Armies celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

One hundred fifty years ago this week in the Civil War, it was a relatively quiet time. Most military units were still in winter quarters, and all major military movements were still postponed.

Union Gen. George Meade and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee were marking time in Virginia, and the Confederate populace living in the corridor from Chattanooga to Atlanta knew that a major Union assault was headed its way. The only question was when.

While his troops were quartered for the winter in Louden, Tenn., Trumbull County’s esteemed Col. Emerson Opdycke, commander of the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, aka, The Yankee Tigers, spent the months of February and March in Warren and northeastern Ohio to visit with his wife, Lucy, and son, Leonard, whom he affectionately called Tine. It was his first visit home in more than a year since the Tigers left Ohio for combat assignment.

During his furlough, the grateful citizens of Warren gave Opdycke a reception and a gold watch and chain in recognition of his service to the Union and Ohio.

On March 17, 1864, the famed Irish Brigade celebrated in usual fashion St. Patrick’s Day, with Mass, steeplechase and sack races. But it was not the equal of the event of the previous year when 20,000 people attended its St. Patrick’s celebration in Falmouth, Va., including the commander of the Army of the Potomac at the time, Gen. Joseph Hooker.

But 1864 would be its last celebration. By this time, the ranks of the brigade had been drastically thinned.

The Irish Brigade, which originally comprised the new York 69th, 63rd and 88th, 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania, suffered the third-most losses of any brigade in the Union ranks, only behind the 1st Vermont and the vaunted Iron Brigade.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg, for example, in December of 1862, the Irish Brigade went into the battle with 1,600 troops and emerged with only 256. It had been part of the forces assigned to follow Ambrose Burnside’s ill-fated command to storm Marye’s Heights.

By July of 1864, the Irish Brigade was reduced to regimental size and was consequently disbanded by the U.S. Army, its remaining troops dispersed to other units.

Another notable event occurred on St. Patrick’s Day 1864. Newly appointed Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, conferring with Gen. William T. Sherman at Nashville, Tenn., formally assumed command of the armies of the United States and announced that “headquarters will be in the field and, until further orders, will be with the Army of the Potomac.”

Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on the Ohio River in 1822. (His father once owned a tanning business in Ravenna until 1820.)

On March 9, 1864, President Lincoln had handed Grant in front of the Cabinet his (Grant’s) official commission as lieutenant general, tasking him with the job of leading all Union troops against the Confederate Army.

Grant was given official authority the next day to take command of the Armies of the United States. However, he was not in Washington to receive the order. Therefore, he did not officially execute the order until St. Patrick’s Day.

The rank of lieutenant general had not officially been used since 1798. At that time, President John Adams assigned the post to former President George Washington in anticipation of a possible French invasion of the United States. (Of course, the invasion never happened.) Use of the rank had been suspended after Washington’s death in 1799. (Winfield Scott held the rank temporarily in brevet in 1856.)

On March 18, 1864, another Buckeye, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman of Lancaster, was appointed to assume command of Grant’s old post, the Military Division of the Mississippi. He was tasked in that position to start a spring offensive that would ultimately result in the capture of the important Confederate industrial and rail center, Atlanta.

But accomplishing the objective was far from easy. Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston, a brilliant defensive strategist, put up stiff resistance for months.(Certainly, that campaign gave Margaret Mitchell plenty to write about.)

Also on the 18th the Sanitary Commission Fair in Washington, D.C., came to a close. President Lincoln made a statement at the conclusion of the event that certainly applied in spades to the ladies on the home front in Trumbull County: “…if all that has been said by orators and poets since the creation of the world in praise of woman applied to the women of America, it would not do them justice for their conduct during this war.”

Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren’s Sutliff Museum.