For hundreds of years Irish soldiers have sought their destiny abroad. Wherever they travelled, whichever side of the battlefield they have stood, the tales of their exploits have never been forgotten.
For many Irish soldiers abroad, Christmas was a difficult time. Far from home and often in harsh conditions, many Wild Geese have spent Christmas fighting for causes close to their hearts.
During the first year of the American Civil War, the brutality of battle quickly became commonplace. But for the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, a bleak Christmas was not acceptable, even on the battlefield.
The Brigade was made up of mostly Irish Americans, who were familiar with the Christmas traditions of Ireland: time with family and friends, gift giving and feasting. It was lead by Brigadier-General Michael Corcoran, an ancestor of Patrick Sarsfield. And like his ancestor, Corcoran was determined to bring a sense of camaraderie and resourcefulness to the battlefield, especially during Christmas.
To contrast the misery of battle, the Irish Brigade transformed their camp into a winter wonderland. On Christmas Eve the drill was suspended so that the troops could decorate the camp. Soldiers from neighbouring camps visited to appreciate the resourcefulness of the Irish Brigade and enjoy some Christmas spirit. One eyewitnesses recorded:
‘All the men were working like so many beavers decorating the camp with evergreens. There were arches of evergreens, some as high as thirty feet and stars made out of the time-honoured holly’
Another stated: ‘Without any exaggeration I believe such a camp and such a fairytale-like scene were never seen before and may never be again’
The soldiers gathered at midnight to think of family and friends. They sang songs and General Corcoran offered his staff and guests a glass of Irish whiskey each.
The following morning brought with it a glorious day. The soldiers sang more carols and played games. Officers from four Navy ships moored nearby were invited to join in the festivities and the evening brought with it a large meal, followed by General Corcoran toasting to the Irish Brigade. Like many Wild Geese before them, the Irish Brigade had brought optimism to an adverse situation.
The Civil War, however, was on the horizon. A month later the Irish Brigade were in the midst of battle. Many of them, including General Corcoran, would not see another Christmas, but the celebrations of 1862 will be remembered as one where the generosity, determination and resourcefulness of Wild Geese shone through. It was a Christmas like no other.