The 69th New York Irish Brigade
Regimental Colours by Rick
Reeves, 1994. Courtesy
Collector, Historical Prints.
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