- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated day in the year for an Irishman fighting in the American Civil War was St. Patrick’s Day.

March 17 was always celebrated in high style back on the “Ould Sod” and in Irish neighborhoods in the United States. Soldiers in the two largest Irish organizations of the Union Army — Meagher’s Irish Brigade and Corcoran’s Irish Legion — kept this tradition alive.

The Army of the Potomac fought four years to close the circle on the Confederate capital of Richmond. Because of the army’s proximity to urban centers of immigration, the unit and nearby commands contained a substantial portion of the Irish in the Union Army.

War service meant going without the good things in life, but the men of the Irish regiments were always up for a celebration. When St. Patrick’s Day arrived each year of the war, the men of the Irish Brigade (69th, 88th and 63rd New York; 28th Massachusetts; and 116th Pennsylvania regiments) and Corcoran’s Irish Legion (155th, 164th and 170th New York Infantry regiments and the 69th New York NGA) made sure it did not pass unnoticed, if the gods of war allowed.

The gods didn’t cooperate March 17, 1862, the first St. Patrick’s Day of the war. The Irish Brigade was breaking camp and heading south for Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. Brig. Gen. Michael Corcoran, who had been captured during the First Battle of Bull Run eight months earlier, would not be released from a Confederate prison to begin forming Corcoran’s Legion for several months.

St. Patrick’s Day in 1863, however, would be memorable for both units.

Corcoran’s Legion was stationed in Suffolk, Va., not far from the Navy port at Norfolk. After Mass, Corcoran somehow appropriated every horse in sight and mounted more than 1,000 of his men. The cavalcade was led by Corcoran and his staff, several buglers and a battery of mountain howitzers.

The “mounted host” went on a wild ride, blowing bugles, yelling and galloping through the Federal camps. The rest of the legion marched in ranks with flags flying. Two brass bands played as they paraded noisily through the camps and into the town. The procession was surely Suffolk’s first St. Patrick’s Day “parade.”

Corcoran later hosted a dinner party for about 70 invited guests at a hotel in Suffolk. The party was interrupted several times by a series of grand, noisy, torch-lit processions by the regiments of the legion. Corcoran went out on the hotel balcony and made a patriotic speech to each one, then dispatched them to receive a whiskey ration.

Finally, dinner was served, and the party lasted until after 4 a.m. During the evening, Corcoran declared publicly, for the first time, that he was a member of the Fenian Brotherhood. (He actually commanded the Fenians’ military wing.)

Later in the evening, the whiskey no doubt had taken its effect when a pistol fight erupted in the camp of the 155th New York. Among other incidents of gunplay, young Cpl. Michael Casey of Company I, quite inebriated, pulled a cocked pistol on his commander, Capt. John Byrne. As reported by another soldier, Byrne “played the coward” and backed down, avoiding an unhappy ending to the matter. Fortunately, no injuries resulted when some drunks actually fired pistols at their compatriots.

The Irish Brigade spent St. Patrick’s Day 1863 with the Army of the Potomac near Fredericksburg, Va. That day, it had what arguably was the most famous celebration ever held in the Union Army.

Preparation for the festivities went on for days. A rustic church was constructed for brigade chaplain Rev. William Corby’s Mass, and a reviewing stand to hold the “brass” for the horse races. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, brigade commander and a former Irish revolutionary, later warned some troops standing under the stand that if it collapsed, they would be “crushed by four tons of major general.”

Gen. Joseph Hooker, the Army of the Potomac’s commander, and his staff attended the festivities. The food was said to have included ham, chicken, turkey, duck, a roast ox and roast pig stuffed with turkey. (The lads of the Brigade must have done some serious “foraging” before this event.) Also on hand were eight baskets of champagne, 10 gallons of rum and 22 gallons of whiskey.

All manner of games and contests were enjoyed that day: a foot race, a hurdle race, a weight-casting contest, soaped-pig catching, a sack race, a dance contest (jigs and reels, of course) and a wheelbarrow race. But the highlight of the day was that most popular of Irish events, a steeplechase. With a purse of $500 on the line, the competition was spirited, the purse won by Cap. Jack Gosson, riding a horse named Jack Hinton owned by Meagher.

By some estimates, more than 10,000 men from other units watched the races, a welcome diversion for all of them. According to Father Corby, an exciting one as well, as he later declared that the chariot race between Ben-Hur and Messala “would seem tame in comparison.”

The celebration ended that night with theatricals, recitations, songs and toasts. In both the Irish Brigade and Corcoran’s Legion, it was a day that was long and fondly remembered by those who survived the war. One who would not was Michael Corcoran, who died before the next St. Patrick’s Day, of an embolism, it is suspected. Meagher would resign command of the Irish Brigade in a dispute over recruiting after the Battle of Chancellorsville in May.

Neither unit could quite match its 1863 revelries the next year in the absence of the two commanders who had personified them. It was still “the great day,” however, and both units rose to the occasion.

Corcoran’s Legion’s regiments were dispersed and couldn’t hold another massive celebration. The 164th New York was apparently quartered in one camp, so its celebration seems to have been one of the more organized. The men assembled in their Zouave uniforms, and a program of games and festivities was announced: climbing30-foot greased pole; mule races; a sack race; a wheelbarrow race; a chase after a shaved, greased pig; and a foot race.

The mule races were a source of much amusement. One onlooker noted that “many of the animals mastered their masters.” The day was capped with an officers reception given by Col. James McMahon. “Conviviality reigned supreme; singing, dancing, etc., was kept up until an early hour next morning,” one participant said.

In the Irish Brigade, whose numbers were rising again after shrinking below 500 after Gettysburg, a steeplechase was again the center of the celebration. The great orator Meagher’s absence must have been felt amid the speeches and toasts at dinner that night. It was good that both units were able to enjoy that day, for the carnage of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign lay directly ahead.

St. Patrick’s Day 1865 was perhaps the saddest spent in the Army of the Potomac. By 1865, the four regiments of the legion, having never received any new recruits, numbered fewer than 400 men. Little information can be found on its activities in 1865. It is quite possible that the legion simply made the short trip to the camp of the Irish Brigade and celebrated the holiday there.

The Irish Brigade, battered by three full years of war, put on a brave face for its last St. Patrick’s Day. A visitor observed that it was “an affecting thing to see that handful of earnest Irish heroes, the remains of many terrible campaigns.”

As ever, the steeplechase was the highlight of the celebration, but it ended with a Lt. McConville of the 69th New York, who had lived through nearly four years of war, suffering a fatal skull fracture in a fall. But death was no stranger to these men; the festivities continued to the usual dinner, complete with music by the division band.

The Irish regiments of the Army of the Potomac had a well-deserved reputation as the most ardent revelers in the Union Army. Merriment and conviviality never seemed to be absent from their camps, but when duty called and the Rebels were on the march, the Irish lived up to their other reputation — as fierce fighters.

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