America's four-year Civil War often intruded as the Irish under arms geared up to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Kevin O'Beirne, in Part 1 of 3, looks at the war's early years.

By Kevin O'Beirne

(Left: The regimental flag of the 155th NYSV of Corcoran's Legion.)

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated day in the year for an Irishman fighting in the American Civil War was St. Patrick's Day. March 17th was always celebrated in high-style back on the "Ould Sod" and in Irish neighborhoods in the United States; soldiers in the Army of the Potomac's Irish units kept this tradition alive and even enhanced it a bit.

The Union Army's renowned Army of the Potomac, which comprised more than 100,000 men, was the chief hammer the United States used to try to bring about the end of the war. Stationed in the East, the Army of the Potomac fought for four years to close the circle on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Due to the unit's proximity to urban centers of immigration (such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia), the Army of the Potomac and nearby commands contained a substantial portion of the Irish in the Union Army. Despite the fact that army service usually meant going without the good things in life, the men and officers of Irish regiments were always up for a party, especially on Erin's national holiday. The St. Patrick's Day celebrations of the Irish Brigade (69th, 88th, and 63rd New York, 28th Massachusetts, 116th Pennsylvania) are well-documented; unfortunately, the fame of the Irish Brigade often eclipses other units, such as 

Courtesy of Historical Art Prints
The 69th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, detail from Don Troiani's "Rock of Erin."

Corcoran's Irish Legion (155th, 164th, 170th New York Infantry regiments, and the 69th New York NGA), the 37th New York ("Irish Rifles"), 9th Massachusetts, and the 69th Pennsylvania, not to mention Irish infantry regiments in the Western armies.

During the war's four years, Irish soldiers observed four St. Patrick's Days. They marked each in varying styles, depending on their unit, its military situation, and its ability to procure materials necessary for a good celebration. Just as the Irish Brigade was noted for its celebrations of St. Patrick's Day, so too were most of the "lesser-known" Irish regiments serving in the Virginia theater.

March 17, 1862 was not an especially notable one for the 9th Massachusetts Volunteers. Earlier in the month, portions of what would eventually become the V Corps (including the 9th) embarked on an expedition to Fairfax, Virginia. On March 15, the regiment made an arduous return march to Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., in a torrential rainstorm, where the regiment spent about five days, including St. Patrick's Day, in bivouac. On March 21, the 9th boarded a ship for transport to the Peninsula formed by the James and York rivers, part of General George B. McClellan's advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond. Apparently, the 9th was not able to celebrate the 1862 holiday in a noteworthy fashion.

Selected Bibliography

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Tags: American, Civil, States, United, War


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