‘Transported to Fairyland': Christmas With Corcoran’s Irish Legion, 1862

Brigadier-General Michael Corcoran’s Irish Legion spent their first Christmas in the field at Newport News, Virginia in 1862. While the Army of the Potomac licked its wounds further north after the catastrophe of Fredericksburg, Corcoran’s brigade- yet to be inured to the horrors of combat- created an unforgettable festive atmosphere at their camp, where those who visited were ‘transported to Fairyland.’ (1)

Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Murphy and Officers of the 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran's Irish Legion, 1863 (Library of Congress)

Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Murphy and Officers of the 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, 1863 (Library of Congress)

For one of the Legion’s soldiers, making his way back to the brigade in late December from New York, festive cheer seemed a million miles away on his journey to Virginia. The fallout from the great battle at Fredericksburg was everywhere:

While returning to Newport News the sounds of wailing and of grief followed me; in the same car with me, from Jersey City, on the night of December 23d, were several afflicted fathers and brothers sorrowing for their dead and wounded sons and relatives, and hastening to seek them at the scene of  strife or in the great hospitals which now fill the city of Washington. A wife, also, with a baby in her arms, sought her husband. She saw his name in the newspapers, as “seriously wounded;” but despairing sadness had set it’s work on that poor woman’s brow. It was, indeed, to me a melancholy, dismal midnight journey: my thoughts in such companionship were none of the brightest. (2)

A Company of the 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran's Irish Legion, 1863 (Library of Congress)

‘A’ Company of the 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, 1863 (Library of Congress)

The contrast of such misery with the Irish Legion’s camp at Newport News could hardly have been starker. The men had gone to extraordinary lengths to make the brigade’s first Christmas away from home a memorable occasion. The white tents of the soldiers had been transformed; trees of differing sizes had been dragged into the camp to create the impression that it had become a forest, while bowers festooned the walkways. Triumphal arches of greenery, some up to thirty feet high, were erected between the tent lines and decorated with giant stars made of holly. The men had dug up different coloured clay to create decorative motifs, some bearing mottos such as ‘Erin-go-Bragh.’ Each Company street had used green and red berries to spell out their designation- Companys A and K of the 69th New York National Guard Artillery had particularly excelled themselves. One eyewitness declared that ‘without any exaggeration I believe such a camp and such a fairylike scene were never seen before and may never be again.’ (3)

The remarkable efforts of the Irishmen drew visitors, such as officers from the gunboats  Ironsides and Galena, who marvelled at the transformation of the camp. As the Christmas spirit took hold, those lucky enough to receive Christmas boxes from home tucked into their gifts with glee. At midnight on Christmas Eve mass was celebrated by Father Dillon at General Corcoran’s headquarters, an event attended by all the officers of the brigade. A choir accompanied the ceremony with Lieutenant Tom Monahan on the violin, with singing from Dr. Dwyer, Lieutenant E.K. Butler and Lieutenant Tom Canton. After the mass Corcoran gave each of those present a glass of Irish whiskey to celebrate the occasion. (4)

Officers of the 164th New York Infantry and 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran's Irish Legion, 1863 (Library of Congress)

Officers of the 164th New York Infantry and 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, 1863 (Library of Congress)

Christmas Day brought the main celebrations. The 25th December 1862 was surprisingly warm and pleasant in Newport News, making everyone eager for the gala events to come. At ten o’clock in the morning all the regiments of the brigade assembled to hear mass, presided over by Father Gillen of the 170th New York. There followed a programme of sporting events that were fast becoming typical of Irish regiments. The amusements began at 11, and took the following order:

  • Horse racing, open to all horses, the winner to receive a silver cup, the second to receive a prize, and also the third; the owner of the last horse in the race to pay a basket of wine.
  • Sack racing.
  • Catching a shaved pig by the tail.
  • Wheelbarrow racing, blindfolded.
  • Foot-racing, &c, &c. (5)

The horse race was to take the form of mile heats, and was the best of two out of three. The runners and riders for the horse race were as follows:

  • ‘Bull Run’, a dapple grey owned by General Corcoran and ridden by James Davidson. Colours: Brown jacket and black cap.
  • ‘George Washington’, a sorrel owned by Lieutenant-Colonel Reid and ridden by Captain Rowley. Colours: Red breeches, striped jacket.
  • ‘Brown Tom’, a bay owned by Lieutenant-Colonel Reid and ridden by Lieutenant E.K. Butler. Colours: Green jacket, red cap.
  • ‘Blue Bird’, a bay owned by Lieutenant-Colonel J. McMahon and ridden by the owner. Colours: Blue jacket, white cap.
  • ‘Charlie’, a bay owned by Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. Burke and ridden by Captain Phelan. Colours: Red jacket, black cap.
  • ‘Sweepstakes’, a grey owned by Adjutant R.G. Newall and ridden by the owner. Colours: Striped jacket, grey cap.
  • ‘Zipp’, a bay owned by Lieutenant Tracy and ridden by the owner. Colours: Black jacket, white cap.
  • ‘Black Thorn’, a black stallion owned by Dr. Regan and ridden by Dr. J.C. Wall. Colours: Black jacket, red cap. (6)

‘Blue Bird’ entered the race as the strong favourite, and virtually everyone placed their money on Lieutenant-Colonel McMahon’s bay as a result. The men of the Legion lined the course as the moment for the off arrived, joined by numerous naval officers and men from Fortress Monroe. Some twenty ladies, visiting the camp, were also in attendance. When the horse set off ‘Blue Bird’ sped into an early lead, much as was expected:

As they neared the breastwork Col. Burke’s ‘Charlie’ was creeping up fast, followed by ‘Zipp’ and ‘Black Thorn,’ the others close at hand on the go and in that position until they strike the heavy ground, when ‘Charlie’ takes the lead, with ‘Zipp’ second, followed closely by ‘Black Thorn,’ and the favorite, the others well up, and in that position they came to the winning post, with ‘George Washington’ and ‘Bull Run’ bringing up the rear. (7)

After a quick sponging off it was time for the second heat- in a reversal of fortune ‘Bull Run’ steamed home in first, ‘Brown Tom’ second and ‘George Washington’ third. This time ‘Sweepstakes’ brought up the rear. ‘Bull Run’ came top of the pile again in the third heat, and as a result won the race. General Corcoran was once again victorious in the next race, a one mile dash in which his bay, ‘Roarer’ (Rider: Captain Doran, Colours: Red jacket and black cap) beat off stiff opposition from Captain McEvily’s bay ‘Pontius Pilate’ (Rider: Captain McEvily, Colours: Black jacket, white cap). (8)

Guard Mount, 164th New York Infantry, Corcoran's Irish Legion (Library of Congress)

Guard Mount, 164th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion (Library of Congress)

It was now the turn of the enlisted men, who took to the field for the sack race. There were numerous falls and tumbles, before the soldiers of the 155th New York eventually came out victorious. The pig, ‘Mr. Porky’ was the next attraction, with the unfortunate animal being pursued by the entire compliment of the Irish Legion before finally being captured. The sporting festivities ended with the wheelbarrow race, after which everyone returned to their quarters. (9)

That evening one of the social organisations in the brigade, the ‘Monks of the Screw’, organised Christmas dinner for the General and his staff (another of these organisations within the Legion was known as the ‘Rum Racker’s Club’). The function of the ‘Monks of the Screw’ was described as follows:

‘…its object is to promote good fellowship by wit and song. Its weekly meetings are the greatest solace to the members after the tedium of camp life. One rule is that each member promises that he will never drink alone; another, that every member must compose a song and sing it. It is almost as easy to catch Jeff Davis as to get admission to membership.’ (10)

170th New York Infantry, Corcoran's Irish Legion, 1863 (Library of Congress)

170th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, 1863 (Library of Congress)

At nine o’clock in the evening the meal began, with some eighty officers of the Legion present, along with six officers from the Ironsides and some of the ladies. Lieutenant-Colonel Reid of the ‘Monks’ occupied the chair, with General Corcoran seated to his right and Father Dillon on his left. The menu was impressive:

BILL OF FARE

Oyster Soup

Raw Oysters

Turkey, Chicken, Tongue

Roast Beef

DESSERT

Plumb Pudding

English Cheese

FRUIT

Raisins, Almonds, Apples

LIQUORS

Bourbon, Brandy

WINE

Champagne, Sherry (11)

 After the food the toasts began. The first was to General Corcoran, and the ‘Monks’ accompanied this by singing ‘He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.’ The General returned the compliment- more toasts followed, to Father Dillon, Brigade Quartermaster J.B. Kirker, Dr. John Dwyer, Colonel Mathew Murphy, the 69th and the Irish Brigade. Perhaps the most unusual toast was to Jefferson Davis, although this was tongue in cheek, as the salutation was performed with empty glasses and in silence. The party continued until four in the morning, when everyone sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and then made their way back to their quarters. (12)

Men of the 164th New York Infantry, Corcoran's Irish Legion (Library of Congress)

Men of the 164th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion (Library of Congress)

The Christmas celebrations of Corcoran’s Irish Legion in 1862 must surely rank as some of the most impressive of any unit during the Civil War. Although many of the officers and some of the men of the brigade had seen combat in other units, for the majority of Legion their baptism of fire had still to arrive. The wait would be over within the month, when Corcoran’s men went into their first fight at Deserted House on 30th January 1863. Michael Corcoran had spent his first and last Christmas with his brigade; he would die on 22nd December 1863 following a fall from his horse. Many of his officers and men would follow him before war’s end, particularly following the Legion’s transfer to the Army of the Potomac in 1864, where it sustained horrific losses during the Overland Campaign. These events were still in the future during the joyous celebrations of December 1862. Dr. John Dwyer of the 69th New York National Guard Artillery wrote the following song specifically for the event, in an attempt to capture the spirit of the occasion:

HURRAH FOR THE SIXTY-NINTH, MY BOYS

Air- “The Young May Moon”

Hurrah for the 69th, my boys-

The brave old 69th my boys:

Once more we all meet,

Our old friends to greet

And present our campaign laurels, boys.

We’ve proved our old Celtic blood, my boys,

And fought by field and flood, my boys;

Let no one then dare,

To say that we fear,

‘Tis not in our language at all, my boys.

CHORUS

Hurrah for the flag of green, my boys-

The richest ever was seen, my boys,

Long, long may it wave,

The Union to save,

Entwined with the Stars and Stripes, my boys.

And when we have done with the South, my boys,

With our regiment gallant and stout, my boys,

We’ll be off to the East,

To give England a taste,

Of fighting on our own hook, my boys,

For now that we’ve handled the gun, my boys,

We’ll make the Saxon churls run, my boys;

Then over the sea,

To set Ireland free.

We’ll do it by hook or by crook, my boys.

CHORUS

Hurrah for the flag of green, my boys-

The richest ever was seen, my boys,

Long, long may it wave,

The Union to save,

Entwined with the Stars and Stripes, my boys. 

For our General brave let us shout, my boys,

And now that we have him about, my boys,

To take the command,

We’re all here on hand,

To conquer or die for our country, boys,

And here on this jovial night, my boys,

We’ll drink to that Isle so bright,

Where the shamrock so green,

For ever is seen,

The emblem of Irishmen true, my boys. 

CHORUS

Hurrah for the flag of green, my boys-

The richest ever was seen, my boys,

Long, long may it wave,

The Union to save,

Entwined with the Stars and Stripes, my boys.

Officers of the 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran's Irish Legion (Library of Congress)

Officers of the 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion (Library of Congress)

(1) New York Irish American 17th January 1863; (2) New York Irish American 10th January 1863; (3) New York Irish American 17th January 1863, New York Irish American 10th January 1863; (4) New York Irish American 17th January 1863; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid.; (8) Ibid.; (9) Ibid.; (10) New York Irish American 10th January 1863; (11) New York Irish American 17th January 1863; (12) Ibid.;

References

New York Irish American 10th January 1863. The Corcoran Legion.

New York Irish American 17th January 1863. The Corcoran Legion.

About these ads

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: 155th New York, 164th New York, 170th New York, 182nd New York, 69th New York National Guard, Corcoran's Irish Legion

Author:Damian Shiels

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

Follow Irish in the American Civil War

Follow Irish in the American Civil War via Social Media

18 Comments on “‘Transported to Fairyland': Christmas With Corcoran’s Irish Legion, 1862”

  1. December 23, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    Fascinating account never broached in UK schools :mrgreen:

  2. Patty MM
    December 23, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    What a great post! And perfect timing. Merry Christmas!

    • December 23, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

      Thanks Patty, and many happy returns!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. Sean O'Connell
    December 23, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    The photos are great. Do you know if the Library of Congress have many more of the Legion?

    • December 24, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

      Hi Sean,

      They are indeed they are my favourite group of photos of any brigade- there are one or two more I think- if you go to the LoC Prints & Photographs Catalogue and search the different regiments you can find what is there.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. Dennis Flynn
    December 23, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    Very much enjoyed reading “Transported To Fairyland”, Thanks for sharing.

    • December 24, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

      Hi Dennis,

      Thanks for the comment, I am glad you enjoyed it!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  5. Steve Reilly
    December 23, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

    Hey Damian … What a great way, to start off our family Christmas, recalling our family past. My son Richie is here, Executive Officer of Delta Company 69th New York and my other boys and daughter will be home tomorrow, Christmas Eve.
    We had two members of our family, who must have been present with the Corcoran’s Irish Legion for Christmas in 1862. Both like General Corcoran, did not see the end of the war.
    My Great Great Grandfather Kerrigan of Company A 182nd New York (69th) died when a tree fell on him. The orther, a Great Great Uncle, Bernard O’Reilly, Company H 170th New York was shot in the head at the Battle Of The North Ana River. He was wounded, a few days before, but put back in the line.
    We will read your, Transported To Fairyland before our Christmas Eve Dinner tomorrow night and make copies for the Grand Children. What better way to let them learn the family didn’t begin with them or their Grand Father. Merry Christmas to you & your Family.

    • December 24, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

      Hi Steve,

      Many thanks for posting this, it means a lot that you find the piece so relevant to you and yours around Christmas time. That is an amazing connection you have to the Legion- I really do find them the most fascinating of brigades. It is also great to see what is obviously a long family tradition of service continuing! Comments like yours are great motivators for me to keep the blog going. I hope you and all the family have a fantastic Christmas and New Year.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  6. December 24, 2012 at 3:20 am #

    Great description!  They competed well with the Irish Brigade for the most holiday spirit!

    • December 24, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

      Hi Jim,

      They certainly did- horse racing and sack races seem to have been popular with tall the Irish in Union blue! I hope you and all the family have a great Christmas!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  7. December 24, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Great post, Damian. Thanks Ann

  8. April 21, 2013 at 2:55 am #

    Thanks for writing this! I am a descendent of Michael Corcoran and I have never seen this before!
    Maureen Feerick Danforth

    • April 24, 2013 at 11:00 am #

      Hi Maureen,

      Many thanks for the comment! Quite a man to be descended from!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  9. Ann Farmiga
    January 19, 2014 at 9:25 pm #

    Hi Damien, I am interested in whether you have information on my great-great Grandfather Oulahan before he left Ireland. We have unconfirmed family stories about his departure, but was wondering if there were resources you might have. Thank you for your work, Ann

    • January 25, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

      Hi Ann,

      Thanks for the comment- I don’t at the moment but will see can I find anything, our records in Ireland for this period are much poorer than those available once they arrived in the U.S., as much of our census information was either pulped or destroyed in the Irish Civil War. Still, there is always some hope to get a bit more so worth checking!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

    • John Malone
      April 22, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

      Hi Ann, I wonder did you find more info about Richard Oulahan since your post? I have been doing a bit of online research on him, mainly because I was interested in his writings in relation to Kildare. You probably know that full details of his genealogy are in o’Harts Genealogy (available from several sources). While he was born in Dublin, his writings indicate he lived in Tully, Kildare as a boy. I would be interested in sharing any info. John

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,760 other followers

%d bloggers like this: