Saint Patrick’s Day: Recalling Irish Union Soldiers in the American Civil War

Union’s luck with the Irish 

By John E. Carey
The Washington Times
March 17, 2007

Why did Irish immigrants enlist in the Army of the Potomac in such large numbers? According to the man who raised and equipped the Irish Brigade, Thomas Francis Meagher, “Duty and patriotism alike prompt me to it. The Republic that is the mainstay of human freedom, the world over, that gave us asylum and an honorable career, is threatened.
    
“It is the duty of every liberty-loving citizen to prevent such a calamity at all hazards. Above all it is the duty of us Irish citizens, who aspire to establish a similar form of government in our native land,” Meagher said.
    
The Irishmen carried green flags into battle alongside the Stars and Stripes. The distinctive flags were adorned with the harp of Erin embroidered in gold, “with a sunburst above it and a wreath of shamrock below. Underneath, on a crimson scroll, in Irish characters, was the motto, ‘They shall never retreat from the charges of lances.’ “
    
In Indiana, a French priest named Edward Sorin felt very much like Meagher.
    
Sorin, first president of the University of Notre Dame, recognized the importance of helping the Union cause and knew the Irish could choose to support the Union or suffer the blame of not contributing. He went first to one of his favorites, his protege, the Rev. William Corby. He urged Corby and then all his Irish clergymen to minister to the men under arms and to serve the Irish Brigade in particular.
    
Corby and six other priests of the Holy Cross order, a third of the order’s members in the United States, eventually joined up, but Corby was the first Catholic priest with the Army of the Potomac. He chose to serve the Irish Brigade but extended his ministry to the entire Army because of the paucity of serving clergy, especially among Catholics, in the early stages of the war.
    
Corby and other chaplains at the start of the war received no pay and held no rank. Later, Washington recognized the importance of chaplains and offered each an officer’s commission and pay.
    
The nuns from the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College community also went to war. The nuns became nurses in the Western theater, and some helped staff the first Navy hospital ship, the USS Red Rover, a specially configured medical ship operating in the Mississippi River and Western theater.
    
At the Mound City, Ill., military hospital, Dr. John Brinton called most female volunteers “terrible, irritable and unhappy.” The work was tough, disgusting and fatiguing. Brinton heard about the Catholic nuns and asked if any could assist him.
    
“In answer to my request to the Catholic authorities of South Bend, Indiana, a number of sisters were sent down to act as nurses in the hospital. Those sent were from a teaching and not a nursing order, but in a short time they adapted themselves admirably to their new duties,” Brinton said.
    
The Irish Brigade — and all Irish on both sides during the Civil War — earned reputations as fighters.
    
They also earned reputations as drinkers.

St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish Brigade was the stuff of military legend.
    
Meagher made St. Patrick’s Day an event talked about by the entire Army of the Potomac. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, when commanding the Army of the Potomac, was the honored guest at one celebration. Festivities began on the eve of the holiday, with the night of March 16 devoted to music and song.
    
At dawn on March 17, according to Meagher’s biographer, Michael Cavanagh, preparations were made for Roman Catholic Mass. “A new and elegant vestment had been purchased by the men for their beloved chaplain, Rev. William Corby,” he wrote.
    
After Mass, the brigade challenged units of the Army of the Potomac to athletic contests, followed by food and drink.
    
The teetotaling provost marshal of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. Marsena Patrick, wrote on that St. Patrick’s Day, “In accordance with a Special request from Hooker, I agreed to go over & witness some of the festivities at the Head Quarters of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. We brought up in the midst of a grand steeple chase, from which the crowd soon adjourned to drink punch at Meagher’s Head Quarters — Everybody got tight & I found it was no place for me — so I came home.”
    
St. Patrick’s Day, always a highly celebrated Civil War day of revelry, remains a special day for Irishmen the world over.
    
    John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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