Back Story of the Irish Brigade
In September 1861 Simon Cameron (March 8, 1799 – June 26, 1889), Secretary of War for 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865), authorized the formation of an infantry brigade, comprised of Irish immigrants, as a rear guard for the Army of the Potomac, the North’s main army in the American Civil War’s Eastern Theater (District of Columbia, Maryland, coastal North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia). The idea for the brigade came from Irish immigrant Thomas Francis Meagher (August 3, 1823 – July 1, 1867). Arriving in New York in May 1852, Thomas had escaped from the Van Diemen’s Land penal colony, where he had been serving a life sentence for participation in the Young Irelander Rebellion, a failed Irish nationalist incident occurring on July 29, 1848, near Ballingarry, South Tipperary, south east Ireland.
The Irish Brigade essentially comprised five regiments:
- the 63rd New York Infantry and the 69th New York Infantry, its two core regiments;
- the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, which replaced the non-Irish 29th Massachusetts Infantry on November 30, 1862; and
- the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry.
Effective February 3, 1862, Thomas was commissioned as brigadier general to lead the Irish Brigade.
Back Story of Edwin Forbes
During the War between the States (April 12, 1861 – May 10, 1865), American landscape painter and etcher Edwin Austin Forbes (1839 – March 6, 1895) served as special artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a weekly founded in 1852 by English-American engraver and publisher Frank Leslie (March 29, 1821 – January 10, 1880) and published until 1922. On March 17, 1863, Edwin captured the Irish Brigade’s well-attended celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in a series of pencil drawings.
St. Patrick’s Day, Stafford County, Northern Virginia: Tuesday, March 17, 1863
Preparatory to the festive event, the Irish Brigade:
- issued a general invitation to all officers of the Army of the Potomac to attend the rain-or-shine celebration at the Brigade’s winter quarters north of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the port town of Falmouth on the north bank of the Rappahannock River;
- marked out with flags a race-course which included a grandstand as well as ditches, hurdles, and two artificial 16-feet-wide rivers with a depth of 6 feet;
- procured banquet beverages and foods from Washington D.C.; and
- set up an entertainment area which included a platform for an Irish dance contest as well as two Sibley (conical) tents linked by a 10-yard-long canopy for refreshments.
On Monday, the evening before the celebration, great care was taken in selecting the two masters of ceremonies, whose immediate, important responsibility concerned the preparation of the punch. The honored positions fell to Captains John “Jack” Gosson and William H. Hogan, who reportedly displayed such diligence in tasting the punch as they sought to perfect the mixture that they had to be relieved from this exacting duty.
On a gloriously sunny Tuesday with the bluest skies, the Irish Brigade’s observance of St. Patrick’s feast day opened with religious ceremonies. The main venue for the day’s festivities was the drill field’s gently rolling terrain, set against a pastoral backdrop of hills, crested with oak or cedar, banking along the peaceful windings of the Rappahannock River.
At 10:50 a.m., the seating of Major-General Joseph Hooker (November 13, 1814 – October 31, 1879), commander-in-chief of the Army of the Potomac, and his entourage in the grandstand signaled the start of the day’s entertainment schedule. The commander led a trio of cheers for the day’s hosts, Brigadier General Meagher and his Irish Brigade, just prior to the first main event, a steeplechase with six competitors culled from a larger number of officers-only entrants. Apparently recovered from the previous evening’s punch revelry, Captain Gosson represented Brigadier General Meagher on the general’s grey horse, “Jack Hinton.” Captain Hogan, on the other hand, selected Lieutenant Patrick Ryder as rider for his bay horse, “Napper Tandy.” Captain Gosson’s equestrian skills secured first place for General Meagher in both heats.
Remunerative amusements for non-commissioned officers and privates included:
- one-half mile foot race, with first place prize of $7 ($129 in 2013);
- catching a soaped pig, awarded to its captor as prize;
- 500-hundred yard sack race, with first place prize of $5 ($92 in 2013).
The booming of cannons interrupted the sporting events. The troops arranged themselves in line as the long roll, signal of an enemy attack, sounded. Some time later, the order to stack arms (set weapons in a conical pile) ended the alarm. The cannonades had issued from Kelly’s Ford, an upriver crossing of the Rappahannock where the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry under Brigadier General William Woods Averell (November 5, 1832 – February 3, 1900) skirmished with the Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee (November 19, 1835 – April 28, 1905). Fortunately, the war’s brief reminder faded with the resumption of amusements.
The evening’s activities centered around poetry recitations and songs to entertain the Brigade and their guests as they feasted at a scrumptious banquet of:
- 35 hams,
- a side of roasted ox,
- a whole pig stuffed with boiled turkeys, and
- a plentiful array of chickens, ducks, and small game.
In addition to the infamous punch concocted by Captains Gosson and Hogan, eight baskets of champagne, 10 gallons of rum, and 22 gallons of whiskey served as liquid refreshments.
Lasting until late into the night, the celebration was well attended by an enthusiastic concourse estimated at 10,000 to 20,000. Lively, on-the-scene pencil drawings rendered by Edwin Forbes both captured, for his readers, and memorialized, for later generations, the enjoyment of the successful celebration honoring one of the world’s most beloved saints.
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13. Wylie, Paul R. The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher. Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.