Archive for April, 2013

The man who wasn’t there: Captain Theodore O’Hara

April 2, 2013

Some time ago, while researching General Breckinridge’s attack against George Thomas’s left flank on the morning of September 20, 1863, I came upon the following story of Breckinridge dealing with the mortal wounding of Brigadier General Helm:

“The General looked at his staff, then called his son Cabell to him. ‘Bear this message to Colonel Lewis,’ said Breckinridge. Theodore O’Hara volunteered to make the dangerous journey instead, but the general sent his own son. the boy made the ride successfully and informed Lewis of his new command.” (William C. Davis, Orphan Brigade, p. 187).

Curious about O’Hara, I started tracing this story back through the source material. I didn’t find all that much on O’Hara. I knew he was a Confederate officer, and that his poem, “The Bivouac Of The Dead.” appears in our national cemeteries. I thought there might be a Confederate counter-point to William Haynes Lytle, our Union soldier-poet, in the tale.  There are some older biographical works on the man, but nothing definitive about his role at Chickamauga.

When the sources cited by Davis played out so quickly, I started searching archival material. I found that not much out was out  there on O’Hara. There are some papers in scattered collections, it turns out, but O’Hara died in 1867 and did not get much time to write memoirs or on details of his service. In what seemed to be a curious oversight, he is not mentioned in Breckinridge’s report of the battle of Chickamauga.

In fact, I was trying too hard. There is a very good modern biography on O’Hara, co-authored by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Thomas Clayton Ware. (University of Tennessee, 1998). Dr. Hughes has written a number of Civil War histories and biographies that are favorites of mine, but more on that later. Dr. Hughes also passed on late last year, sadly. I got to know him only slightly, meeting him at a couple of historical conferences.

O’Hara was a lifelong friend of John C. Breckinridge, and did at times serve as a staff officer with that general, but not at Chickamauga. It seems clear that O’Hara was not present at the battle, and that the offer to replace Cabell on the dangerous courier mission is apocryphal. O’Hara had been born in Kentucky in 1820, the son of Irish exiles who fled their native island in 1793. He went to school with Breckinridge, and worked at various government jobs thereafter. In 1846 War erupted with Mexico. As a politically connected Democrat, O’Hara secured a direct commission as captain in the regular army, despite his lack of prior military service. He proved a capable soldier, earning plaudits  and a brevet to major at Cherubasco in 1847.

His Mexican War contacts are interesting. He won the respect and support of Tennessean Gideon J. Pillow, whose political connections seemed worth cultivating at the time. However, when Pillow ran afoul of General Winfield Scott, O’Hara seems to have been instrumental in encouraging Breckinridge to put his law skills to use defending Pillow in a court-martial, much to Scott’s disgust. Whether related or not, O’Hara resigned his commission in 1847.

His interwar career is murkier. He was involved in a number of filibustering schemes, including an effort to “liberate” Cuba, which failed. O’Hara and fifteen of his fellow filibusterers were tried repeatedly (three times in New Orleans, once each in New York and Ohio) but in each case, the jury failed to return a guilty verdict. In 1850, he wrote his two epic poems, “the Old Pioneer” (about Daniel Boone) and “The Bivouac of the Dead” which concerned fallen Kentuckians from the Mexican War. For a time he was in newspapers , editing the Louisville Times. Then, in 1855, after trying to organize a second go at Cuba, he ended up back in the U.S. Army.  For the next year O’Hara served with the prestigious U.S. second Cavalry, under Albert Sidney Johnson and Robert E. Lee. He did not prosper. While on a patrol under Lee’s command, O’Hara abandoned his company in the field to visit a sutler and get drunk. Lee preferred charges, and O’Hara, his career ruined, resigned rather than face them.  He again dabbled in filibustering, and ultimately returned to newspapers.

In 1860, Lincoln’s election presaged war, and O’Hara again turned to things military, recruiting a militia cavalry company in Mobile Alabama. When the war broke out, O’Hara was serving at Pensacola, with ambitions of redeeming his lost military career. 

It was not to be. Braxton Bragg commanded at Pensacola, and soon assessed O’Hare as “a drunken loafer from Mobile.’ Doubtless O’Hara’s pre-war reputation preceded him. Bragg dismissed O’Hara, who then attempted to secure a commission elsewhere. He was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 12th Alabama, commanding that unit in the absence of the Colonel, until that officer returned to duty. Then O’Hara resigned on the promise of a commission in another regiment, which did not materialize. He would quarrel with the Confederate War Department for the next two years, angling for the colonelcy he felt was unjustly denied him, and in the meantime, serve on the staffs of various commanders.

He served as a captain under Albert Sidney Johnson at Shiloh, and then for a time on Beauregard’s staff, until he and Beauregard had a falling out over O’Hara’s willingness to share army secrets with his old newspaper friends. He then fetched up on the staff of his old friend Breckinridge, and was present at the battle of Murfreesboro. The virtual slaughter of Breckinridge’s command – as ordered by Bragg – on January 2nd 1863 would also be the cause of O’Hara’s next trouble with a commander.

In the post-battle feud that grew up between Bragg and many officers in the Army of Tennessee, O’Hara played a central role. It was O’Hara, apparently, who leaked official reports critical of Bragg into the newspapers, enraging Bragg. In March, 1863, O’Hara was relieved of duty by order of Joseph E. Johnston (probably at Bragg’s request) and thereafter, was at loose ends. He stayed with Breckinridge as a volunteer staffer, holding no official position, though he was still drawing pay as a Captain.

When Breckinridge’s division was transferred back to the Army of Tennessee in August, 1863, O’Hara went to Columbus Georgia, waiting for orders that never came. He was not at Chickamauga, perhaps out of a desire to avoid any further conflict with Bragg. Even when that officer was relieved, however, O’Hara was not allowed back to the army; instead he went to Mobile in December, hoping to use local political connections to secure a position.

All to no avail. O’Hara’s movements and activities become hard to track, especially in the latter half of 1864, but he did not secure a regular posting. His star again seemed momentarily ascendant when Breckinridge was appointed Confederate Secretary of War (the sixth man to hold that post,) O’Hara joined his old friend in Richmond. By then, however, the Confederacy was doomed, and O’Hara could only accompany Breckinridge when the Confederate Government fled the city. The war ended with O’Hara holding the same rank as when it began, a Captain.

O’Hara died in 1867. He was buried in Columbus, whence he had returned at the close of the war. In 1874, the State of Kentucky moved his body to Frankfort, where it was reburied with more ceremony. By then, his poem was adorning National Cemeteries all over the country, where tens of thousands of Union – but no Confederate – war dead were interred. Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs selected “Bivouac of the Dead” for that honor with the creation of Arlington National Cemetery.

While O’Hara was not present at Chickamauga, that doesn’t mean his influence wasn’t felt there. The poisoned atmosphere that lingered between Bragg and many of his senior subordinates during 1863 was actively fed by O’Hara’s willingness to leak information to newsmen eager for inside information defamatory to Bragg. When Bragg sent O’Hara packing in disgrace from Pensacola back in the summer of 1861, doubtless he had no idea of how far the repercussions of that move would reach. Thus O’Hara becomes another important  – albeit obscure – player in our theater of the absurd that was the Army of Tennessee.



As for Dr. Hughes, he was one of my favorite Civil War authors. While he authored or co-authored many titles, three of his works stand out for me as exemplars of the genre: Jefferson Davis In Blue is an outstanding biography of a very complicated Union General. The Pride Of The Confederate Artillery, about the 5th Company Washington (LA) Artillery is an equally outstanding unit history. Last but not least, the Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow, with Roy P. Stonesifer, offers a unique view of a Civil War figure most dismiss as a running joke. The Pillow book does not overreach and try to defend the indefensible, but it does present clear, well-reasoned and researched insights into the man.  I was delighted to find this book on O’Hara.