St. Patrick’s Day was an important occasion for all the Irish regiments in the Union Army, and those in the Army of the Potomac were no different. The fighting of 1862 had turned these Irish volunteers into veterans, and many had fallen at battles such as Gaines Mill, Malvern Hill and Antietam. Memories of the defeat at Fredericksburg and the trials of the ‘Mud March’ were still fresh in their minds as the Spring of 1863 arrived. Despite this, there was the prospect of enjoyment on the horizon, and as St. Patrick’s Day approached the men’s spirits began to lift.
The Irish units took the celebration of their national day seriously, and as 17th March neared nothing was left to chance. The Irish Brigade was at this point in the war made up of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York together with the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania regiments. They set to work preparing and marking out an elaborate race-course, and posted an announcement for the benefit of their colleagues in the Army of the Potomac:
GRAND IRISH BRIGADE STEEPLE-CHASE
To come off the 17th March, rain or shine, by horses, the property of, and to be ridden by, commissioned officers of that Brigade. The prizes are a purse of $500; second horse to save his stakes; two and a half mile heat, best two in three, over four hurdles four and a half feet high, and five ditch fences, including two artificial rivers fifteen feet wide and six deep; hurdles to be made of forest pine, and braced with hoops.
The Brigade Quartermaster had been sent to Washington in advance to secure all the necessaries for the post race banquet, and his haul included no less than 35 hams, a side of roasted ox, a pig stuffed with boiled turkeys and countless chickens, ducks and small game. Alcohol was not forgotten, and to be safe 8 baskets of champagne, 10 gallons of rum and 10 gallons of whiskey were stockpiled. A bower was erected that could hold hundreds of guests, and a general invitation was issued to all officers in the Army of the Potomac. Determined to leave nothing to chance, a committee convened on 16th March to decide who was the best qualified to mix the punch. Captain Gosson and Captain Hogan were selected, and worked so hard at their task that they ‘both felt overpowered by their labors and had to be relived from duty’; no doubt partly a result of frequent tests to ensure the concoction tasted just right. (1)
Another green flag regiment, the 9th Massachusetts, were not left wanting when it came to their own preparations. Adjutant M.W. Phalen and Quartermaster Mooney were assigned by Colonel Guiney to make ready for the day, and they secured ‘goodies’ from Washington for the occasion, which the entire division was invited to attend. A week before St. Patrick’s Day the two men announced the schedule of events for the regiment:
Race for a Greased Pig
Climbing a Greased Pole
Horse Racing (afternoon)
Mock Dress Parade
There was to be small amounts of money for the winners of each event, apart from the winner of the greased pig race, who instead got to keep the pig. In addition whoever managed to climb the fifteen foot greased pole would find at the top a pass for ten days leave. A green area opposite the regiment’s camping ground was prepared, and the camp itself decorated with evergreens and mottoes. (2)
When St. Patrick’s Day finally arrived the men were graced with fine sunny weather. The Irish Brigade started their day with religious ceremonies, after which the horse racing commenced. Each rider had dressed for the occasion, including one Galway native who was clad in scarlet with a green-velvet smoking cap, harking back to the colours of the Galway Blazers Club. Thousands of officers and men, including the army commander Major-General Joseph Hooker, were in attendance as the designated start time for the first race at 11am approached. A crack of a whip and note from the bugler and the six runners and riders were off. Appropriately enough the winner was Brigadier-General Meagher’s grey horse, Jack Hinton, ridden by Captain John Gosson (it would seem he was feeling none the worse for his ‘diligence’ in preparing the punch the night before). After lunch there was more sport, the line up being as follows:
1st. A foot-race, one half mile distance, best of heats; open to all non-commissioned officers and privates, the winner to receive $7, and the second $3
2d. Casting weights, the weights to weigh from ten to fourteen pounds; the winner to receive $3
3d. Running after the soaped pig- to be the prize of the man who holds it
4th. A hurdle-race, one-half mile distance, open to all non-commissioned officers and privates; the winner to receive $7, the second $3
5th. The wheelbarrow-race- the contestants to be blindfolded, and limited to six soldiers of the Irish Brigade; the winner to receive $5; distance to be decided on the ground
6th. Jumping in sacks to the distance of five hundred yards; the winner to receive $5
7th. A contest on the light fantastic toe, consisting of Irish reels, jigs, and hornpipes; the best dancer to receive $5, the second best $3, to be decided by a judge appointed by the chairman (3)
Meanwhile back at the 9th Massachusetts the games were also in full swing. The greased pole, erected opposite the regimental headquarters, proved especially popular, no doubt a result of the prize to be gained at the top. Attempts to secure the pass commenced at 10am: ‘One tall, stout fellow made a desperate effort to lift himself from the ground, and, after trying for about half an hour, was reluctantly compelled to give up, having in that time only achieved about an inch; he looked wistfully at the paper fluttering above him, and then turned away to give room to an ambitious youngster, who succeeded in getting half way up, when, coming to a spot greasier than the rest, he began to slip, and did not pause until he came to the ground, amid the roars of the crowd.’ Try as they might, no-one succeeded in reaching the top of the pole. This disappointment was tempered somewhat at 11am when each man was issued with a gill of whiskey, which was shared with comrades from the 62nd Pennsylvania Regiment. Tragedy struck in the afternoon horse race when Quartermaster Mooney collided with Dr. Faxon of the 32nd Massachusetts while both were riding at full speed, with Mooney being knocked unconscious. The unfortunate Lieutenant died of his injuries a few days later. The final event was the mock dress parade, which had become something of a tradition for the 9th Massachusetts, having also been carried out the previous year. For the occasion the men were allowed to elect their own officers, and thus the enlisted soldiers had full control over proceedings. The manual of arms was parodied, and one of the men in Company G, who was elected ‘Colonel’, managed to reduce everyone to laughter with his accurate imitation of Colonel Guiney’s voice. (4)
The evenings at both celebrations were spent in drinking and general merriment. Poems were read and songs sung, and for a day and a night the worries of the war were left behind. The day was long remembered by all who were present, especially the horse races put on by the Irish Brigade, which would pass into legend in the Army of the Potomac. We are fortunate that one of the men who was in attendance was Edwin Forbes, a Special Artist with Frank Leslie’s Magazine; his pictorial record of some of the activities that day hint at what a spectacle it was. With the festivities at an end camp life returned to normal, and the men prepared for what promised to be a tough campaign. The battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg lay ahead for them, and for many the 17th March 1863 was their last St. Patrick’s Day.
(1) Conyngham 1867: 372-373; (2) MacNamara D.G. 1899: 278, MacNamara M.H. 1867: 178-179; (3) Conyngham 1867: 373- 379; (4) MacNamara D.G. 1899: 278-279, MacNamaraM.H. :1867: 179-180;
Conyngham, David Power 1867. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns
MacNamara, M.H. 1867. The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle; or Virginia and Maryland Campaigns