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Civil War: Famous elegy written by Confederate officer

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At Stones River National Cemetery
"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."

Adventurers who explore inside Stones River National Cemetery often find their attention turned to a series of cast iron plaques bearing stanzas from a poem called "The Bivouac of the Dead."

Bivouac is a French word meaning temporary encampment and was most often used in reference to a military camp even up to the 20th Century.

Similar plaques are placed at all of America's national cemeteries, and especially at Arlington National Cemetery where they even adorn the famous McClellan Gate, which was the original entrance to the hallowed spot.

The poet who penned the words is never credited and there's good reason for that "oversight" given the climate of the times.

A Confederate soldier, Theodore O'Hara, wrote "The Bivouac of the Dead".

Stones River's claim to O'Hara and his poem exceeds that of most national cemeteries. O'Hara fought at the Battle of Stones River where he was chief of staff to his life-long friend Gen. John C. Breckinridge, the former U.S. vice president turned Confederate.
No matter how well the words apply, O'Hara didn't write the poem about what the Confederates called "The Battle of Murfreesboro." The poem, or more precisely elegy, was written about Kentucky volunteers who died in the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War in 1847.

Interestingly enough, a similarly titled piece was written by a Union veteran of Stones River.

Ambrose Bierce, best known for "The Devil's Dictionary," wrote a short story called "A Bivouac of the Dead" about the first Union Civil War dead who were buried in a cemetery in Grafton, W.Va. Bierce was on hand for that early battle. A link to his story is available on murfreesboropost.com.

Bierce was a mapmaker for Col. William B. Hazen. An article about Hazen's Monument at Stones River was published in the April 22 edition of The Post and is also available on murfreesboropost.com.

An elegy, not to be confused with an eulogy, was once a very popular form of poetry associated with mourning. The word comes from the Greek, elegoes, a reflection on the death of someone or on a sorrow generally.

Often, school children memorized elegies like William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis" or Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" and Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard."

"The Bivouac of the Dead" was considered one of the best American works of its kind and was included in many poetry anthologies.

O'Hara, an Irish Catholic, was born in Danville, Ky., on Feb. 11, 1820. However, he was raised in Frankfort.

A capable student, O'Hara was known for both his writing and oratory skills. He studied law with his classmate Breckinridge.

After a stint with the U.S. Treasury Department, O'Hara saw action in the Mexican-American War 1846-48 with the Second Kentucky Infantry Volunteers. Then Capt. Braxton Bragg commanded the Second Kentucky's artillery. Bragg's fearless actions at Buena Vista helped saved the day for the Americans under the command of Gen. Zachary Taylor, a future president. Breckinridge was a major of the 3rd Kentucky Volunteers during the conflict.
Along the way, both O'Hara and Breckinridge were to run foul of Bragg's famous ill temper. During the Mexican-American War, Bragg's own troops tried to kill him twice.
At Buena Vista, 4,759 Americans under the command of Taylor defeated estimated force of 18,000 Mexicans led by President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna on Feb. 22-23, 1847.
American casualties totaled 267 killed and 456 wounded at Buena Vista.

The fallen Kentuckians were interred at state cemetery at Frankfort, Ky, on July 20, 1847. The following year, the Kentucky legislature approved $15,000 for a monument at the cemetery. O'Hara wrote "Bivouac" for the dedication, but historians aren't certain if he read the poem at the ceremony

The soldier-poet returned to military service as part of Narciso López's filibustering action in Cuba where he was wounded at the Battle of Cardenas.

Temporarily ending his military adventures, O'Hara returned to the pen, serving as editor of the Frankford, Louisville and Mobile Register newspapers.

It was in the Mobile Register, O'Hara's "Bivouac" first saw print. O'Hara slightly reworked it and printed it again in 1860 in the Louisville newspaper with a note explaining it was "lines written at the tomb of the Kentuckians who fell at Buena Vista, buried in the cemetery at Frankfort."

When the Civil War began, O'Hara again volunteered for duty and was first named commander of Fort McRee near Pensacola, Fla. Bragg, who was commanding that department, apparently disliked the poet's style and discharged him from the army "as a disgrace to the service." He was transferred twice more before being named a staff officer for Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson, the Kentucky-born commander of the Western Department.

It is said Johnson died in O'Hara's arms at Shiloh. After Johnson's untimely death, O'Hara rejoined the staff of his Kentucky friend, John Breckinridge, who made the ill-advised charge across Stones River on Jan. 2, 1863. O'Hara's quickly found Confederate artillery to counterfire at the crossing, but it was too little, too late.
O'Hara warned Breckinridge that Bragg would try to scapegoat him. Bragg, O'Hara wrote, "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."

The poet ended his military career in Georgia serving under Gen. Joseph E. Johnson
O'Hara did survive the war, but died of a fever on June 6, 1867, shortly after moving back to Alabama to edit the Mobile newspaper. He was 47 years old. His body was buried in Columbus, Ga., where he had previously lived.

As the state of Kentucky began to memorialize its Civil War dead, O'Hara's remains were removed to the state cemetery in Frankfort, where he was reburied at the foot of the monument "Bivouac" was written to dedicate.

During the period of reconciliation, "Bivouac" began to show up a Civil War cemeteries at places like Chancellorville.

But it was Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs who ordered that lines from "Bivouac" grace the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. By the late 1880s, cast iron plaques containing stanzas from the elegy were common at all national cemeteries, which were then controlled by the War Department.

The poem was also a popular verse on early Decoration Day postcards, where O'Hara was usually credited.

When O'Hara was reinterred in 1874, the ceremony included a recitation of "Bivouac of the Dead" by his friend Major Henry T. Stanton, who observed, "O'Hara, in giving utterance to this song, became at once the builder of his own monument and the author of his own epitaph."

Mike West can be reached at 869-0803 or at mwest@murfreesboropost.com.

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