Throughout the course of the war the New York Irish-American received regular correspondence from Irishmen serving in the field. These men usually wrote pieces under a pseudonym or using only their initials. Regular reports arrived from Corcoran’s Irish Legion via a correspondent called ‘Fenian’ of the 164th New York ‘Phoenix’ Regiment. On 1st January 1863 he forwarded a poem written in Virginia about the regiment, penned by First Lieutenant Richard Oulahan, a soldier-poet who was known to the men as “Our Dick.” (1)
The ballad was written in late 1862, before the regiment left their camp in Newport News,Virginia. It provides us with an insight into the mind of soldiers on campaign, and of the type of humour popular amongst them. It is entitled the ‘Rum Racker’s Club’ and was published in the Irish-Americanon 17th January, 1863.
RUM RACKER’S CLUB
Let the revellers carouse,
In the halls of Bleak House,
As a right jolly, boisterous crew,
While the veteran McQuade,
At his favorite trade,
Is enliv’ning “The Monks of the Screw.”
Here we’re tethered like asses,
Short of whiskey and passes,
From the “field” to the poor “second sub;”
And the rich gormandizers,
On their smuggling advisers,
Have baptized us “The Rum-Rackers’ Club.”
Faith, it’s whispered in camp,
That we’ll soon have to tramp,
Where the epicure died in a week;
Where the white mellow pork,
Makes you squat like a Turk,
And imprints its own blush to your cheek.
Then, it’s “how are you, muc?”
Banaight leath, goose and duck,
How those “Phoenix Boys” thrive on the grub!
The confounded Rum-Rackers,
They can grind navy crackers,
And they’ve whiskey galore in their Club.
They say Casey’s a brick,
But when Murphy was sick
With the fever and jaundice and chills,
The fat sutler but laughed,
When we asked for a draught,
And he gave us old Holloway’s Pills.
The Provost Marshal’s Guard
Are officiously hard,
And suspiciously soft with a few,
For just under the rose,
And the General’s nose,
Sit the privileged “Monks of the Screw.”
But the transports are here,
Off the rickety pier,
Round the gallant old Cumberland’s grave;
And the boys in their pride,
Bless their chieftain and guide,
For they know that he’s skillful and brave.
Let us proudly go forth,
With our backs to the North,
As a chivalrous brotherly band,
And let those who return,
Be the beacons that burn,
On the road to our own “Native Land.”
The final elements of the generally comic ballad have added poignancy, as it gives us a snapshot of the Legion preparing to leave Newport News for Suffolk, where they would shortly afterwards fight in their first engagement, and sustain their first battlefield casualties. The meaning of all the references in the piece are unclear, although it is possible to interpret some of Oulahan’s terms. The ‘veteran McQuade’ is most likely Thomas McQuade, a member of Corcoran’s staff who had lost a leg at Bull Run. The ‘Monks of the Screw’ was the Order of St. Patrick, a political and charitable group who gained their nickname as a result of their drinking activities. ‘Holloway’s Pills’ were a famous patent medicine in the 1860s, which claimed to cure a wide variety of ills. ‘Cumberland’s grave’ refers to the USS Cumberland, which was rammed and sunk by the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia at Newport News on 8th March 1862.
As for the poet himself, Richard Oulahan was born in Co. Dublin and had emigrated to the United States around 1849. He mustered in as a First Lieutenant in the regiment’s Company A at the age of 35 on 19th December, 1862. He was destined not to serve long with the 164th, being wounded at the Battle of Suffolk on 24th April 1863; he was subsequently discharged due to disability on 4th September that year. Oulahan received a brevet-Major rank for his services. He was a committed Fenian both before and after the war, and was later an advocate of Home Rule- he carried out a correspondence with Charles Stewart Parnell on the issue. His post-war career saw him working the Treasury Department, a position secured for him by noted newspaperman and politician Horace Greeley. Richard Oulahan died in Washington on 12th June, 1895, where his remains were interred in Mount Olivet Cemetery. (2)
(1) New York Irish-American 17th January 1863; (2) Roster of the 164th New York, New York Irish-American 17th June 1985, New York Herald 13th June 1895;
New York Irish-American 17th January 1863: Phoenix Regiment
New York Irish-American 17th June 1895: Obituary
New York Herald 13th June 1895: Obituary
New York A.G. 1902. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901