Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day in the British Army

March 17, 1777 fell in the midst of a sober period for the British Army in America. Barely two months earlier, George Washington and the Continental Army unraveled British Commander-in-Chief Sir William Howe's occupation of the Jerseys through their victories at the Battles of 2nd Trenton and Princeton, and their re-location to Morristown. From this position, the Congressional forces could threaten all of the smaller British occupation posts with impunity, with none of these posts being sufficiently large to defend itself. As a result, Howe ordered the evacuation of the Jerseys, confining the British Army to a few ports, including New Brunswick and Perth Amboy, where a majority of soldiers were confined aboard transport ships. The redcoats spent most of their time between decks due to the foul weather, unable to either exercise or keep warm, due to the prohibition of fires on board and the slow delivery of the new clothing issue. As a result, the British Army suffered serious losses from disease, both in terms of the men who died and others who were incapacitated and unable to do duty.

By the beginning of March, British regiments were beginning to land some of their men back on shore to prepare for the spring fighting season, and a series of engagements that would come to be remembered as the Short Hills Campaign. On March 15th, Lieutenant John Peebles of the 42nd (or Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot's Grenadier Company recorded an expedition of 2,000 redcoats, comprising much of the army's elite flank troops, into the interior as far as Spank Town, where they met no resistance and withdrew. Peebles' diary, a published edition of which lies within the Library's collections, provides one of the more vivid accounts of the war, with an exceptionally detailed account of these early spring days in 1777.

The Lieutenant's diary entry for March 17th shows that, despite these preparations and maneuvers, the Army still had time to celebrate St. Patrick's Day:

Monday 17th. March usher'd in with St. Patricks day in the morng. at Reveilee beating, parade ashore at the usual hour, the Shamrogue mounted by the Hibernians, who dedicate the day to the Saint & the bottle or rather to St. for the sake of the bottle, we drank to his memory at dinner in the Cabin, but he was more amply sacrificed to between decks. (pg 103)

While noting the ethnic-specificity of the celebrations, Peebles' account nevertheless shows that, as in modern times, St. Patrick's Day is a holiday embraced by peoples of multiple national extractions. The shamrock was, it seems, as much in evidence then as now, while different classes of people chose to toast the saint in their own ways. So whether you are planning to attend an exclusive party tonight, as the British officers did that evening, or raising your glass to St. Patrick "between the decks" of your favorite pub (as the transport ship-confined redcoats would no doubt have preferred), you might take a moment to remember those who have come before you.

William P. Tatum III

John Peebles, John Peebles' American war : the diary of a Scottish grenadier, 1776-1782. Ira D. Gruber, ed. Mechanicsburg, PA : Stackpole Books, 1998. David Library of the American Revolution, Call Number 4727

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