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The Irrepressible Irish Brigade

Virginia Horse Racing

Wars are filled with days and nights of exhausting, exciting, dangerous encounters. But then there are also the long-term encampments—weeks or months when it seems absolutely nothing is happening. For hundreds of men in the Union’s Irish Brigade, Saint Patrick’s Day of 1863 was an occasion to make merry. They had had dirges enough already.

Only the year before, some of the new recruits had been worried that the war might end before they had a chance to meet the enemy in the field. These sons of Erin were true fighting Irish, and they were spoiling for a donnybrook. What they saw as they marched through the wasted Virginia countryside was sobering, though. The men were away fighting, and many of the slaves had sought refuge with the Federal troops as contraband. Spread before the Army of the Potomac were fields overgrown with brambles, lying unsown. At farmhouses, they met women and children thin with hunger. One soldier remarked that the scene reminded him terribly of famine days in the Old Country. Surely they could whip such an army.

Yet all the butter, beef and eggs in the world couldn’t make up for one foolish commanding officer. Union General Ambrose Burnside brought his troops to Fredericksburg in November of 1862. They were ready for action, but the general did nothing but wait on the other side of the river in Stafford County. He waited through November and into December. While he waited, Lee and his generals entrenched on the high ground, devising excellent fortifications.

Burnside’s generals knew what Lee was about, and they assumed that their army would continue to rest until spring and then try another crossing point. No one but a fool or a madman would make the approach on Lee’s forces thus fortified. But the orders came. First the troops crossed the river on pontoon boats. They made their way to the center of town, where they infamously looted houses and businesses. The next morning, before the battle, they were met in the street by undertakers. These enterprising and often prophetic gentlemen passed out business cards to their future clients, guaranteeing a quick shipment home.
The Battle of Fredericksburg was a massacre for the Irish Brigade. They went bravely into battle, playing the pipes, singing their songs and carrying their company banner—a flag marked with a bard’s harp on a green field. According to Paul Jones’ book, The Irish Brigade, out of the 1,300 men who went into battle, 545 were killed, wounded or missing, presumed dead. It was a bloody massacre for the Union all around, but even that defeat was not without its moment of solidarity between Irishmen, North and South.
The Federal forces had retreated across the Rappahannock when a wounded figure came out of the dark, bearing their tattered flag. It was an Irishman—a Confederate Irishman. He had braved the lines and the river to perform this bit of courtesy to his fellow Irish. He was invited to stay, but, no, he could not. His loyalties lay elsewhere. Quite arrangements were made and the gray-clad soldier was returned in due course to his unit.
The brigade was still across the river in the weeks leading up to Saint Patrick’s Day, and clearly they intended to stay there a while. Out on a nearby field, great preparations were underway. Construction crews were busy assembling…a racecourse. Not a fort or earthworks, but a racecourse so that “Saint Patrick’s Day in the army” could be celebrated in style.
All the trim and posh decorations that the troops could muster for such an important day were in place. They built a church so soldiers could hear a proper Saint Patrick’s Day mass said by a Jesuit priest. They laid out a regular racecourse and built a grandstand for important visitors. The course was something special. It was marked out by flags and ran for two and a half miles over gently rolling ground with “four hurdles four and a half feet high, and five ditch fences, including two artificial rivers fifteen feet wide and six deep; hurdles to be made of forest pine and braced with loops.”
It is estimated that between ten and twenty thousand people came to see the races, featuring “The Grand Irish Brigade Steeplechase,” run for a purse of $500. The Confederates were still just across the river, but that did not stop the brigade’s jubilation. Eight baskets of champagne, a green tub filled with whiskey punch and sandwiches made from a side of beef, thirty-five hams and a roast pig stuffed with boiled turkeys satisfied their appetites, and the race itself was hardly a disappointment.
First Colonel Van Schack and his lady went over the course in fine style. When the main contest was on, Captain Jack Gosson, a favorite of the brigade, rode General Meagher’s gray hunter Jack Hinton to win in race in straight heats. Afterward there were all the games and funning that might be expected at an Irish country fair: footraces, throwing weights, catching a slippery pig and a contest for the best Irish dancing. The celebrations went on into the night, and the memory of that Saint Patrick’s Day in the army was warmly held by the brigade and its friends.
--Excerpted from Virginia Horse Racing: Triumphs of the Turf, by Virginia C. Johnson and Barbara Crookshanks. Published by the History Press, 2008. All rights reserved. Available to check out at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. 
In addition, the CRRL has a good selection of histories of the Irish Brigade.