My celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, despite my Irish roots, was simply to wear a bit of green. During the American Civil War, the Union soldiers from the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac had much bigger plans. Sketch artist Edwin Forbes was there to capture the action on March 17, 1863 as Brig. Gen. Meagher’s troops celebrated the holiday. (Among the events: climbing a greased pole, a sack race, and a race for a greased pig, where the prize was the pig itself!) I will let Forbes himself set the stage:
“The weather was all that could be wished – a fine warm sun shining on the rolling hills, dotted with camps, presented a most beautiful and picturesque scene. [...] The scene at the commencement of the races was very animated, the thousands of gay horsemen dashing about, spattering the mud in all direction, the spectators on foot in crowds around the grand stand (where an excellent band was discoursing music) and near the hurdles and ditches (where the fun was expected in seeing an unlucky horseman or two tumble into the mud), continued to make a night worth a long journey to witness.” (“St. Patrick’s Day in the Camp – Games on the Rappahannock,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 April 1863: 75.)
The story of the steeplechase is there in the details of Forbes’ pencil sketch of the big race. He labels the ditches and hurdles the riders will face, as well as the grand stand, in the detail below. His horses seem to fly over a jump while the crowd cheers them on:
He even points out a few riders who might be taking a shortcut, with the handwritten note ‘horsemen cutting across the field’ in the center section of the sketch!
Wood engravings based on Forbes’s sketches were published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on April 25, 1863, accompanied by his lively commentary. His parting words in the article reminded the reader that while soldiers and spectators enjoyed the celebration of the holiday, more serious matters were afoot. When the winner of the mule race, which Forbes said created “an immense deal of amusement” was being argued, Forbes reported the “dispute was ended very summarily by the reports of very heavy cannonading on the right. All spectators were ordered to their regiments and the long roll was beaten, thus putting an end to the sport for the day.”
- Enjoy all the sketches by Forbes of St. Patrick’s Day 1863 in the Documentary Drawings collection in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- Explore the hundreds of sketches and paintings created by Edwin Forbes during the American Civil War in the Prints and Photographs Division.
- Explore other resources at the Library of Congress related to St. Patrick’s Day.
Sources & Bibliography:
- Macnamara, Daniel G. The History of the Ninth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, June 1861 – June 1864. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.
- “St. Patrick’s Day in the Camp – Games on the Rappahannock.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 25 April 1863: 75.
- “The Irish Brigade, Gen. T.F. Meagher, Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Camp at Falmouth, Va. — Sketched by our Special Artist.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 25 April 1863: 76.