to exactly fit the place.
A little investigation revealed that the poem was written by a young man, Theodore O’Hara, and is appropriately called the “Bivouac of the Dead.”
Now “bivouac” is a word we don’t often hear, in military terms it refers to a campsite, a campground if you prefer. During his service in the Mexican War, O’Hara would have seen row upon row of white cotton tents lined up along the company streets and he incorporated that vision in his poem. Another word I came across is “Tattoo.” Now this is not a reference to some sort of body art, but before the creation of Taps, there was a drum roll that was beat at the end of the day as a signal for the soldiers to put out their lights and go to sleep. That drum roll was tattoo.
Originally written to honor the heroes of the Mexican War in 1848, “Bivouac” captivated the attention of a patriotic nation after the Civil War and has continued to do so for decades. Crudely fabricated versions of the poem were placed informally on the transitional landscape of the Civil War battlefield-turned-burial ground. Legend has it that one stanza of it was inscribed upon a rude memorial nailed to a tree on the battlefield at Chancellorsville. Another was engraved upon a military monument in Boston.
By 1890, one visitor to a number of Civil War cemeteries observed: “Quotations from this one poem are repeated over and over, at the gateways and on painted boards at the turns of the avenues among the graves.”
“The Bivouac of the Dead,” is an elegy to the honored dead found in many National Cemeteries. In final resting places from Boston to South Carolina the words of an obscure poet have been immortalized. The author, Theodore O’Hara was a man whose talent deserves to be better known and thus better appreciated.
Born in 1820 near Frankfort, Ky., Theodore O’Hara was the youngest son of an Irish immigrant. His father, Kean O’Hara, was a renowned gentleman who ran a distinguished school in Kentucky’s capital. One of his students was a rising political star, Zachary Taylor.
As the son of a popular professor, Theodore thrived on learning. As a child his health was very fragile. With limited ability to play outdoors, reading became his escape and his beacon. When he reached adulthood, his knowledge, coupled with an outgoing personality and cultivated manners, earned him a place in the best of circles.
Endowed with a restless spirit, O’Hara abandoned a career in teaching and then law for the military. He served as a quartermaster captain in the Mexican War under his father’s old pupil Zachary Taylor. It was from his experiences in Mexico that led O’Hara to write his famous poem in 1850. He also penned other elegies and poems, the most noted among them being a requiem for the famous pathfinder and fellow Kentuckian, Daniel Boone – titled “The Old Pioneer.” The famous pathfinder had died in 1820, the same year that O’Hara was born.
O’Hara never stayed in one place or position for long. Between the Mexican War and the start of the Civil War, he journeyed to Cuba, making the Cuban revolution his own cause. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he sided with the South and the Southern cause. He served as a staff worker under another prominent Kentuckian, General John C. Breckinridge.
Like many gifted artists, O’Hara also possessed a dark side. He tended to indulge in many vices and had a drinking problem, often disappearing for days, weeks, or longer. His intemperate lifestyle wrecked his health. He died of a fever, likely typhoid, in June 1867 at the age of 47. He was buried near the grave of Daniel Boone, in his native Kentucky.
Information provided by the Soldiers’ National Cemetery File, Gettysburg National Military Park; and the book Theodore O’Hara, Poet Soldier of the South, by Nathaniel C. Huges, Jr. and Clayton Ware.
“Bivouac of the Dead”
Written by Theodore O’Hara 1820 – 1867
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.
No rumor of the foe’s advance now swells upon the wind;
No troubled thought at midnight haunts, of loved ones left behind;
No vision of the morrow’s strife, the warrior’s dream alarms;
No braying horn, nor screaming fife, at dawn shall call to arms.
Their shivered swords are red with rust; their plumed heads are bowed;
Their haughty banner, trailed in dust, in 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.
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,
Or Honor points the hallowed spot where Valor proudly sleeps.
Yon marble minstrel’s voiceless stone, in deathless song shall tell,
When many a vanished age hath flown, the story how you fell;
Nor wreck, nor change, nor winters’ blight, nor Time’s remorseless doom,
Shall dim one ray of glory’s light that gilds your deathless tomb.
For on Fame’s eternal camping-ground, their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round, the bivouac of the dead.