Christmas 1861
From"The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns" by David Power Conyngham 


Near one of the huge fires a kind of arbour was nicely constructed of the branches of trees, which were so interwoven on one another as to form a kind of wall. Inside this, some were seated on logs, some reclining in true Turkish style.
 Seated near the fire was Johnny Flaherty, discoursing sweet music from his violin. Johnny hailed from Boston; was a musical genins, in his way, and though only fourteen years of age, could play on the bagpipes, piano, and Heaven knows how many other instruments: beside him sat his father, fingering the chanters of a bagpipe in elegant style. It is no wonder that most of the regiment were gathered around there, for it was Christmas eve, and home-thoughts and home-longings were crowding on them; and old scenes and fancies would arise with sad and loving memories, until the heart grew weary, and even the truest and tenderest longed for home associations this blessed Christmas Eve.
 No wonder if, amidst such scenes, the soldier's thought fled back to his home, to his loved wife, to the kisses of his darling child, to the fond Christmas greeting of his parents, brothers, sisters, friends, until his eyes were dimmed with the dews of the heart. The exile feels a longing desire, particularly at Christmas times, for the pleasant, genial firesides and loving hearts of home. How many of that group will, ere another Christmas comes round, sleep in a bloody and nameless grave! Generous and kind hands may smooth the dying soldier's couch; or he may linger for days, tortured by thirst and pain, his festering wounds creeping with maggots, his tongue swollen, and a fierce fever festering up his body as he lies out on that dreary battlefield; or, perhaps, he has dragged himself beneath the shade of some pine to die by inches, where no eye but God's and his pitying angels' shall see him, where no human aid can succour him. Years afterwards some wayfarer may discover a skeleton with the remains of a knapsack under the skull. This is too often the end of the soldier's dreams of glory, and all"The pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war."
 It is but a short transition from love, and hope, and life, to sorrow and death.Another Christmas, and many a New England cottage, and many a home along the Rhine and the Shannon, will be steeped in affliction for the loving friends who have laid their bones on the. battle-fields of Virginia.
If any indulged in such reflections;, the lively tones of Johnny O'Flaherty's fiddle, and the noisy squeaks of his father's bagpipes, soon called forth the joyous, frolicsome nature of the Celt.
Groups were dancing around the fire, jigs, reels, and doubles.
Even the coloured servants had collected in a little group by themselves, and while some timed the music by slapping their hands on their knees, others were capering and whirling around in the most grotesque manner, showing their white teeth, as they grinned their delight, or "yah-yahed" at the boisterous fun.
 The dance is enlivened by laugh, song, story, and music ; and the canteen, filled with wretched "commissary," goes freely around, for the men wish to observe Christmas times right freely.
"Arrah musha, Johnny O'Flaherty, sthop that fiddle and take a drink, alanna," said a wiry, red haired man, with a strong Kerry accent. "Do, Johnny," said the father, who had taken a long pull at the canteen himself, and now proffered it to his son.
"It is as well to keep up our spirits by pouring spirits down, for sure there's no knowing where we'll be this night twelvemonth," exclaimed another of the group, as with a sigh he comforted himself from his canteen.
"Thrue for you, Billy Doolcy; shure myself thinks that our rations will be mighty short again another Christmas comes round," said a little cynic, who was pulling very hard at a dudeen.
"Begor then, Jem, maybe they would be long enough for us."
"Well, boys, long or short, we won't disgrace the poor ould dart, any way."
"Bravo, Flannigan, bravo! you said the truth in that."
"Bad scran if I can see what the ould dart (Ireland) has to do with it at all, at all," replied the cynic, as he knocked the ashes out of his pipe against the log.
"Oh, dear me! do you hear that? and would you disgrace it?" exclaimed an indignant patriot.
"And shure won't they be lookin' at us at home, to see how we'll fight?" said another.
"An' I'd rather be in my grave, any day, than have it said that I was a coward," said a young fellow, slapping his hand forcibly on his thigh.
"Well, that's all very fine," said the cynic, who, seeing the force of evidence was against him, was fain to recant; "but, boys, if we were fighting for the poor ould dart, wouldn't it be glorious?"
"Bad luck to you, Jeff Davis, any way; only for you we'd be at home comfortable and happy, with the girls, this blessed Christmas Eve!" exclaimed a lovesick youth.
How often in the lull of battle have I heard the Irish soldier, begrimed with powder, as he grasped his comrades' hands, exclaim, "What harm, if it were for the poor old dart?"
How is it that the Government of England is blind to the ruin that a people so numerous and powerful in foreign countries, and hating her so intensely, is sure to bring on her in her hour of trouble?
It might be politic to try conciliation, instead of coercion, on such a people.
 The dance was followed by songs; and those soft impassioned Irish airs, "The girl I left behind me," and "Home, Sweet Home," flowed sweetly and softly from hearts that felt their full force; but as the strong political songs of "The Rapparee," and "The Green above the Red," and "Fontenoy," were chorused by a hundred throats, -that dark group of soldiers, scattered around the fire, looked as if ready to grasp their muskets and rush on some hidden foe.
 These innocent and exciting revels continued until the tinkle of a small bell from a rustic chapel suddenly hushed the boisterous mirth, and all arose, reverentially doffed their hats, and proceeded to the chapel.
Fathers Willett and Dillon were going to celebrate the midnight Mass. The chapel tents were as well decorated as circumstances would allow. In front of the open tent in which the priest officiated were rude benches of hewn logs, sheltered on each side and overhead by boughs of trees, supported by poles.
 The chapel was situated on the brow of a hill, and tall cedars and pines flung their sheltering arms over it.
Father Dillon was chanting a Low Mass, the responses being made by Quartermaster Haverty and Captain O'Sullivan, while the attentive audience crowded the small chapel, and were kneeling outside ou the damp ground under the cold night-air.
 Father Dillon read the beautiful gospel from St Luke, giving an account of the journeyings of Joseph and Mary, and the birth of the infant Saviour in the manger at Bethlehem; after which his hearers quietly retired The weather in camp was fine, almost resembling an Indian summer. A slight frost at night and a shower of soft snow were the only indications of winter.
 In Virginia, the weather at this season is generally mild and balmy, with little of the heavy frost and angry storms that rage at the North.
Such was Christmas morning, 1861, in the camp of the Irish Brigade, where willing hearts piously welcomed this holy festival, laden with the richest freight of happy recollections.
The morning Mass was celebrated in the open air, in order to accommodate the thronging worshippers.
 On that hill-side, overlooking the tented valleys, the surpliced clergyman, the attentive congregation, the rude and picturesque chapel, were a rich subject for the pencil of the painter.
Then officers and men returned to their quarters, and tried to pass Christmas day in camp as pleasantly as possible. Hospitable tents were crowded, the " materials " were somehow provided, old friends and old flames at home were toasted, pipes were smoked, conversation became brilliant, and Christmas night was duly honoured in camp
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Comment by Wes Merchant on December 11, 2011 at 19:31
I've been playing occasionally at at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine near here in Frederick. I printed this out to take with me last night for a Christmas program. I did find a John O'Flaherty listed as a fifer in the New York 63rd which was attached to Meagher's Brigade. He's listed as Musician when he was discharged so presumably he survived.

Comment by Connie Rae Crone on December 10, 2011 at 20:47
Thanks Wes, I liked this a lot; hits close to home.

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