- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

Perhaps one of the best examples of how religion and the Celtic fondness for revelry and merriment blended together during the Civil War is the manner in which Irish in the Union Army observed one of the holiest days of the year, Christmas. Fortunately, copious accounts of the first two Christmases of the war are available and offer an interesting view of how Irishmen in blue celebrated the birth of Christ.

On Dec. 24, 1861, the Irish Brigade was in camp near Washington. Brigade historian D.P. Conyngham wrote of this first Christmas Eve of the war, “The soldier’s thoughts fled back to his home, his loved wife, to the kisses of his darling child, to the fond Christmas greetings of his parents, brothers, sisters, friends, until his eyes were dimmed with the dews of the heart.”

However, to drive away these feelings of homesickness, the men gathered at the head of each company street to tell stories, play instruments, sing Christmas songs and Irish airs, and dance “jigs, reels, and doubles” around the fire.

Religion was not neglected, and the ringing of a bell at midnight called the men to a Catholic Mass celebrated by the Rev. James Dillon (63rd New York) and the Rev. Thomas Ouellet (69th New York). One man remembered, “The attentive audience crowded the small chapel, and were kneeling outside on the damp ground under the cold night air.”

Father Dillon read “the beautiful Gospel from Saint Luke, giving an account of the journeying of Joseph and Mary, and the birth of the infant Saviour in the manger in Bethlehem; after which the hearers quietly retired to their tents.” On Christmas morning, the bulk of the brigade again attended Mass and then spent the day “as pleasantly as possible” with their fellows.

Soldiers in the Irish 9th Massachusetts Infantry, part of what would later become the V Corps, spent some of the days leading up to Christmas, as one historian has written, “decorat[ing] their camp with evergreen and ivy, and tents were adorned with crosses and green wreaths.”

Fine weather on Christmas Day enhanced a high Mass celebrated by the regiment’s chaplain, the Rev. Thomas Scully; several officers and ladies sang Vespers in the chapel tent later that day. Some of the regiment’s officers spent Christmas evening at a banquet “furnished by a Washington caterer, which lasted long into the night. A number of officers joined in the food, music, dancing, speeches, and poetry of the occasion.”

Christmas the following year, 1862, was not quite as festive. Perhaps typical of many Irish-American soldiers’ thoughts on this dark yuletide were those of Col. Patrick Guiney of the 9th Massachusetts. On Christmas Eve, he could manage to write to his wife in Boston only, “How much I would like to be with you tomorrow but cannot — I wish you my dear bosom-angel ‘A Merry Christmas.’”

The Irish Brigade had suffered horrendous losses at the Battle of Fredericksburg less than two weeks before Christmas, and most thoughts that somber December were of comrades gone and of distant families.

The Rev. William Corby, chaplain of the 88th New York, remembered, “All of us were sad, very sad” and that the brigade was settled in “the same quarters which we had occupied before going into the battle [of Fredericksburg].”

One member of the brigade maintained, however, that “Christmas festivities were kept up in the camp in the usual, light-hearted manner. The remnant of the Irish Brigade was too small to get up amusements on a large scale, but they still enjoyed themselves.”

The 116th Pennsylvania had recently joined the Irish Brigade, and the regiment’s historian noted, “Christmas Day [1862] was celebrated in the camp, many boxes of good things from home were received, and shared by the recipients with comrades less fortunate. Some of the boys were a little homesick, to be sure, but enough were sufficiently light of heart to drive dull care away. A large Christmas tree was erected in the centre of the camp, and peals of laughter and much merriment greeted the unique decorations, tin cups, hardtack, pieces of pork, and other, odd articles being hung on the branches. At night the camp fire roared and blazed, the stars shone above the tall pines, and the canteen passed around, and care banished for the hour.”

In contrast to the sorrow of the veteran Irish Brigade, the “new Irish Brigade,” Corcoran’s Legion, spent Christmas 1862 in camp, not yet having seen battle. One historian wrote that the Corcoran Legion was “enjoying Christmas time with horse racing, theatricals, and other amusements in a style such as only Irishmen can.” This yuletide all the regiments of the legion were situated near Newport News, Va.

Drill was suspended on Christmas Eve so decorations could be put up. One correspondent, arriving in camp Dec. 24, noted that “all the men [were] working like so many beavers decorating the camp with evergreens. There were arches of evergreens, some as high as thirty feet; [and] stars made out of the time-honored holly.” This correspondent also noted that officers had come from other brigades’ camps just to look at the decorations.

Father Dillon (formerly of the 63rd New York, now with the Legion’s 69th New York National Guard) celebrated high Mass at midnight Christmas Eve at Gen. Michael Corcoran’s headquarters, replete with a choir of officers. After the late-night Mass, Corcoran treated his staff officers and guests to “a Christmas box in the shape of a glass of genuine Irish whiskey” in his quarters.

This first Christmas in uniform for the men in the ranks is perhaps best revealed by Sgt. George Tipping of the 155th New York, who wrote on Christmas Day 1862, “Last night was very lonesome for me. I felt as if I would like to be home. … I hope that by next Christmas things will be different and that I will be home safe and sound once more. Of course, I have no one to blame but myself for my absence this Christmas.”

Tipping further wrote the un-Christmaslike news that a man had been killed in the countryside near Newport News and that the 155th had to furnish a detail of men during the night of Christmas Eve to go investigate.

The next morning, balmy weather brightened Tipping’s spirits as he wrote, “The weather is very fine here. This day looks like the month of May.” The legion was assembled by regiments at 10:30 a.m. and marched to Mass, which was celebrated by the Rev. Paul Gillen of the 170th New York and Father Dillon. A full day of festivities was planned for all.

Tipping wrote, “We had quite a time this Christmas. The boys [have] a shaved pig for this afternoon and there is going to be a horse race.” Other amusements included a sack race, blindfolded wheelbarrow racing, and foot races. The 155th’s Col. William McEvily “gave all the boys — all of them — a Christmas whiskey. They are all in the house now and half-drunk,” Tipping wrote.

The men of the 155th were well provisioned for the holiday, as 10 geese and 12 turkeys were issued to every company in the regiment.

The horse racing, consisting of three heats, started at 1:30 p.m. Corcoran and his staff, together with “a lot of Irish ladies,” watched the races from an elevated viewing stand. Of the horse race, Tipping wrote, “There was many hundreds of dollars changed hands. Our [Lt. Col. James P.] McMahon [of the 155th] has a fast nag and was the favorite horse among the men of the Irish Legion.” Despite the wagering on McMahon’s horse, Blue Bird, Tipping wrote, “Old Bull Run, as they call him, took the stakes. That is the white horse Michael [Corcoran] had at the battle of [First] Bull Run.” In fact, Old Bull Run wound up winning two of the three heats.

Corcoran gave a sumptuous officers’ reception that lasted late into Christmas night. From the ranks, Tipping reported that four Navy ships (including Ironsides and Galena) were at anchor near Newport News and that several sailors had been invited to dinner with the 155th New York. He wrote, “They are going to stay some time.”

As the war lengthened and darkened, so too did the aura surrounding the celebration of Christmas in the Army. Few accounts of the Christmas of 1863 in the Irish Brigade are available, although brigade historian Conyngham wrote, “The Irish Brigade reached New York, in safety, and in the most exuberant spirits, January 2d, 1864,” for they were soon to begin their veteran furloughs prior to the beginning of their second term of enlistment.

The Corcoran Legion’s 1863 yuletide was a sad one because of Corcoran’s untimely death just three days before Christmas. December 1864 saw the legion and the brigade in the miserable, muddy trenches outside Petersburg. With both brigades reduced to fewer than 600 fighting men, it is likely that large celebrations were not seen in the camps during this last Christmas of the war.

The peaceful and merry spirit of the season of Christmas was carried in the hearts of Irish-American soldiers during the Civil War. Like all soldiers, past and present, these immigrant defenders of the Union terribly missed their families and friends during the holidays, but like the soldiers they were, they remained at the front, risking their lives, to restore a Union that offered hope and freedom for all Irishmen, while eagerly longing for the day when Christmas could once again be spent with loved ones at home.

For more information on the epic history and heritage of the Irish, visit TheWildGeese.com.

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