St. Patrick's Day's Powerful Tug - Part 2

America's four-year Civil War often intruded as the Irish under arms geared up to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. In Part 2 of 3 Kevin O'Beirne looks at St. Patrick Day rites in 1863.

(Right: A Mass in the field, 69th New York at Fort Corcoran in northern Virginia in 1861)

After Mass, Corcoran somehow appropriated every horse he could lay his hands on and mounted more than 1,000 of his men. The cavalcade was joined by Corcoran and his staff, several buglers, and a battery of mountain howitzers. Corcoran led the "mounted host" on a wild ride around the Federal camps near Suffolk, blowing the bugles, yelling, and galloping along the roads and through the camps at top speed. The unmounted members of the Legion formed up in ranks with all regimental and company flags flying and, to the accompaniment of two brass bands, paraded noisily through the camps and the town of Suffolk. The procession made its way to the quarters of Major General John Peck, the overall commander at Suffolk, and was reviewed by Peck and Corcoran. The Legion marched on through the town and along the banks of the Nasemond River where they were cheered by the crew of a gunboat. A sobering reminder of the war occurred during the parade when troopers of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry returned to camp with 40 empty saddles after being on the losing end of a skirmish with Confederate infantry. 

General Michael Corcoran

After the parade, Corcoran hosted a dinner party for about 70 invited guests at a hotel in Suffolk. The party was interrupted several times by a series of grand, noisy, torchlit processions by the individual regiments of the Legion. At the appearance of each unit, Corcoran went out on the hotel balcony and made a patriotic speech, to the cheers of the men, and then dispatched them to receive a whiskey ration. Finally, dinner was served and the party lasted until after 4:00 a.m. During the evening, Corcoran declared publicly, for the first time, that he was a member of the Fenian Brotherhood (In fact, Corcoran was the commander of the Fenians' military wing). 

A veritable ocean of whiskey was consumed by the Legion that day. A member of the 13th New Hampshire Volunteers, camped across the road from the Legion, recorded this incident, which reflects some of the typical racial bias of the period: "Some of Corcoran's men during the day capture a large Negro cook in the 13th, known as 'Nigger Joe', take him to their camp, strip him nearly naked, and make a 'rainbow nigger' out of him, painting him in patches, bars and stripes, yellow, green, red, and blue -- every color they can muster, and turn him loose. He returns to the 13th camp, running as if for dear life, scared half out of his wits, and looking worse than the evil one." The soldier concluded this account with the somewhat cryptic statement, "This is another phase of the Irish question." 

Guiney gave an oration on St. Patrick's life and the celebration of his feast day.

Later in the evening, the whiskey no doubt had taken its effect when a pistol fight erupted in the camp of the 155th New York. Among other incidents of gunplay, young Corporal Michael Casey of Company I, quite inebriated, pulled a cocked pistol on his commander, Captain John Byrne. As reported by another soldier, Byrne "played the coward" and backed down, avoiding an unhappy ending to the matter. Fortunately, no injuries resulted when some drunks actually fired pistols at their compatriots. 

St. Patrick's Day 1863 was well celebrated by Colonel Patrick Guiney's 9th Massachusetts. Regimental historian Christian Samito wrote of their celebration on this day: 

College of the Holy Cross Collection
Col. Patrick Guiney, 9th MA

The men of the Irish Ninth turned to preparing for the upcoming St. Patrick's Day festivities. The entrance to each company street became decorated with an arch of holly and evergreen. Furthermore, Guiney set aside the present officers of the regiment, and allowed the enlisted personnel to elect their own officers for the day. St. Patrick's Day dawned bright and sunny, and after breakfast Guiney gave an oration on St. Patrick's life, the celebration of his feast day, and the duties of the men to their native and adopted countries. Then the Ninth turned out for a dress parade and, drawing into a hollow square, listened to speeches by both "old" and "new" officers, and gave cheers for Major General McClellan, Major General Hooker, President Lincoln, Guiney, Ireland, America, and Massachusetts. Afterward, the men were dismissed to receive the first of three whiskey rations, and Guiney invited the new officers to his quarters. 

Then, the men engaged in several games: trying climb a greased pole that had fifteen dollars and a ten-day furlough at the top (no one succeeded), attempting to catch a greased pig, and foot and sack races. A number of horse races took place after the midday meal, but an accident put an end to this activity. Quartermaster Thomas Mooney's horse collided with that of a participating surgeon of the 32nd Massachusetts. The doctor got up with a dislocated or broken arm, but both horses were killed and Mooney was rendered unconscious by the blow; sadly, he died on March 27, 1863. Late in the afternoon, the regiment enjoyed a mock parade, and a member of Company F parodied Guiney's manner and voice while acting as regimental commander. A large crowd of spectators watched the spectacle, and the men ended the day in high spirit. 

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Tags: American, Civil, States, United, War


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