The American Civil War at Christmastime: A Community Chat with Kevin O'Beirne

The following is a transcript taken from the LIVE Community Chat chat hosted here at TheWildGeese.com on Friday, December 6, 2013.  The focus for the discussion was bygone Christmas traditions in Ireland with writer / historian, Kevin O'Beirne of Buffalo, New York.  Some editing has been applied for clarity.

The Wild Geese:  Céad míle fáilte, a chairde! So glad to see each one of you who have stopped by for this evening’s LIVE Community Chat here in TheWildGeese.com.

Our focus this evening is on Christmastime during the American Civil War. Battlefield behavior during the holidays is a fascinating subject, so this should make for quite the educational discussion.

We are joined by Kevin O’Beirne, a Buffalo, New York based historian and writer. This chat is being sponsored by The Certificate of Irish Heritage, Civil War News, and The Wild Geese Blue, Gray and Green Group.

Three Certificates of Irish Heritage will be given away to each of three individuals, names randomly drawn from those participating. These certificates are absolutely lovely pieces which will become family heirlooms for anyone who has one.

We’ll now turn it over for the next 45 minutes to Kevin. Welcome, Kevin!

Gerry Regan:  Failte romhat, Kevin a chara!

Belinda Evangelista:  We are delighted you're here Kevin

Kevin O'Beirne:  Thanks! I'm glad to be here.

Gerry Regan:  Here's a soundtrack to the discussion that some might find appealing:



Belinda Evangelista:  What kind of Brews were available at Xmas in the Civil War Kevin?  :-)

Kevin O'Beirne:  Ah, I'm not much of a brewery expert or beer historian -- some folks are -- but from what I have gathered about the type of beer available to Civil War troops at the front, it was probably some type of German-style lager.

The beer the men had would have been from army sutlers. Private vendors who had a "contract" to sell to the men of one regiment.

While there's a popular belief that all soldiers drank was hard stuff like whiskey, there is lots of evidence of barrels of beer sold to the men.

Ryan O'Rourke:  Interesting.

Capt BlackEagle:  Would that be true of the Confederates as well?

Kevin O'Beirne:  Cap, hard to say. I'm more-versed in the Union Army. But I supposed it'd be possible. I doubt that the beer US troops had was imported. I'm sure that South could have brewed some, but I really can't say I know much about that topic. :-)

Capt BlackEagle:  Aye ... they probably looted it. :-)

David T. Gleeson:  How much Irish "celebrating" did you find around Christmas, Kevin?

Kevin O'Beirne:  Hello, David! I think the answer depends on the circumstances. If it's one Irishman in a non-Irish regiment, the celebration would have reflected the majority of the unit's tastes. If you're talking about an Irish regiment (or Brigade) then there was a good deal of celebration on Christmas Day.

Probably the "biggest" was the Irish Legion (Corcoran Legion) at Christmas 1862, and the irish Brigade at Christmas 1862 as well. Although the Brigade was greatly reduced in numbers that Christmas after Antietam and Fredericksburg.

Jean Sullivan Cardinal:  Was religion a big part of Christmas on the front?

Kevin O’Beirne:  I think that 150 years ago it was probably more important to most folks than it is today.  That I've learned, if a regiment was celebrating Christmas in Irish style, they first started out with Catholic Mass -- perhaps midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

David T. Gleeson:  Didn't find any in my research on Irish Confederates, apart from those stationed close to home and early in the War at that. Mass for sure, if they had a chaplain!

Kevin O'Beirne:  That was also how the Irish Brigade's, Irish Legion's, and other Irish regiments' big St. Patrick's Day celebrations began too: with Mass.  After homage to God, then came the party.

Marcie Kelly:  The troops held mass themselves without a chaplain.

Kevin O'Beirne:  Many irish regiments did indeed have a Catholic priest as their chaplain.

David T. Gleeson:  Marcie, I haven't come across that on the Confederate side.

Marcie Kelly:  Thanks.

Kevin O'Beirne:  Not all had a priest, but many did. And that i can tell at no time did the two main Irish brigades--the irish Brigade (Meagher's) and Corcoran's Irish Legion--ever go without at least one priest to administer to the brigades's spiritual needs.

Kevin O'Beirne:  There was drinking, games (such as foot races, climbing greased poles to get a prize at the top, and others), and often wagering on horse races where officers were the jockeys.

There might be parades and bands/music later in the day. Frankly there seems to have been a lot of drinking and by later in the day I can picture a lot of men being pretty “happy.”

Capt BlackEagle:  Did General Meagher participate in the races?

Kevin O'Beirne:  I don't find any inkling that Meagher or Corcoran raced. But their horses did, ridden by other officers.  The General was usually hosting many other dignitaries at the brigades' big celebrations, like Christmas or St. Patricks' Day.

Not all soldiers were "holy rollers" as we might call it today in the US, but on the whole they tended to be more religious than we are today. That said, soldiers are soldiers and when a bunch of younger men get together they act in many non-religious ways.

Capt BlackEagle:  I can attest to that.  20-year vet here.

Kevin O'Beirne:  But Christmas is different. Even agnostics tend to think a bit more about it at Christmas. So, the Masses in Irish regiments's camps at Christmas were on the whole very well-attended.

Jean Sullivan Cardinal:  I imagine it made them feel closer to family.

Gerry Regan:  What percentage of the brigades were literate, Kevin? Are there letters written home extant, perhaps describing their feelings and activities?

Kevin O'Beirne:  Gerry, I'd say that probably 80% or more of the men were literate. Lots of letters and collections of letters, diaries, etc. available. Several are published.

Belinda Evangelista:  How much contact was there with the families?  Letters and such.

Kevin O'Beirne:  Belinda, contact with family seems to have been very important. Irish have tended to have large, closer families (when not fighting with each other :-) ) and the soldiers' letters home were always about the wife, kids, and friends.  I have 116 letters by a sergeant in the 155th NY.  He was 38 years old in 1862, and had five kids at home. His Christmas 1862 letters show well how much he missed his family in Buffalo.

Belinda Evangelista:  Aww

Ryan O’Rourke:  Kevin, is there any evidence the two sides got together for anything on Christmas as is sometimes portrayed in war films?

Kevin O'Beirne:  Regarding fraternization between enemies int eh Civil War, I don't see much of that at Christmas in particular.  The two sides at Christmas were typically not opposing each other, but rather in "non-campaigning" winter quarters. Often 20 miles would separate opposing armies in the winter.

Ryan O'Rourke:  Interesting.

Kevin O'Beirne:  So, while some opposing pickets might have said hello or talked a bit, I don't see any sign in the CW of anything like the famous Christmas 1914 truce on the Western Front of WWI.

Belinda Evangelista:  Any songs that we might know of that were sung

Kevin O'Beirne:  Belinda, I really am not sure on the commonality of Christmas carols that we might sing today as used or known to folks 150 years ago.  Certainly some hymns like "Silent Night" have been around for a very long time, but I really don't know how much Irish in the US CW would have sung them.

Jean Sullivan Cardinal:  Were they able to decorate?

Kevin O’Beirne:  Jean, good questions on decorations.

Gerry Regan:  Kev, if I might, referring to Jean's question, quote from one of your Christmas articles for The Wild Geese:

Nevertheless, the regiment's historian noted, “Christmas Day [1862] was celebrated in the camp, many boxes of good things from home were received, and shared by the recipients with comrades less fortunate. ...

"Some of the boys were a little homesick, to be sure, but enough were sufficiently light of heart to drive dull care away. ...

Kev, if I might, referring to Jean's question, quote from one of your Christmas articles for WG:"A large Christmas tree was erected in the centre of the camp, and peals of laughter and much merriment greeted the unique decorations, tin cups, hardtack, pieces of pork, and other, odd articles being hung on the branches. ...

The rest of the article can be found here.

Kevin O'Beirne:  The answer is YES. They really "did up" their camps with great effort for Christmas -- at least the Irish regiments did.  One thing I see mentioned a lot is making large arches of evergreen boughs over the entrances to "company streets" in camp. Supposedly some in the irish Legion's camp at Christmas 1862 were 30 feet tall!

Belinda Evangelista:  Wow.

Jean Sullivan Cardinal:  Impressive!

Marcie Kelly:  I never thought of decorating on a war front.

Kevin O'Beirne:  I am uncertain how they even constructed them. Even if one discounts some exaggeration for the newspapers, they still must've been pretty large.  St. Clarie Mulholland, commander of the part-irish 116th Pennsylvania of the Irish Brigade, even mentions in his regimental history that the 116th had Christmas trees in camp at Christmas 1862 and decorated them with pieces of hardtack (rations) and tin cups. I love that story.
Capt BlackEagle:  Everything goes best with bacon, so why not on a tree?  :-)

Kevin O'Beirne:  Gerry, that's from Mulholland's history of the 116th. I think he's a great writer, but he's full of baloney too. Half the stuff he wrote about, he didn't witness.  For example, he was wounded at Fredericksburg 12/13/1862, so he wasn't in camp to write about driving dull care away or decorating Christmas trees.

That said about Mulholland, I can easily picture bored soldiers decorating a tree with crackers and cups.

Capt BlackEagle:  My Great-Great Grandfather may have shot him.

Kevin O'Beirne:  Capt, what regiment was he in?

Capt BlackEagle:  Co F. 54th Infantry NC. They were on the opposite side of the field from the sunken road.

Kevin O’Beirne:  Capt, yeah, most of the guys who shot up the irish Brigade at Fredricksburg were Georgians and Kershaw's South Carolinians, and artillery.

Capt BlackEagle:  Yep ... the 54th led the final push they were mad at Hood for calling them back.

Gerry ReganHere's Part 2 of Kevin's series. Highly recommended, and a Christmas tradition here on The Wild Geese for more than a decade.

David T. Gleeson:  Contrast!  John Dooley -- 1st Virginia:  "We scarcely know XMAS or Sundays from any other day" (Dec. 25, 1862).

Kevin O'Beirne:  David, I suspect that was probably not uncommon for many men. Irish regiments however tended, at least earlier in the war when they had more men, to throw some big parties, but I suspect that was more the exception than the rule in the vast majority of units.

One crew who probably didn't get to do much Christmas celebrating would have been Irish guys in the U.S. Army of the Cumberland in 1862. They marched out of Nashville on 12/26/1862 and fought the terrible battle of Stone's River, at Mufreesboro TN, in the following days.

David T. Gleeson:  After defeat at Fredericksburg, celebration in '62 must have been quiet?

Kevin O'Beirne:  David, I'm sure Christmas '62 in Union and CS armies in Virginia was somber, but perhaps not without some Christmas celebration. But not all regiments were in those armies or engaged in that battle. The Irish Legion had 3,000 men, mostly Irish, at Newport News VA that Christmas. No battle, but I think like most soldiers throughout history, what the men wanted vs. what the politicians and generals wanted was different.  :-)

David T. Gleeson:  Dooley was mad because his unit were told to change camp on Christmas Day. The following two Christmases , however, were spent in a Union prison camp!

Mark Connor:  I'd think they'd use whatever they could to decorate a tree when in the field. Wouldn't want to go without Christmas. But were they at all concerned about displays being too big given they were in the field of war?

Kevin O’Beirne:  Mark, most men at Christmas were out of sight of the enemy and hence probably more of the mind to relax a bit and probably have a bit of fun because they missed their families.

Mark Connor:  Kevin, makes sense. I wouldn't think either side in the U.S. Civil War would want to fight at Christmas time.

David T. Gleeson:  Indeed Kevin. Trenches at Petersburg not conducive to major celebrations either.

Kevin O'Beirne:  David, perhaps not, but most men during the Petersburg campaign were in nice orderly camps behind the lines, not in the trenches. Only a certain number of each brigade were on picket in the trenches at a time.

One Christmas I found little about for Eastern Union Irish regiments was Christmas 1864.  That's late-war and most of the regiments were horribly reduced.

While I suspect they had a Christmas celebration of some sort, there wasn't nearly as many guys around to write about it.  By then the sergeant of the 155th NY who's letters I have was dead, so he couldn't write about Christmas.

David T. Gleeson:  Good point. Those in Savannah in ‘64 probably had a good time -- after cleaning up the city!

Capt BlackEagle:  Andersonville would have been horrible.

Mark Connor:  It's a sad story either way, even the bigger celebration in 1862 as opposed to the reduced numbers in '64.  It's startling to think about it because it was Americans on both sides.

Jean Sullivan Cardinal:  How did you get the personal letters?  Are they from a family member?

Kevin O’Beirne:  Jean, some you find in published books, like Peter Welsh's "Irish Green and Union Blue.”  He was the color sergeant (green flag) of the 28th Massachusetts of the Irish Brigade.  Col. Patrick Guiney's letters of the Irish 9th Massachusetts are available as a book.

Others are found in local museum and historical societies. The 155th NY sergeant's letters are at the Buffalo Historical Society.  Many others are at the NY City Historical Society.  Newspapers of the day -- particularly those that catered to the irish immigrant population and Catholic population (often the same group) -- carried a lot of news about Irish regiments and are also good sources for details on stuff like Christmas.

Gerry Regan:  Fellows, what were Christmases like in the POW camps, on both sides, any idea? Andersonville, Elmira and so on?

Kevin O'Beirne:  I suspect that no POW had a good Christmas, but fortunately large numbers were in prisons only largely during 1864 when the exchange cartel broke down.  By late '64 it was going again and a lot of guys were being let out of camps in exchanges.

David T. Gleeson:  “Second Christmas in a Yankee prison. upon a cold desolate island in the middle of a frozen lake. All is gloom!" John Dooley, Johnson's Island (December 24, 1864)

Mark Connor:  Is this the major subject you write on, Kevin?

Kevin O'Beirne:  Mark, I've written  a bunch of essays/articles on Irish regiments in the Civil War, but also a bunch on common Union soldiers of the Civil War.

Capt BlackEagle:  I know this might be a hard question for a short answer, but how did the Old Irish, treat the newer immigrants..were the brigades intermingled in this regard?

Kevin O’Beirne:  Capt, I’ve never heard of any issues between Irish who'd been in the U.S. before the Great Hunger vs. those who arrived during/after.

The Wild Geese:  Great questions, everyone. Very interesting stuff. And Kevin is doing a superb job in answering them.

Capt BlackEagle:  Aye.

Kevin O'Beirne:  Most Irish in the US in 1861 were immigrants from the Great Hunger, arriving between the late 1840s and early 1850s, so they would have predominated in the Union and CS regiments. Not all of them of course, but probably the majority.

Capt BlackEagle:  We Irish are family.  Mine arrived around 1670 or so.

Belinda Evangelista:  Kevin do you reenact Christmas in the ACW ever?

Kevin O'Beirne:  Belinda--No. For Christmas I'm with my family.  :-)

That said, I've reenacted winter quarters many times in what I believe is a fairly accurate way. Hoping to attend another edition in Feb 2014. But no Christmas aspect to it.

Capt, my ancestor was an 1852 arrival in NYC.  :-)

David T. Gleeson:  Capt, war probably brought them closer together. Look at 'Scots-Irish' Col. Randal McGavock (right) and his relationship with famine Irish in his regiment, the 10th Tennessee.

Capt BlackEagle:  Aye, David.

Mark Connor:  Capt Black Eagle, mine in 1772.  Fought in Revolutionary War. Had one who fought Union side, but that's already third generation. Don't know what issues he would have had with new immigrants, especially since he was a Catholic.

Kevin O'Beirne:  I had a distant relative who was a captain in the 37th NY "Irish Rifles" in the Army of the Potomac.  Unfortunately, I have only one item he wrote, but it's a whole magazine article about Chancellorsville. No Christmas, though.  :-)

Mark Connor:  Kevin, he wrote a whole article. Writing runs in the family!

Kevin O'Beirne:  Mark, he was a lawyer. They are good with words.  :-)

Jean Sullivan Cardinal:  All Irish are good with words  :-)

Gerry Regan:  Here's an oblique reference to Christmas 1864 in Savannah, from one of our articles by Ed Churchill, about Confederate chaplain and Irish-born priest Peter Whelan:

"When Sherman's army marched into Savannah on December 21, one of the first things his men did was begin work strengthening the fortifications previously constructed there by the Confederates. ...

"One of the rebel forts was located in close proximity to the Catholic Cemetery, on the road to Bonaventure. In extending their trenches, the Yankees dug up the graves of two bishops and several other priests and nuns. ...

"Incensed by such apparently deliberate desecration, Whelan fired off a blistering letter to Union General Quincy Gilmore: "It must be an extreme military necessity", he wrote, "when the ashes of the dead are disturbed and breastworks erected on their place of repose. ...

Belinda Evangelista:  David are you a re-enactor too?

David T. Gleeson:  No Belinda.  I've just watched them and recruited some for a documentary we did on Sisters of Mercy in Savannah (who were Civil War nurses and friends of Fr. Whelan).

Capt BlackEagle:  I have relatives on both sides of the Civil War, just have not researched the northern group.  I don't think they were Irish, though.

Marcie Kelly:  My relatives came in1861.  My great-grandfather may have been in the 116th Pennsylvania.  Lots of men with his name in Pennsylvania.

Kevin O'Beirne:  It's worth remembering that there were Irish regiments, and Irish companies in regiments, in the western theater of the Civil War as well.  I confess to not having researched them much, but I have little doubt that their Christmas experience was similar to those of the ones I've researched.

Gerry Regan:  Might can effect it, but does right sanction it?" http://thenewwildgeese.com/profiles/blogs/part-2-fr-peter-whelan-se...

David T. Gleeson:  Gerry, there are rumors that Sisters had Bishop Gartland dug up and reburied on their convent grounds on Liberty Street.

David T. Gleeson:  Very helpful folk and knowledgeable on all things military

Kevin O'Beirne:  In the west, Christmas '62 saw troops in TN marching to Stones River. In '63 was winter quarters but the Chattanooga campaign was just a month earlier. In winter '64 troops in TN were just done fighting the battle of Nashville while Sherman was in Savannah.

David T. Gleeson:  Cheers, Kevin. We leave out the Western theater too much!

Kevin O'Beirne:  David, it's of great interest to me, but to date largely from studying the campaigns and leaders, not so much the men.  Too much to learn, not enough time.  :-)

Kevin O'Beirne:  In '62 Grant's men were partly reeling from their repulse in MS overland campaign, and 30,000 others were on ships going to the battle of Chickasaw Bayou. In Christmas '63 some of Sherman's command were back in MS and the other half were at Chattanooga.

Christmas '61 most of Grant's command was at Cairo, Illinois and all "green.”

Capt BlackEagle:  I will admit that the thought of any holiday during war never really entered my brain. I lost a few during time of conflict. This has been interesting.

Gerry Regan:  The whole question of the Irish serving in the Confederacy is intriguing, David. We hope to explore that topic with you in here at The Wild Geese, as your time and energy allow.

Belinda Evangelista:  Any Books to recommend Kevin?

David T. Gleeson:  Larry McDaniel's “Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee” is great. (Confederate records not as good for the West, though.)

Kevin O'Beirne:  One of the best soldier memoirs I've ever read, period.  Plus he was Irish.  It was by a Protestant Irish immigrant in the 116th Pennsylvania, Irish Brigade.  He had a stuttering problem too.  But he was very literate and a great writer.

Capt BlackEagle:  My GGF was protestant, his home town was all Irish protestants.

Kevin O'Beirne:  Another great topic relative to Christmas is the subtopic of Catholic chaplains in the CW.  Few sources beat Fr. Corby's memoir, but there are others. I suspect that Corby and Fr. Paul Gillen (170th NY) were the two most durable Catholic chaplains of the CW.

The Wild Geese:  We'll go just a few more minutes this evening, folks.

Gerry Regan:  The whole notion of serving a government that propped up chattel slavery is shocking to modern sensibilities, certainly to mine.

Jean Sullivan Cardinal:  Agreed, Gerry

David T. Gleeson:  Gerry, sinn sceal eile!

Capt BlackEagle:  Many were conscripts.

Marcie Kelly:  Were there non catholic soldiers?

Kevin O'Beirne:  Marcie, sure. Probably a third of the men in Irish regiments (predominantly Irish) were non-Catholic.

Mark Connor:  Marcie, to be sure there were plenty.  My question is how many Catholics were CS?

Marcie Kelly:  Thank you.

Gerry Regan:  Just wanted to thank our sponsors, The Certificate of Irish Heritage, and their rep and fellow Wild Geese member Kay Woods.

Then we have Civil War News, one of our growing number of Media Partners. You can receive a free copy by going to www.CivilWarNews.com.

Finally, if you want to continue exploring the Irish experience during America's Civil War, please join us at The Wild Geese Blue, Gray Green group.

Kevin O'Beirne:  Among the most famous Irish soldiers of the American CW was CS General Pat Cleburne, who was non-Catholic.

David T. Gleeson:  Cool. Many thanks Kevin. Great stuff.

The Wild Geese:  We'll wrap it up for this evening, fellow Wild Geese. What a splendid chat. Huge thanks to Kevin O'Beirne and to all who participated in the discussion.

Capt BlackEagle:  Thanks, Wild Geese and Kevin.

Marcie Kelly:  Thank you Kevin.

Mark Connor:  Thank you.

Jean Sullivan Cardinal:  Thank you Kevin and Wild Geese ... this has been very interesting!

Gerry Regan:  Bravo, Kevin! And thank you, David, for your input and for expanding our focus here!

Belinda Evangelista:  Thank you all.  It was very interesting, Kevin.

Marcie Kelly:  Merry Christmas.

Gerry Regan:  Nollaig shona!

Mark Connor:  Nollaig Shona!

David T. Gleeson:  Thanks to everyone. First chat and enjoyed it very much. Learned a lot.  Merry Christmas.

The Wild Geese:  Oiche mhaith, gach duine, agus Nollaig shona!


Views: 705

Tags: American Civil War, Chats, Christmas, Diaspora History, Military History, United States

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on December 9, 2013 at 11:05am

Really enjoyed this discussion.  Thanks to Kevin and the sponsors (The Certificate of Irish Heritage, Civil War News, and The Blue, Gray and Green group).

Comment by Gerry Regan on December 10, 2013 at 11:02am

And special thanks to our friends at Civil War Trust, whose tireless work has saved 36,000 acres of America's Civil War battlefields, and more everyday. The Trust helps us place a spotlight for the work of our Blue, Gray and Green Group, and the Irish experience during America's Civil War.

Comment by William J. Donohue on December 15, 2013 at 1:00pm

I did enjoy the chat above. I wonder whether Kevin O'Beirne has any info on the two black members of the 155th.

Comment by William J. Donohue on December 15, 2013 at 1:02pm

Kevin, Do you know of any155th photos, letters, or diaries other than Tipping's? 

Comment by Gerry Regan on December 16, 2013 at 10:53am

Bill, connect with Kevin via his profile, and give him a friend request, as well.

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