Christmas in the Union's Irish Brigades Part 2 of 2: In Corcoran's Legion and After 1862

Part 1 of 2: Early War In the Irish Brigade

By Kevin O'Beirne

A pencil drawing of an Irish Brigade St. Patrick's Day horserace, probably similar to the races held by Cocoran's Legion during Christmas 1862.

In contrast to the sorrow of the veteran Irish Brigade, the "new Irish Brigade," Corcoran's Legion, spent the Christmas of 1862 in camp, not yet having seen battle. One historian wrote, "[The Corcoran Legion was] enjoying Christmas time with horse racing, theatricals, and other amusements in a style such as only Irishmen can." This Yuletide, all the regiments of the Legion were situated
near Newport News, Virginia.

On Christmas Eve, drill was suspended so that decorations could be put up. One correspondent, arriving in camp on December 24, noted that, "all the men [were] working like so many beavers decorating the camp with evergreens. There were arches of evergreens, some as high as thirty feet; [and] stars
made out of the time-honored holly". This correspondent also noted that officers had come from other brigades' camps just to look at the decorations. Father Dillon (formerly of the 63rd New York, now with the 69th NYNGA of the Legion) celebrated High Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve at General Corcoran's headquarters, replete with a choir of officers. After the late-night mass, Corcoran treated his staff officers and guests to "a Christmas box in the shape of a glass of genuine Irish whiskey" in his quarters.

Harper's Weekly
A federal soldier dreaming of home. Soldiers were likely to think of home often, but never more so than during the Christmas season.

This first Christmas in uniform for the men in the ranks is perhaps best revealed by Sergeant
George Tipping of the 155th New York, who wrote on Christmas Day, 1862, "Last night was very lonesome for me. I felt as if I would like to be home," and that, "I hope that by next Christmas things will be different and that I will be home safe and sound once more. Of course, I have no one to blame but myself for my absence this Christmas." Tipping further wrote the un-Christmaslike news a man had been killed in the countryside near Newport News and that the 155th had to furnish a detail of men during the night of Christmas Eve to go investigate.

The next morning, balmy weather brightened Tipping's spirits as he wrote, "The weather is very fine here. This day looks like the month of May." The Legion was assembled by regiments at 10:30 a.m. and marched to Mass, which was celebrated by Father Paul Gillen of the 170th New York and Father Dillon.

A full day of festivities was planned for all. Tipping wrote, "We had quite a time this Christmas. The boys [have] a shaved pig for this afternoon and there is going to be a horse race." Other amusements included a sack race, blindfolded wheelbarrow racing, and foot races. The 155th's Colonel William McEvily "gave all the boys--all of them--a Christmas whiskey. They are all in the house now and half-drunk" wrote Tipping. The men of the 155th were well provisioned for the holiday as ten geese and twelve turkeys were issued to every company in the regiment.

The horse racing, consisting of three heats, started at 1:30 p.m. Corcoran and his staff, together with "a lot of Irish ladies", watched the races from an elevated viewing stand. Of the horse race Tipping wrote, "There was many hundreds of dollars changed hands. Our McMahon [Lt. Col. James P. McMahon of the 155th] has a fast nag and was the favorite horse among the men of the Irish Legion." Despite the wagering on McMahon's horse, "Blue Bird", Tipping wrote, "Old Bull Run, as they call him, took the stakes. That is the white horse Michael [Corcoran] had at the battle of [First] Bull Run." In fact, "Old Bull Run" wound up winning two of the three heats.

Last night was very lonesome for me. I felt as if I would like to be home.

One observer termed the subsequent sack race and wheelbarrow races, "laughable". Tipping wrote, "After the races, there was a pig greased and shaved." Another man wrote, "I cannot do justice to the pig race: as the 'animal' was let loose, just imagine the whole Brigade running and shouting after Mr. Porkey, and he too commenced to squeal as hard as he could, and kept up the running as fast as a pig can go… Finally, after sundry upsets and knock-downs he was finally captured and placed hors de combat."

A sumptuous officers' reception was given by Corcoran that lasted late into the night that Christmas Day. From the ranks, Sergeant Tipping reported that four Navy ships (including Ironsides and Galena) were at anchor near Newport News and that several sailors had been invited to dinner with the 155th New York; he wrote, "They are going to stay some time."

Harper's Weekly
The hard life of a soldier during the Christmas season, picket duty in the snow.

As the war lengthened and darkened, so too did the aura surrounding the celebration of Christmas in the army. Few accounts of the Christmas of 1863 in the Irish Brigade are available, although Brigade historian D.P. Conyngham wrote, "the Irish Brigade reached New York, in safety, and in the most exuberant spirits, January 2d, 1864," for they were soon to begin their veteran furloughs prior to the beginning of their second term of enlistment. The Corcoran Legion's 1863 Yuletide was a sad one due to the untimely death of General Corcoran only three days before Christmas. December of 1864 saw the Legion and the Brigade in the miserable, muddy trenches outside of Petersburg. With both brigades reduced to less than 600 fighting men, it is likely that large celebrations were not seen in the camps during this last Christmas of the war.

The peaceful and merry spirit of the season of Christmas was carried in the hearts of Irish-American soldiers during the Civil War. Like all soldiers, past and present, these immigrant defenders of the Union terribly missed their families and friends during the holidays but, like the soldiers they were, they remained at the front, risking their lives, to restore a Union that offered hope and freedom for all Irishmen, while eagerly longing for the day when Christmas could once again be spent with loved ones at home. 

Nollag shona (Merry Christmas) to you and yours, from The Wild Geese team.

Views: 535

Tags: American Civil War, Christmas, Corcoran's Legion, Diaspora History, Irish Brigade, Military History, United States

Comment by Danny Alexander on December 2, 2013 at 5:14pm

Being an ex-serviceman myself, I too have had to spend several Christmas holiday's away from family, friends, and loved ones. It is not an easy thing to cope with as any veteran who has had to endure it will testify.

Comment by Gerry Regan on December 3, 2013 at 3:45pm

Danny, tell us about one of your loneliest Christmases then. Where were you?

BTW, have you joined our group focused on the Irish experience during America's Civil War, at

Comment by Danny Alexander on December 3, 2013 at 3:59pm

My saddest Christmas was spent in the Republic of South Viet Nam in 1968. Da Nang airbase to be exact. Yes everyone attempted to prepare ourselves for the holiday and separate the season from the conflict, but to no avail. Operations remained active even on Christmas eve and Day. This was not like the Civil War, where sides would cease actions, for the most part, on such occasions. We had to keep conducting missions as though it was just another day. My thoughts were always with my family back in Ohio, but my mind also had to remain in country. Yes we attempted to decorate the "houch", our nick name for living quarters, with Christmas flavorings and we would sometimes sing carols together, but the war was always close, just outside our door at times. I myself felt very distant and was trying my best to derail my thoughts of home and the time of the year. Very difficult for a 19 year old to do! You could see the longing and also the uncertainty in the eyes of others as we tried to celebrate this love filled time of the year without families. That is how I personally remember my worst Christmas!

Comment by Gerry Regan on December 5, 2013 at 3:03pm

Danny, everyone, check out 'Joyeux Noel,' an Oscar-nominated film produced with British-French-German collaboration. A haunting, inspiring, poignant film, based on a true story of the first Christmas at the Western Front during World War 1, and the improbable turn of events that transpired. It's utterly, gloriously life-affirming despite the wartime setting.


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