The First St. Patrick’s Day of the War
March 17, 1862 marked both the first St. Patrick’s Day of the war and the start of Union General George McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign in Virginia. In the North and South, large numbers of Irishmen had taken up arms, and the war cast a cloud over the traditional national celebration of the Hibernians.
In the late 1840s and early 1850s, many Irish emigrated to America in the wake of political oppression and the failure of the potato crop. The Great Hunger, as the Irish called it, caused an estimated million
deaths, massive out-emigration, and, in July 1848, an unsuccessful rebellion against British rule. Some leaders of the rebellion, like John O’Mahony from Carrick on Suir, County Tipperary, avoided capture and escaped abroad. Others, including Thomas Francis Meagher, originally sentenced to death for treason, were instead transported to penal colonies for life. But Irish nationalists in the United States rescued Meagher and several other Irish leaders from Australia and brought them to America, where some would play lead roles in the Civil War and the Fenian movement.
Meagher was famous for his flowery oration, and came to be called “Meagher of the Sword” for urging armed rebellion against British rule despite his lack of any military experience.
“Be it in the defense, or be it in the assertion of a people’s liberty,” Meagher exclaimed, “I hail the sword as a sacred weapon; . . . like the anointed rod of the High Priest, it has . . . [at times and often] blossomed into celestial flowers to deck the freeman’s brow. Abhor the sword — stigmatize the sword? No!”
In the days before the Civil War some Irish nationalists in America sought to acquire the military skills that they had lacked in their failed rebellion. Many joined state militias. In 1858, O’Mahony formed the Fenian Brotherhood, which was openly headquartered in New York City, to cooperate with a secret Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland. In larger Irish communities, militia companies named after Irish heroes and revolutionary martyrs coalesced into entire regiments of Irish. In New York, regiments were formed before the war into a brigade under the command of the Fenian Brotherhood, outside the official state militia organization. Communities with smaller Irish populations formed units as well. For example, in Burlington, Vermont, John Lonergan, who had been O’Mahony’s neighbor back in Tipperary, organized the Emmet Guards militia company.
Then came the Civil War, which pushed aside the nationalist goals of some Irish in America and split the Fenian movement. Irish units took the field from New York, Pennsylvania, and other Northern states while similar Southern regiments formed in Louisiana, Georgia, and elsewhere.
After serving as a company commander in the 69th New York — the famous “Fighting Sixty-ninth” — at the Battle of Bull Run, Meagher proposed raising a full brigade of Irish regiments. In November and December 1861, three New York infantry regiments — the 63rd, 69th, and 88th — were sent to northern Virginia, each unit carrying the green Fenian flag, which featured a sunburst and uncrowned harp to signify freedom from British rule. On February 11, 1862, Meagher, by then a brigadier general, took command of the brigade, which soon grew to five regiments.
On March 15, 1862 Meagher read to his men General McClellan’s orders for the Army of the Potomac to advance, which “evoked the wildest enthusiasm.” From its bivouac near Union Mills, Virginia, the brigade was ordered to Alexandria for transportation by ship to Fortress Monroe, southeast of Richmond at the tip of the Virginia peninsula. Two days later — on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day — the Irish Brigade crossed Bull Run creek on its way to both military glory and destruction as one of the most famous units of the Civil War.
– Submitted by William McKone, Jeffersonville, Vermont
Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, Michael Cavanagh, Worcester, MA, The Messenger Press, 1892
The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World, Thomas Keneally, New York, Anchor Books, 2000
The History of the Irish Brigade: A Collection of Historical Essays, edited by Pia Seija Seagrave, Fredericksburg, VA, Sergeant Kirkland’s Museum and Historical Society, Inc., 1997
Vermont’s Irish Rebel: Captain John Lonergan — Civil War Hero, William L. McKone, Jeffersonville, VT, the Brewster River Press, 2010