Christmas with the Irish Brigade

‘Near one of the huge fires a kind of arbor was nicely constructed of the branches of trees, which were so interwoven on one another as to form a kind of wall. Inside this, some were seated on logs, some reclining in true Turkish style. Seated near the fire was Johnny Flaherty, discoursing sweet music from his violin. Johnny hailed from Boston; was a musical genius, in his way, and though only fourteen years of age, could play on the bagpipes, piano, and Heaven knows how many other instruments; beside him sat his father, fingering the chanters of a bagpipe in elegant style. It is no wonder that most of the regiment were gathered around there, for it was Christmas Eve, and home-thoughts and home-longings were crowding on them; and old scenes and fancies would arise with sad and loving memories, until the heart grew weary, and even the truest and tenderest longed for home associations this blessed Christmas Eve.’ (1)

Santa distributes gifts to Union troops; 1863 cartoon for Harper's Weekly by Thomas Nast

Such was the scene at Camp California, Virginia for the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York on Christmas Eve 1861. This evocative account appears in David Power Conyngham’s 1867 history of the Brigade and its campaigns. It is interesting to note that he dedicates nearly seven pages to describing the Brigade’s activities that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; none of the subsequent years receive anything like the same attention. Writing retrospectively, Conyngham is aware of what awaited these men in the battles to come. It was to be their last ‘innocent’ Christmas, and many would not see another. The writer is clearly aware of this melancholy fact:

‘No wonder if, amidst such scenes, the soldier’s thought fled back to his home, to 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. The exile feels a longing desire, particularly at Christmas times, for the pleasant, genial firesides and loving hearts of home. How many of that group will, ere another Christmas comes round, sleep in a bloody and nameless grave! Generous and kind hands may smooth the dying soldier’s couch; or he may linger for days, tortured by thirst and pain, his festering wounds creeping with maggots, his tongue swollen, and a fierce fever festering up his body as he lies out on that dreary battle-field; or, perhaps, he has dragged himself beneath the shade of some pine to die by inches, where no eye but God’s and his pitying angels’ shall see him, where no human aid can succor him. Years afterwards, some wayfarer may discover a skeleton with the remains of a knapsack under the skull. This is too often the end of the soldier’s dreams of glory, and all “The pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war.” It is but a short transition from love, and hope, and life, to sorrow and death. Another Christmas, and many a New England cottage, and many a home along the Rhine and the Shannon, will be steeped in affliction for the loving friends who have laid their bones on the battle-fields of Virginia.’ (2)

1862 would bring hard fought battles and horrendous casualty lists for the Brigade on fields in the Peninsula, Antietam and Fredericksburg. But this was all ahead of the men in 1861, and for now they enjoyed the music that the O’Flaherty father and son shared around the campfire. Jigs, reels and doubles were danced, and stories were told. Songs such as ‘The girl I left behind me’, ‘Home, Sweet Home’, ‘The Rapparee’, ‘The Green above the Red’ and ‘Fontenoy’ were amongst the favourites as the drink flowed. A bell was sounded to bring the Irishmen to midnight mass, which was celebrated that year by Fathers Willet and Dillon. Log benches had been prepared in front of the chapel tents, and the responses were delivered by Quartermaster Haverty and Captain O’Sullivan. Another mass followed the next day, Christmas morning, and was this time said in the open air. Following this the Irish returned to their camp to celebrate the remainder of the 25th.

Christmas 1862 found the Irish Brigade in a very different situation. Although the number of Regiments had by this time increased with the addition of the 116th Pennsylvania and 28th Massachusetts, the slaughter at Antietam and Fredericksburg had impacted greatly on the amount of men present. The latter battle had been fought as recently as 13th December, and must have been fresh in the minds of many as they rested in winter quarters at Falmouth, Virginia. St. Clair A. Mulholland of the 116th described the scene amongst his regiment: ‘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 tail pines, the canteen was passed around, and care banished for the hour. It must have been a sad Christmas, however, to those at home whose friends had fallen by Marye’s Heights and Hamilton’s Woods.’ (3)

Many of the men of the Irish Brigade wound endure two more Christmas’s of conflict. As each year passed, the numbers who had experienced the celebrations on that first Christmas at Camp California would grow ever smaller. Despite the constant hardships they faced, they always did their best to enjoy what represented an all too brief respite from the reality of war.

(1) Conyngham 1867: 77-78; (2) Ibid: 78-79; (3) Mulholland: 72

References

Conyngham, David Power 1867. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns

Mulholland, St. Clair A. 1903. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion

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Categories: Irish Brigade, Virginia

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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