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Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas

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Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

The Irish in America's Civil War:
Blue-Grey Christmas
by Kevin E. O'Brien, Irish Eyes, Jan 1995, Pg 5

Blue-Grey Christmas

69th NY Irish Brigade Regiment colors The 69th New York Irish Brigade Regimental Colours by Rick Reeves, 1994. Courtesy Collector, Historical Prints. Tampa Florida The Union Army's Irish Brigade camped on a high,dry hill about three miles from Alexandria, Virginia, during the winter of 1861. On Christmas Eve, the sound of a bugle rang clearly and musically on night air. The men of the brigade grouped around immense pine fires that glowed and flamed. The Irishmen sang, joked, laughed, and freely passed around canteens filled with whiskey. Near one of the huge fires, a kind of arbor was constructed from tree branches, which were interwoven to form walls. Inside, soldiers seated on logs listened to sweet music from the violin of Johnny O'Flaherty. Johnny came from Boston and was a musical genius. Although only fourteen, he could play the bagpipes, the fiddle, piano, and many other instruments. Beside him sat his father, fingering the chanters of the bagpipe in elegant style. The crowd of soldiers in the arbor turned silent as thoughts turned toward home and loved ones both in America and Ireland. "Arrah, Johnny O'Flaherty, sthop that fiddle and take a drink," slurred a wiry red-haired man with a strong Kerry accent. "Do, Johnny," said his father, who had already taken a long pull at the canteen himself, now offering it to his son. "It is well to keep up our spirits by pouring spirits down, for sure there's no knowing where we'll be this night twelve months from now," exclaimed another of the group, as he comforted himself from his canteen with a sigh. 'True for you, Bill Dooley," said another Irishman. "Shure myself thinks that our rations will be mighty short again before another Christmas comes around." "Well boys, we won't disgrace poor old Ireland, anyway," commented still another soldier. "Bravo, Flannigan, bravo! You said the truth in that," interjected a private. "Bad luck to Jeff Davis," moaned a love-sick youth. "But for him, we'd be at home, comfortable and happy, with the girls, this blessed Christmas Eve!" At midnight, Father Ouellet, the French-Canadian chaplain of the 69th New York, and Father Dillon, chaplain of the 63rd New York, celebrated Mass. Rude benches of hewed logs sat in front of the open tent in which the priests chanted. The chapel was so crowded with officers and men that many were forced to kneel outside in the clear, cool starlight. Quarter-master Haverty and Captain O'SulIivan served as alter boys while a choir of soldiers sang Adeste Fideles. The weather on Christmas day was mild, and morning Mass was celebrated in the open air to accommodate the huge crowd of worshippers. Two soldiers were baptized at the service. Officers and men returned to their quarters and passed a pleasant Christmas Day in camp. Hospitality tents were crowded, since whiskey for punch had been somehow provided, Soldiers toasted old friends and old flames at home, smoked pipes, and visited the camps of other regiments. The 69th New York went on patrol before the day ended. - - - - - The 10th Tennessee, a Confederate regiment primarily composed of Irish-Catholic soldiers, spent Christmas Eve at Fort Henry on the Tennessee-Kentucky border in 1861. Nicknamed the Sons of Erin, the officers and men of the 10th Tennessee carried a green battle flag with a gold harp in the center, a banner remarkably similar to the Union Irish Brigade flag. The regiment was exhausted after building fortifications for months. Lt Colonel Randal W McGavock arranged with some Kentucky bootleggers to secure a generous amount of local moonshine, the only sort of whiskey available. Four heavily armed Sons of Erin rode shotgun on the supply wagon loaded with moonshine. When the wagon arrived in camp, it was found to be loaded with all kinds of Christmas cheer in addition to the whiskey: hams, turkeys, geese, ducks, cans of sardines, crackers in wooden boxes, and a variety of coats, shoes, hats, and blankets. On Christmas morning, Father Henry Vincent Browne, the Dominican chaplain, celebrated Mass. Browne was a New Yorker who had converted both to Catholicism and the Confederacy. Protestant chaplains provided other Christian services in the fort. A surprising number of Mississippi Baptists attended Mass with the Sons of Erin. During the day, food and whiskey were shared as long as they lasted. Drummer boy Danny McCarthy received a pair of shoes. These were the first new shoes he had ever owned, since he sent his $15 per month pay back home to his widowed mother. The Christmas spirit was so strong at Fort Henry that not even the fighting Fitzgeralds started a brawl. Around a campfire in the evening, Captain John G.O'Neill, an Irish immigrant, led a hastily organized choir. Danny McCarthy danced jigs, Mike Carney accompanied on the harmonica, and Lieutenant Lafayette McConnico was a sensation as a soloist. What the choir lacked in harmony was made up in volume. Morley O'Shea, Pat Walsh, Marty Maloney, and Danny O'Sullivan sang hymns and carols. The Sons of Erin celebrated Christmas in grand style. For further reading, O'Brien recommends The Irish Brigade by Captain D.P. Conyngham and Rebel Sons of Erin by Ed Gleeson. Both are available from the Irish Brigade Gift Shop at Gettysburg, PA.