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The Celebrations of March

John Allen Miller

March usually brings thoughts of warmer weather, sunnier days as day light is gained, and also Spring.  However, March also has religious holidays that are celebrated all over the world from Mardi Gras to Saint Patrick's Day.  March is the second most religious month next to December.  My wife Alicia wrote an article for her companies newsletter and after I read her article  I then asked why Mardi Gras and not St. Patrick's Day.  My wife told me not to many people know the history of Mardi Gras, however, St. Patrick's Day is commonly celebrated amongst most of the residents. 

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday and is literally translated from the French meaning “Fat Tuesday.” It is also known as Shrove Tuesday, Fastnachtsdienstag (Faschingsdienstag) in Germany and locally, Kinkling Day. It is a day when people eat all they want of everything and anything they want as the following day is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a long fasting period for Christians. The Mardi Gras celebration ends abruptly at midnight on Tuesday. The actual date can fall between February 3 and March 9 depending on the Lunar calendar, used by the Catholic Church to determine the date of Easter. Mardi Gras is always 47 days before Easter Sunday.

The history of Mardi Gras began long before Europeans set foot in the New World. In mid February the ancient Romans celebrated the Lupercalia, a circus-like festival. Mardi Gras came to America in 1699 with the French explorer, Iberville, and had been celebrated in Paris since the Middle Ages. Iberville sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, where he launched an expedition up the Mississippi River. On March 3, 1699, the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France, Iberville had set up a camp on the west bank of the river about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. In honor of this important day, Iberville named the site Point du Mardi Gras. Iberville’s voyage up the Mississippi brought the tradition of Mardi Gras to America.

During the late 1700’s, masked balls and festivals were common in New Orleans while it was under French rule. When the Spanish government took control the custom was banned. In 1803 New Orleans came under the US flag and the prohibition against masked festivals continued until 1823 when the Creole populace convinced the governor to permit masked balls. In 1827 street masking was again legalized.

During the early 1800’s public celebrations of Mardi Gras centered around maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. The first documented parade occurred in 1837. Unfortunately, Mardi Gras gained a negative reputation because of violent behavior attributed to “maskers” during the 1840’s and 50’s. The situation became so bad that the press began calling for an end to the celebration. In 1857 six New Orleaneans saved Mardi Gras by forming the Comus organization. They added beauty to Mardi Gras and demonstrated that it could be a safe and festive event. Comus was the first organization to use the term “krewe” to describe itself. They also started the customs of having a secret Carnival society, having a parade with a unifying theme with floats, and having a ball after the parade. The celebration of Mardi Gras was interrupted by the Civil War, but in 1866, to everyone’s pleasure it returned.

In 1871 the Twelfth Night Revelers began the custom of presenting a young woman with a golden bean hidden in a cake. This young woman was the first queen of Mardi Gras. This was also the origin of the king cake tradition. In 1872 Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff of Russia visited New Orleans. This year the krewe of Rex made their debut and began the tradition of the “King of Carnival.” Rex also introduced purple, gold and green as the official colors of Mardi Gras. Purple represents justice, green stands for faith and gold signifies power. During this time “If Ever I Cease To Love” became the Mardi Gras anthem and it was the first year that there was a daytime parade. Mardi Gras was cancelled in 1918 and 1919 when the US was involved in the First World War. The celebration struggled through the 1920’s and early 30’s, which saw Prohibition and The Great Depression. With the rise of mass produced automobiles, random truck riders had become a part of the parade fun. The celebration was once again cancelled in the 1940’s for the Second World War. By 1950 Mardi Gras was prospering once again with the appearance of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The Fifties also saw the replacement of mule drawn floats with ones drawn by tractors. The 1960’s saw bigger changes to Mardi Gras with the appearance of bigger floats and Hollywood celebrities. The Seventies brought a ban on parading in the French Quarter, ending a 117 year tradition. Mardi Gras also made national headlines at the close of the decade with a police strike which cancelled 13 parades in Orleans Parish.

St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick's Day came to America in Boston around 1737. This was the first year St. Patrick's Day was publicly celebrated in this country.  Every year since then during the month of March millions of people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.  In Emmitsburg, every local pub has their celebration parties in honor of this special day.  I myself will be joining the fun that night.  I am very proud of my family’s European heritage as my ancestral roots go back to Ireland, Whales, Switzerland, and Germany. 

This is the time of the year that many pubs and taverns play traditional Irish music for the people to enjoy.  The Irish music is full of history surrounding their fight for freedom, British Laws, love, and also drinking.  Many songs to Americans sound almost like Blue grass mixed with folk, and comedy.   My family and I are big fans of Irish music.  But where did this holiday originate and how did the Irish begin celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day and how did their heritage begin in America?

The story of the Saint Patrick’s Day starts in the late 300’s A.D. Saint Patrick was a patron saint of Ireland, who was born in Wales around 385 AD.  His real name was Maewyn. At the age of 16, he considered himself a pagan.  He was eventually sold into slavery by a group of Irish marauders that raided his village.  So how did he become a saint?

During his custody, he became closer to God. Six years after his capture he escaped and went to Gaul where he studied in the monastery under St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre for a period of twelve years.  During his instruction he became aware that his mission was to convert the pagans to Christianity as his wishes were to return to Ireland.  Asking for permission to go to Ireland as a bishop was denied because he lacked the required scholarship.  His superiors appointed St. Palladius as the leading bishop to go to Ireland.  Two years later, Palladius transferred to Scotland and Patrick, having adopted a Christian name earlier, was then appointed as second bishop to Ireland.

While Patrick was successful he was also arrested several times by local Celtic Druids.  Patrick always managed to escape.  He traveled throughout Ireland establishing monasteries across the country.  Schools and churches were also set up by Patrick and would aid him in his conversion of the Irish country to Christianity.

Patrick’s mission in Ireland lasted for thirty years.  Patrick retired to County Down where he died on March 17 in AD 461. This date has every since became known as Saint Patrick’s Day. 

The beginnings of Saint Patrick’s Day was based upon tradition and Folklore that was passed down from generation to generation about St. Patrick himself. These folklore stories about the belief that St. Patrick raised people from the dead, and the belief that he gave a sermon from a hilltop, which drove all the snakes from Ireland.  In reality Saint Patrick’s Day was a holy day to the Catholic religion.  

Many traditional symbols came from the forming of the modern St. Patrick’s Day, as we know.  Many Symbols such as: the pot gold, the shamrock, the Celtic cross, the Harp of Erin, green beer, and the wearing of green.  The story of the shamrock holds a special meaning to most Irish traditions on the belief that St. Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity.  Patrick used the Shamrock in his sermons to represent how the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit could all exist as separate elements of the same entity. His followers embraced the custom of wearing a shamrock on his feast day. 

The traditions and symbols of the Irish heritage in America began mainly with the Mexican War and are still in use today.  One of the sadist stories evolving the use of the name St. Patrick dates back to the Mexican and American War of 1846-48. The San Patricios served under a distinctive military banner.  John Riley the commander of the San Patricios gave a description of their flag “emerald green ensign had an image of Saint Patrick emblazoned on one side, with a shamrock and the harp Erin outlined on the other.  An U.S. soldier commented of the San Patricio's standard: "As a beautiful green silk banner waved over their heads; on it glittered a silver cross and a golden harp, embroidered by the hands of the fair nuns of San Luis Potosí."

A wartime newspaper correspondent from New Orleans described the San Patricio flag that was captured at the battle of Churubusco: The banner is of green silk, and on one side is a harp, surmounted by the Mexican coat of arms, with a scroll on which is painted, 'Libertad para la República Mexicana.'  Underneath the harp is the motto 'Erin go Bragh' (Ireland for Ever).  On the other side is painting made to represent St. Patrick, in his left hand a key and in his right a crook or staff resting upon a serpent.  Underneath is painted San Patricio."

What was the San Patricios and how were they connected to America?  The St. Patrick Battalion was a unique unit of the Mexican Army during the Mexican-American War.  The story of the San Patricios is a tragedy, leaving many critics say these were heroic men, while many others say they were just deserters.  What made this outfit exceptional was that it was composed almost entirely of deserters from the United States Army who, after defecting, fought for the Mexicans in five major battles.

Several Irish and Anglo Americans deserted the United States Army due to the punishments of their Catholic religion and racial complexion by the American Army.  Many Irish were Catholic, and they resented the treatment of Catholic priests and nuns by the invading Protestants due 'to the inborn distaste of the masses of war, to bad treatment, and to poor subsistence.  The deserters re-enlisted in the Mexican Army forming the San Patricio Corps (El Batallón de San Patricio).

Irish-born American Army Sergeant John Riley deserted the ranks of the American Army and was given credit for organizing the Mexican outfit.  John Riley later wrote to the Mexican President:  'Since April 1846 when I separated from the North American forces...I have served constantly under the Mexican flag.  In Matamoros I formed a company of 48 Irishmen...’ By July of 1847, the number of San Patricios had increased to more than 200."  This regiment would gain glory for its reputation by the Mexican people, while being hated by the American people. 

During the Mexican War, the Mexican people would call this the Irish Regiment by many different names.  Some aliases were official, while others created by the Mexican people.  Unofficially, the Irish Regiment was called the Irish Volunteers, or the Colorados, Red Guards because many redheaded and ruddy-complexioned men were enlisted in it, or the San Patricio Guards.  Officially, the unit began as the San Patricio Company of artillery that later expanded to two companies. 

In mid-1847, the Mexican war department reassigned the men as infantrymen and merged the San Patricio companies into the newly-created Foreign Legion (Legión Extranjera), which some Britons and Americans called the Legion of Strangers.  In 1848, the Mexican president expanded the companies and formed the Saint Patrick's Battalion.

During the battle of Churubusco 1,259 prisoners, including 104 officers were captured. San Patricio casualties at Churubusco were devastating and Brevet Major John Riley was also captured.  A description was later recalled, “ When the battle began, the two companies were apparently at full strength of 102 men each.  Three hours later 60 percent of the men were either dead or had been captured by the enemy; 85 were taken prisoner, 72 of whom were accused of deserting the US Army and the remaining up to 90 men had escaped.”

During the court martial, all but two of the San Patricios were found guilty of desertion and the United States Military courts sentenced 68 men "to be hanged by the neck until dead." John Riley and 14 other men of the San Patricios were to be given 50 lashes, "well laid on their bare back," and to be hot-iron branded with a two-inch letter "D" for deserter; 12 were branded on the right cheek, the others of the right hip.

While the commander-in-chief was reviewing these sentences, dozens of individuals of the Mexican Army begged American authorities to spare the lives of the San Patricios.  In his General Orders 281 and 283, issued the second week of September of 1847, General Scott confirmed the capital punishment verdict for 50 San Patricios, but he pardoned five men and reduced the sentences of 15 others.

The Irish San Patricios dressed in their Mexican uniforms, were hung on the gallows Their bodies were buried nearby; ordered to do it, John Riley and the other branded prisoners dug graves directly under the gallows for nine of their companions.  These excerpts are from Shamrock and Sword, Robert Miller and Occupied America, Rodolfo Acuña.

The Irish reputation for the between the end of the Mexican War to the Civil War was viewed as poor, dirty, and in some instances the Irish were no better than the Afro-American Slaves.   Before the out break of the Civil War the Irish had to over come the amount of distrust and discrimination in the United States. It would take the Civil War to prove them.

Once the Civil War began there were roughly 185,000 Irish-American immigrants who fought on both sides.  Roughly about 40,000 served the Union Army.  However, the total does not include descendants of earlier immigrants who may have still held some affinity to their Irish heritage.  The bulk of the immigrants served in Irish units, though the organizational placement of those Irish units in the Union and Confederate armies was considerably different.

Once the Irish joined the Union or Confederate armies, they faced different experiences. Since the largely Catholic Irish were not completely trusted by their Protestant neighbors, mainly in the North, they generally joined separate units. These units, of company strength, were roughly 80-100 men, including about 65-80 privates. In the Union Army, where numbers of everything, including Irish units, were quite large, the Irish companies were joined together as Irish regiments (10 companies) and even Irish brigades (4-5 regiments). The greatest of these units was Meagher's Irish Brigade that carried a battle flag boasting its heritage: an emerald green flag with a golden harp.

In the Confederate Army there approximately 40,000 Irish.  Unlike the Union Army, the Irish in the South raised Hibernian units, however, without the manpower producing full regiments the Confederate Army instead organized the Irish into other Confederate units.

Often after battles when a truce was made for gathering the dead, many Irishman from both sides often gathered together planning a return to Ireland to regain Ireland’s freedom.  This was the Irish dream by many of those who served in the armies.  The Civil War was training for the Irish to go back and fight for their freedom.  However, this never happened.

In both armies the Gaelic war cry "Faugh A Ballaugh!" (Meaning, "Clear the Way!") rang out as the Irish units often led the charge.  The Civil War proved the Irish and their loyalty to their adopted country.  The Irish were renowned for their bravery and success on the battlefield.

The Irish have proven themselves in our American Heritage.  Their pride and traditions have placed a wonderful culture in America.  So when you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year, remember the hardships that faced the Irishman, and when you have a pint at your local pub, make a toast to Ireland.

Read other articles by John Miller

Read John's Articles on Emmitsburg's Military History