A Civil War Celebration of Saint Patrick in 1863

by DerdriuMarriner

In the midst of war, a Union Army brigade celebrated the life of a saint. On March 17, 1863, the Irish Brigade threw an unforgettable bash to celebrate Ireland's patron saint.

On Tuesday, March 17, 1863, the War Between the States, raging since April 12th, 1861, fluttered to a stop in Northern Virginia.
• As a participant in the Eastern Theater of the War Between the States, Virginia joined the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia in serving as venues for the war's major campaigns.
• The war's first major battle took place in Virginia: the Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, on September 17, 1862.
• That battle also holds the record as the bloodiest single day-battle in American military history.

But on St. Patrick's Day in 1863, the war receded into the shadows as a well-planned celebration by the Irish Brigade brought joy to attendees and participants alike.

Thomas Francis Meagher, Brigadier General in Army of the Potomac and founder of the War Between the States' Irish Brigade

portrait by Mathew B. Brady  (May 18, 1822 – January 15, 1896)
portrait by Mathew B. Brady (May 18, 1822 – January 15, 1896)

Back Story of the Irish Brigade

 

In September 1861 Simon Cameron (March 8, 1799 - June 26, 1889), Secretary of War for 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 - April 15, 1865), authorized the formation of an infantry brigade, comprised of Irish immigrants, as a rear guard for the Army of the Potomac, the North's main army in the American Civil War's Eastern Theater (District of Columbia, Maryland, coastal North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia).

  • The idea for the brigade came from Irish immigrant Thomas Francis Meager (August 3, 1823 - July 1, 1867).
  • Arriving in New York in 1852, Thomas had escaped from the Van Diemen's Land penal colony, where he had been serving a life sentence for participation in the Young Irelander Rebellion, a failed Irish Nationalist incident occurring on July 29, 1848, near Ballingarry, South Tipperary, south east Ireland.

The Irish Brigade essentially comprised five regiments:

  • the 63rd New York Infantry and the 69th New York Infantry, its two core regiments;
  • the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, which replaced the non-Irish 29th Massachusetts Infantry on November 30, 1862; and
  • the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Effective February 3, 1862, Thomas was commissioned as brigadier general to lead the Irish Brigade.

 

"My Studio": March 17, 1864 illustration of the artist's War Between the States mobile studio by Edwin Forbes (1839 – March 6, 1895)

J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings, gifted to LOC in 1919
J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings, gifted to LOC in 1919

Back Story of Confluence of Edwin Forbes + Irish Brigade + St. Patrick's Day 1863

 

During the War between the States (April 12, 1861 - May 10, 1865), American landscape painter and etcher Edwin Austin Forbes (1839 - March 6, 1895) served as a special artist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, a weekly founded in 1852 by English-American engraver and publisher Frank Leslie (March 29, 1821 - January 10, 1880) and published until 1922.

  • On March 17, 1863, Edwin captured the Irish Brigade's well-attended celebration of St. Patrick's Day in a series of pencil drawings.

 

"St. Patrick's Day in the army--The grand stand": 1863 pencil drawing by Edwin Forbes (1839 - March 6, 1895)

J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings, gifted to Library of Congress in 1919
J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings, gifted to Library of Congress in 1919

St. Patrick's Day, Stafford County, Northern Virginia: Tuesday, March 17, 1863

 

Preparatory to the festive event, the Irish Brigade:

  • issued a general invitation to all officers of the Army of the Potomac to attend the rain-or-shine celebration at the Brigade's winter quarters north of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the port town of Falmouth on the north bank of the Rappahannock River;
  • marked out with flags a race course which included a grandstand as well as ditches, hurdles, and two artificial 16-feet-wide rivers with a depth of 6 feet;
  • procured banquet beverages and foods from Washington D.C.; and
  • set up an entertainment area which included a platform for an Irish dance contest as well as two Sibley (conical) tents linked by a 10-yard-long canopy for refreshments.

On Monday, the evening before the celebration, great care was taken in selecting the two masters of ceremonies, whose immediate, important responsibility concerned the preparation of the punch. The honored positions fell to Captain John "Jack" Gosson and Captain William H. Hogan, who reportedly displayed such diligence in tasting the punch as they sought to perfect the mixture that they had to be relieved from this exacting duty.

 

"St. Patrick's Day in the army--Jumping the ditch": 1863 pencil drawing by Edwin Forbes (1839 - March 6, 1895)

J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings, gifted to Library of Congress in 1919
J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings, gifted to Library of Congress in 1919

 

On a gloriously sunny Tuesday with the bluest skies, the Irish Brigade's observance of St. Patrick's feast day opened with religious ceremonies. The main venue for the day's festivities was the drill field's gently rolling terrain, set against a pastoral backdrop of hills, crested with oak (Quercus spp) or cedar (Juniperus virginiana), banking along the peaceful windings of the Rappahannock River.

At 10:50 a.m., the seating of Major-General Joseph Hooker (November 13, 1814 - October 31, 1879), commander-in-chief of the Army of the Potomac, and his entourage in the grandstand signaled the start of the day's entertainment schedule. The commander led a trio of cheers for the day's hosts, Brigadier General Meagher and his Irish Brigade, just prior to the first main event, a steeplechase with six competitors culled from a larger number of officers-only entrants.

  • Apparently recovered from the previous evening's punch revelry, Captain Gosson represented Brigadier General Meagher on the general's grey horse, "Jack Hinton."
  • Captain Hogan, on the other hand, selected Lieutenant Patrick Ryder as rider for his bay horse, "Napper Tandy."
  • Captain Gosson's equestrian skills secured first place for General Meagher in both heats.

 

"St. Patrick's Day in the army--The grand stand": 1863 pencil drawing by Edwin Forbes (1839 - March 6, 1895)

J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War drawings, gifted to Library of Congress in 1919
J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War drawings, gifted to Library of Congress in 1919

 

Remunerative amusements for non-commissioned officers and privates included:

  • one-half mile foot race, with first place prize of $7.00 ($132.00 in 2014);
  • catching a soaped pig, awarded to its captor as prize;
  • 500-hundred yard sack race, with first place prize of $5.00 ($94.00 in 2014).

The booming of cannons interrupted the sporting events.

  • The troops arranged themselves in line as the long roll, signal of an enemy attack, sounded.
  • Some time later, the order to stack arms (set weapons in a conical pile) ended the alarm.

The cannonades had issued from Kelly's Ford, an upriver crossing of the Rappahannock where the Army of the Potomac's cavalry under Brigadier General William Woods Averell (November 5, 1832 - February 3, 1900) skirmished with the Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee (November 19, 1835 - April 28, 1905).

  • Fortunately, the war's brief reminder faded with the resumption of amusements.

 

The Battle of Kelly's Ford briefly reminded the Irish Brigade and their guests that the War Between the States was being waged in the festive day's shadows:

Depiction of skirmish between Confederate forces under Fitzhugh Lee and Jeb Stuart in defense of route to Brandy Station, and Union forces under Gen. W. W. Averell.
1863 depiction by Robert Knox Sneden (1832 - September 18, 1918), American landscape painter, immigrant from Nova Scotia
1863 depiction by Robert Knox Sneden (1832 - September 18, 1918), American landscape painter, immigrant from Nova Scotia

 

The evening's activities centered around poetry recitations and songs to entertain the Brigade and their guests as they feasted at a scrumptious banquet of:

  • 35 hams,
  • a side of roasted ox,
  • a whole pig stuffed with boiled turkeys, and
  • a plentiful array of chickens, ducks, and small game.

In addition to the infamous punch concocted by captains Gosson and Hogan, featured liquid refreshers sumptuously included:

  • 8 baskets of champagne,
  • 10 gallons of rum, and
  • 22 gallons of whiskey.

 

"St. Patrick's Day in the army--A hurdle race": 1863 pencil drawing by Edwin Forbes (1839 - March 6, 1895)

J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War drawings, gifted to Library of Congress in 1919
J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War drawings, gifted to Library of Congress in 1919

Conclusion

 

Lasting until late into the night, the celebration was well attended by an enthusiastic concourse estimated at 10,000 to 20,000. 

  • Lively, on-the-scene pencil drawings rendered by Edwin Forbes both captured, for his readers, and memorialized, for later generations, the enjoyment of the successful celebration honoring one of the world's most beloved saints.

 

"St. Patrick's Day in the army--Gen. Meagher distributing the prizes": 1863 pencil drawing by Edwin Forbes (1839 - March 6, 1895)

J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War drawings, gifted to LOC in 1919
J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War drawings, gifted to LOC in 1919

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

Thomas Francis Meagher, transplanted Irishman who formed the Irish Brigade, renowned for Union bravery in the War Between the States.

ca. 1848 lithograph by N. Currier
ca. 1848 lithograph by N. Currier

Sources Consulted

 

Barnard, Sandy. Campaigning with the Irish Brigade: Pvt. John Ryan, 28th Massachusetts. Wake Forest NC: AST Press, 2001.

Bilby, Joseph G. Irish Brigade in the Civil War: The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac. Cambridge MA: Da Capo Press, 2001.

Callaghan, Daniel M. Thomas Francis Meagher and the Irish Brigade in the Civil War. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co., 2006.

Cavanagh, Michael, ed. Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, Comprising the Leading Events of His Career Chronologically Arranged, with Selections from His Speeches, Lectures and Miscellaneous Writings, Including Personal Reminiscences. Worcester MA: The Messenger Press, 1892.

Conyngham, Capt. D.P. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns: With Some Account of The Corcoran Legion, and Sketches of the Principal Officers. New York: William McSorley & Co., 1867.

Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Forbes, Edwin. The Army Sketch Book: An Artist's Story of the War. Army Life Series No. Two. New York: Army Life Publishing Co., 1894.

Hennessy, John. "St. Patrick's Day 1863 - 'The wildest ride I ever took.'" Mysteries and Conundrums. March 17, 2013. National Park Service Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania Naitonal Military Park staff. WordPress blog.

  • Available at: https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/st-patricks-day-1863-the-wildest-ride-i-ever-took/

Lever, Charles. Jack Hinton, the Guardsman. Dublin, Ireland: William Curry, Jun. and Co.; London: William S. Orr and Co.; Edinburgh: Fraser and Co., 1845.

Partridge, Samuel Selden. The Civil War: A Soldier's Letters Home 1861 - 1863. Bloomington IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2009.

"St. Patrick's Day in the Army of the Potomac, 1863." Irish in the American Civil War. March 16, 2011. Damian Shiels. WordPress blog.

  • Available at: http://irishamericancivilwar.com/2011/03/16/st-patricksday-in-the-army-of-the-potomac-1863/

U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880 - 1901.

Wylie, Paul R. The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher. Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.

 

"St. Patrick's Day in the army--The mule race": 1863 pencil drawing by Edwin Forbes (1839 - March 6, 1895)

J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings, gifted to LOC in 1919
J.P. Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings, gifted to LOC in 1919
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher by Paul R. Wylie

Irish patriot, Civil War general, frontier governor = life of Thomas Francis Meagher
Thomas Francis Meagher biographies

Genl. Thomas Francis Meagher, Pub. by Currier and Ives, c.1862: poster portrait available via AllPosters

Genl. Thomas Francis Meagher, Pub. by Currier and Ives, C.1862

Commander of Irish Brigade During US Civil War, Thomas Francis Meagher ~ poster portrait available via AllPosters

Commander of Irish Brigade During US Civil War, Thomas Francis Meagher

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 03/07/2015, DerdriuMarriner
 
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DerdriuMarriner on 03/09/2015

burntchestnut, Me, too, I find history to be quite fascinating and sometimes heartwarming.

AngelaJohnson on 03/09/2015

How interesting! Many people think history is boring, but it really isn't.

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