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

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.


17 Responses to “The man who wasn’t there: Captain Theodore O’Hara”

  1. Sam Elliott Says:

    Dr. Hughes’ book projects often built upon each other. After doing Belmont, the first battle in the West, he got interested in Bentonville, the last battle of the western armies, although pretty far east. He used the Liddell materials in his Hardee bio, and then he ended up publishing Liddell’s Record. He probably got on the O’Hara trail after running across him in connection with Pillow.

  2. Bob Huddleston Says:

    O’Hara has fascinated me for years:how did a Confederate author’s poem come to be the centerpiece of US (read:Yankee) cemeteries? Meigs must have really liked the poem!

  3. Sam Ellliott Says:

    Another link I thought of relative to Dr. Hughes: He did Bentonville, and ran across the Carlin materials in National Tribune in connection with that, and then worked with Rob Girardi, if I recall correctly, to publish them as Carlin’s memoirs. That was another aspect of his work: He was generous about working with other authors on joint projects: Girardi, Stonesifer on the Pillow bio, Dr. Ware on O’Hara, Tim Johnson on the Mexican War memoirs of DH Hill and a guy named Oswandel, Gordon Whitney on the Jefferson C. Davis bio, Tyree Bell’s descendants on his bio of Bell.

    There was also some connection that got him going on the Washington Artillery, but I forget what it was.

    He was a remarkable person, a fine historian and a great friend.

  4. Chris Evans Says:

    Excellent Post.

    Hughes has always been one of my favorite authors. The three you mentioned are classics.


  5. Chris Evans Says:

    Also, his edited version of ‘The Civil War Memoir of Philip Daingerfield Stephenson’ is wonderful.


  6. Sam Elliott Says:

    There’s the connection to the 5th Company of the Washington Artillery–Phil Stephenson! Nat did Stephenson’s memoirs, which I believe he ran across researching yet another book, and then decided to do the 5th Company book. And from that he wrote the introduction to the Owens memoir on the WA.

  7. Nathan Towne Says:

    We lost several great historians in 2012. Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes was one of my most admired historians. His biographies of Jefferson C. Davis and Gideon Pillow are both required reading. Although brief, his biography of William Hardee remains the only full length biography of the general and has value, although it is lacking in detail. He also is the only biographer of Tyree Bell, although I don’t have a copy of that book. We also lost Eugene Genovese, one of several historians who have been critical to my understanding of American slavery. Unfortunately, being as young as I am, I never was able to meet either man.

    Nathan Towne

  8. Don Hallstrom Says:

    Hello Dave

    How about doing a post later this summer on the progress of your Chickamauga study?


  9. Nathan Towne Says:


    How was Hughes O’hara biography? There are unfortunately no cheap used copies on Amazon.

    Nathan Towne

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Nathan, I liked the O’Hara book. Not so much battle material, but definitely an interesting guy. Dave

      • Nathan Towne Says:

        I appreciate it. I will definitely get a copy at some point. I am especially interested in O’Hara’s testimony with regards to Breckenridge’s conduct during the post-Murfreesboro feuds within the army. How much coverage do the post-Murfreesboro feuds garner in the book?

        Nathan Towne

      • Dave Powell Says:

        Nathan, the book isn’t exhaustive on the subject, but what is there is certainly useful. Dave

      • Nathan Towne Says:

        Thank you, I will have to check it out.

        Nathan Towne

    • Chris Evans Says:

      Nathan, if you want more detail on Breckenridge and his actions with the Army of Tennessee I would highly recommend William C Davis and his great biography of Breckenridge from the ’70s.

      I think he did a remarkable job bringing out the different phases of Breckenridge’s career.


      • Nathan Towne Says:


        I have Davis’ Breckinridge biography and I agree with you that it is extremely good. In May I took all of the books off of my shelf that cover the controversy with regards to Bragg, Pegram and Breckinridge on the morning/early afternoon of the 31st at Murfreesboro and read the accounts of the incident one after the other. Something that jumped out quickly to me was how dramatically different the accounts are. Ultimately, with regards to the sequence of events, Connelly (although he was certainly mistaken in that Daniel Adam’s brigade clearly crossed Stones River in front of John K. Jackson’s brigade, rather than the other way around) and Davis did the best job piecing the orders and reports together, yet it remains a very complicated series of events.

        In the post campaign acrimony Breckinridge solicited testimony from two of his staff officers when Bragg moved on him for his conduct on the 31st of December and the 2nd of January, both Captain Theodore O’Hara’s and Colonel John Buckner’s testimony being in the Breckinridge papers at the New York Historical Society. Despite O’Hara being a highly partisan source, for the most part his testimony dated January 16th, 1863 with regards to Bragg’s orders and the sequence of events add up. I am very interested in Hughes coverage though.

        Nathan Towne

      • Chris Evans Says:

        It’s interesting how Bragg also used Felix Robertson against Breckenridge for actions at Stones River.

        The more I read about Robertson he seems one of the most unsavory characters of the war. Wish someone would do a detailed bio on him.


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