The Irish Brigade celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day in 1863 are the most famous from the period of the American Civil War, recorded as they were by a number of writers and in a series of wonderful illustrations by Edwin Forbes. But what of festivities in honour of the Irish patron saint in other years? We are fortunate in that a superb account has survived of the Irish Brigade’s efforts for 17th March, 1865, as the war finally drew to a close outside of Petersburg, Virginia. 

All of the preparations for the 1865 event were put in place more than a week in advance of the big day, and it was decided that the traditional horse and foot races should once again be the central attraction. The Irish Brigade’s commander Colonel Robert Nugent was elected as the Clerk of the Course for the race-event, which the organisers were determined would be worthy of the ‘habitues of the famous Curragh of Kildare, Tramore, the Heath, Cahir, Ballybar, or any of the other popular race-courses in the old land.’ Last minute concerns for the success of the event arose on the night of 16th March, as heavy rain and wind threatened to spoil the occasion. However, the 17th dawned with blue skies, and all was set for the final St. Patrick’s Day of the American Civil War. (1)

The day began with a High Mass celebrated by Father Thomas Willet of the 69th New York, following which the main events began. The course was replete with a stand-house specially erected for the occasion, from which the flags of the Brigade were flown. Below this was a refreshment room where guests were provided with sandwiches and whiskey-punch. Captain Black of the 28th Massachusetts made sure that everyone would be in good cheer, providing a barrel of whiskey at his own expense for the occasion. Major figures from the Army of the Potomac who attended included Major-Generals Meade, Humphreys, Warren, Crawford, Griffin, Bartlett, Webb, Miles and Mott, as well as ex-commanders of the Irish Brigade Thomas Francis Meagher and Thomas Alfred Smyth. (2)

The Irish Brigade Hurdle Race on St. Patrick's Day 1863 as drawn by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)

The Irish Brigade Hurdle Race on St. Patrick’s Day 1863 as drawn by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)

The first race started shortly after 10.00am. It was over hurdles, and was restricted to horses owned by Irish Brigade officers. Five runners and riders went to post:

  • ‘Harry’ ridden by Captain James D. Brady, owned by Colonel Nugent
  • ‘Jim’ ridden by Captain Oldershaw, owned by Colonel Nugent
  • ‘Cranky Jack’ ridden by Quartermaster Wade, owned by Surgeon Reynolds
  • ‘Dandy’ ridden by Captain J.D. Black, owned by Lieutenant-Colonel Brown
  • ‘Whitefoot’ ridden by Lieutenant Smith, owned by Captain Langdon

Colonel Nugent’s ‘Harry’ romped home to victory. The second race was open to horses owned by officers in the Second Corps, and was once again over hurdles. The runners and riders were:

  • ‘Flint’ ridden by Colonel Van Schack, owned by Colonel Van Schack
  • ‘Frank’ ridden by Quartermaster Wade, owned by Surgeon Reynolds
  • ‘Monitor’ ridden by Captain Black, owned by Captain Sweney
  • ‘Ajax’ ridden by Captain Brady, owned by Major Livermore

Some excellent skills in the saddle from Captain Black saw ‘Monitor’ come home victorious. The third hurdle race was open to the entire Army, and was made up of the following mounts:

  • ‘Harry’ ridden by Captain Brady, owned by Colonel Nugent
  • ‘Fatherland’ ridden by Colonel Von Schack, owned by Colonel Von Schack
  • ‘Johnny’ ridden by Captain Russell, owned by Captain Russell
  • ‘Monitor’ ridden by Captain Black, owned by Captain Sweney

This race saw the champions of the first two contests face off against each other, and it was Colonel Nugent’s ‘Harry’ who once again emerged victorious;  all did not go smoothly for Colonel Von Schack of the 7th New York either, as he was severely injured in the event. The next competition was for those who preferred to try their luck on the flat, with a course of 120 rods laid out (just over 600m). Five runners and riders went to post:

  • ‘Dixie’ ridden by Colonel Lydig, owned by Colonel Lydig
  • ‘Macbeth’ ridden by Lieutenant Kimball, owned by Major Leonard
  • ‘Jim’ ridden by Captain Nichol, owned by Captain Nichol
  • ‘Blackbird’ ridden by Captain Russell, owned by Captain Wildly
  • ‘Paddy Miles’ ridden by Captain Black, owned by Colonel Craft

It was Captain Wildly’s ‘Blackbird’ who came away with the prize. The final horse event now followed, once again over the flat at the same distance. This time ‘catch riders’ were selected to ride each of the mounts- for one of these men the day would end in tragedy. The horses went to post as follows:

  • ‘Burnside’ owned by Colonel Lydig
  • ‘General McClellan’ owned by Colonel Truex
  • ‘Billy’ owned by Major Belcher
  • ‘Alice’ owned by Major Farmer
  • ‘Valentine’ owned by Captain Wood
  • ‘Pilot’ owned by J. Hamilton

‘Alice’ won this final race, but misfortune for one of the riders marred the result. Second Lieutenant Michael McConville of the 69th New York was involved in a serious fall, which led to him sustaining a fractured skull. He would die from his injuries on 26th March. (3)

The Irish Brigade Mule Race on St. Patrick's Day 1863 as drawn by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)

The Irish Brigade Mule Race on St. Patrick’s Day 1863 as drawn by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)

Enlisted men of the Brigade now got their chance to partake in the days events. A foot race over a distance of 120 rods was first up, followed by a sack-race over 80 rods (just over 400m). A soldier of the 88th New York declared loudly before the off that he would win both events, and indeed he collected the winner’s purse for both, solidifying his position as the Brigade’s champion foot and sack racer.The most talked off race of the day followed, when three of the Brigade sutlers took part in a mule-race. The intrepid jockeys were Jim Donahoe of the 69th New York, Terry Duffy of the 28th Massachusetts and O’Flanagan of the 88th New York. Donahoe was aboard ‘Friar Tuck’, with Duffy mounting up on ‘The Gander’ and O’Flanagan on ‘Faug-a-Ballagh.’ (4)

One of those in attendance takes up the story:

The boys of each regiment shouted for the success of their sutler- especially the lads of the 69th, who love their oleaginous caterer and respect him for the length of his purse and boundless good humor. But ‘Friar Tuck’, on which he bestrode, had a twinkle in his eye, significant of merriment and deviltry, somewhat like those of Major Maroney; and some of the boys told their ‘Sancho Panza’ to look out. O’Flanagan’s admirers told him to win for the honor of the 88th, and ‘The Gander’ and his rider were besought to stretch their wings. At last, after kicking and biting, holsing and shying, they got off at the word of the starter, and safely went their allotted round, till the crossing of a gully or drain, into which ‘Friar Tuck’ flung his rider, who roared and floundered in the mud and water till some of the 69th, led by Captain Murtha Murphy, arrived, and, by means of a rope, pulled out poor Donahoe, concerning whose fate the utmost consternation was felt at the Stand House when the riderless ‘Friar’ came cantering in by the winning-post, followed by ‘The Gander’ who won, beating ‘Faug-a-ballagh’ by the length of his neck! (5)

As the official festivities drew to a close General Meagher presented Captain Brady of the 63rd New York with a whip for riding the winning horse in the Irish Brigade hurdle. Captain Wall and Dr. O’Meagher then presided over a meal for the invited guests, although as the food ordered for the occasion from Washington had failed to arrive, it was a relatively modest meal of sandwiches and whiskey. With this the festival ended, the last of the legendary St. Patrick’s Day party’s thrown by the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac. For them and their guests it offered an all too brief respite from a gruelling campaign- little did they know that their war would draw to a conclusion in a few short weeks.

(1) New York Irish American; (2) Conyngham 1867: 514-515, New York Irish American; (3) New York Irish American, AG Report; (4) New York Irish American; (5) New York Irish American;


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

New York A.G. 1902. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901

New York Irish American 4th April 1865: St. Patrick’s Day in the Army: Irish Brigade Horse and Foot Races