(click on picture for the complete article from the Irish Echo)
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S CHRISTMAS IRISH
by Mike McCormack, AOH National Historian
There were a few Irishmen living in and around Trenton, NJ prior to the Revolutionary War. Among them were Paddy Colvin and Sam McConkey, who ran two Delaware River ferries; Paddy Lamb, who resided near Quaker Bridge on Assunpink Creek; and John Honeyman, a retired British soldier, now a butcher and cattle-dealer in nearby Griggstown. They were all there during a very special Christmas.
Toward the end of 1776, George Washington’s patriot army retreated from New York through New Jersey, headed for the Delaware River with the British army in hot pursuit. On 1 December, he sent a message to Congress in Philadelphia to quickly line up a fleet of boats at Trenton to get him across the Delaware into Pennsylvania. Wexford-born Captain John Barry contacted his friend Cavan-born Paddy Colvin who set to the task. No bridges spanned the river and yet it had to be crossed quickly or the patriot army could be trapped on its banks. Colvin owned the closest ferry to Trenton and knew all the fords and obstacles of the river and how to avoid them. He also knew who owned other ferries and boats and where they could be found. He placed all this valuable information, as well as his ferry, at the service of Washington’s patriot army. On 3 December, Washington’s advance guard reached Trenton, and Colvin began ferrying them across the Delaware. Early on December 8, Washington crossed with the rear guard. Colvin was at his post continually and with his fellow ferrymen, got the army safely across, just as the British entered Trenton. A disappointed Cornwallis found all boats safely moored on the Pennsylvania side of the river, which was now an impassable barrier between him and the disorganized patriot army he had hoped to capture on the Jersey shore. Cornwallis left a force to hold Trenton and re-located to Princeton. Washington set up headquarters in Pennsylvania about half a mile north of Colvin’s Ferry.
Concerned that the British would build their own boats or bring them over land to attack him, Washington decided to cross the Delaware on Christmas and surprise them first, but he needed to know the disposition of the British in Trenton. He met with Armagh-born John Honeyman, a local butcher and cattle dealer who had retired from the British army, but was now supporting the patriot’s cause. As a butcher, Honeyman had traded with and was familiar to the British and their Hessian allies. From him, Washington learned of the meager force of Hessians left by Cornwallis to guard Trenton. Under the pretense of having escaped from Washington’s camp, he was sent back to the Hessian camp to inform their commander, Col. Johann Rall, that the colonials were in no shape to attack. He told Col. Rall that Washington’s men were demoralized, suffering dreadfully from the cold and hunger and that many were even unshod. Hoping that the Hessians had been lulled into a false sense of security, Washington chose that bitingly cold Christmas night to cross the ice-choked Delaware River and surprise the unprepared Hessian force who would likely have spent the previous night celebrating Christmas. Like most of Washington’s clandestine operators, few formal records exist of Honeyman’s activities, but his actions were recognized and celebrated by friends and family after the revolution.
Washington then arranged with Paddy Colvin to cross at a few ferries since Colvin knew the river better than anyone and was trusted as a friend of Capt. John Barry. Like Honeyman, Paddy Colvin’s name would have been forgotten were it not for Rev. A. Lambing who, in 1885, found a mention of him in an old Trenton paper. He resolved to know more about him, and made him a subject of investigation.1 Fortunately he did, for were it not for Lambing’s research, Colvin may have suffered undeserved anonymity in history just like Honeyman. From Lambing we learned that Patrick Colvin of Co. Cavan, bought a ferry on the Delaware River in 1772 and for 20 years, Morrisville, PA was known as Colvin’s Ferry. Considering the number of times that Washington’s forces were transported across the Delaware, it was most fortunate that the ferry was in the hands of a patriot like Colvin. Colvin’s Ferry – the oldest ferry on the Delaware – was less than 2 miles from Trenton. Other ferries were McConkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton, Howell’s ferry 4 miles above and Dunk’s ferry 10 miles below.
So it was that on Christmas night and the morning of St. Stephen’s Day, 1776, Washington quietly crossed the Delaware into New Jersey in a biting wind and snow storm, successfully surprised the Hessians and captured Trenton. Washington knew the importance of holding Trenton and that Cornwallis would soon be on his way back to recapture it. He decided to stand and fight, but the rest of his army was still on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. Furthermore, he had about 1,000 prisoners to lock up. W.H. Davis in his History of Morrisville wrote: A long fatiguing march to McConkey’s Ferry would have been a great hardship to men so severely tried. There seems to be no escaping the conclusion that they crossed at Colvin’s Ferry. Thus, Washington re-crossed the river and mustered the rest of his forces to cross and fortify Trenton before Cornwallis could arrive. On 30 December, Washington crossed back into New Jersey at McKonkey’s Ferry, with his troops crossing simultaneously at several Ferries.2 All the necessary boats were waiting, but the river was still choked with large masses of floating ice being carried rapidly by the swift current and extending out from both shores. Navigation was near impossible but Colvin supervised the crossing with great skill.
Meanwhile, Cornwallis, hearing of the fall of Trenton, left two regiments to fortify Princeton and marched back to Trenton. Washington sent out small units, under Co. Offaly-born Col. Edward Hand, to harass the oncoming British. These small bands succeeded in slowing Cornwallis down, inflicting heavy casualties, but the British force still arrived in force by late afternoon on 2 January. Washington was ready. The Second Battle of Trenton began with the armies facing each other, only 200 yards apart at a small bridge on either side of Assunpink Creek. Cornwallis made three attempts to take the bridge, but each one failed and Cornwallis withdrew for the night. Hundreds of British dead and wounded were recovered from the bridge and Cornwallis told his army, Rest now, we’ll bag the fox in the morning.
That night, Washington’s army built up their campfires to burn all night and silently slipped away. A small group was left behind to noisily build fortifications as if they were planning to defend at dawn, but also to cover the sound of the rest of the army slipping away. Washington and his force led by General John Sullivan, son of Co. Kerry immigrants, snuck away in the night. Another local Irishman, Paddy Lamb, guided them along back roads around the British forces to launch a surprise attack on the British force left in Princeton. Cornwallis awoke in the morning to distant cannon fire as the attack on Princeton had begun. He quickly divided his army and sent a force to relieve Princeton but they were too late to prevent another American victory. Meanwhile, darkness put an end to the second battle of Trenton. The British were driven back everywhere. Assunpink creek ran red with British blood as the entire campaign was decided in the patriot’s favor. As Washington went into winter quarters, he was master of New Jersey. The war had finally turned in his favor and new recruits poured in thanks to a courageous group of Irishmen who helped Washington’s army when they needed it most.
McConkey, the owner of other ferry where Washington crossed some troops was also an Irishman by birth. Historian John D McCormack, editor of the Potter’s Journal whose painstaking research into the early history of New Jersey brought many obscure records of the Colonial period to light, was a native of Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary and no stranger to conflict. As a boy, he had been held by a British Police Squad that commandeered his family home during the Young Irelander uprising in 1848. McCormack wrote, Colvin was a Catholic and McConkey was a Presbyterian in religion. Yet I find that these two Irishmen, holding religious beliefs so divergent, laid their theological differences upon the altar of their country, and made common cause to secure our independence. It is a rule that has but few exceptions 3 and also a story that has few more laudable heroes. Washington’s army endured a bitterly painful Christmas so that we might enjoy a peaceful one. Let us remember their saving sacrifice this year as we celebrate the birth of our heavenly savior.
1 Catholic Historical Researches, edited by Rev. A.A. Lambing, July 1885, Page 19
2 Extract of Lawrence H. Hale letter written to Theodore W. Bozarth:
3 History of Bucks Co. PA, Chapter XLII & XLIII, 1804:
THE IRISH BRIGADE COMES HOME TO NEW YORK
By Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
Prior to the American Civil War, the regular Army was small reflecting the logic that America was best defended by hundreds of volunteer militia units. Many were little more than glorified fraternal organizations, filled with men who liked to parade, drink, and sometimes drill. New York had the Continental Guards, German Black Sharp-shooters and Hungarian Kossuth Rifles among others. Not to be outdone, the Irish formed the O’Connell Guards, Irish Rifles and Irish Zouaves. The more serious of these units were mustered into a formal state militia. On October 12, 1851, the 69th New York State Militia Regiment was officially organized. It consisted of eight companies of 643 men each, most of Irish birth or parentage. Within a year it topped 1,000. The regiment would go on to earn fame and glory during the Civil War as a key part of the Irish Brigade. The heroic sacrifice of the Irish in battle boosted the reputation of the Irish in America and provided a new and more ennobling meaning to the term “fighting Irish.”
When the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Regimental Colonel Sligo-born Michael Corcoran called for the American Irish to join the 69th. More than 5,000 applied for only 1,500 billets and 11 days later, Corcoran and his regiment marched down Broadway and steamed away to defend the Union capital in D.C. The first test for the 69th was the Battle of Bull Run. In their first battle, the inexperienced Union army cut and ran back to D.C., but one unit that earned praise was the 69th Regiment who stayed to provide cover for the fleeing troops. They were the last to leave the field suffering 97 casualties and 95 captured, including Colonel Corcoran. The 69th returned to NY to rebuild their tattered ranks. Acting Commander, Captain Thomas Francis Meagher, began recruiting from the Hibernian House on Prince Street. When thousands of Irish responded, Meagher requested permission to form a Brigade. The Army was against forming ethnic brigades, but since England was trading with the Confederacy, they felt that fielding an Irish unit might just give the British pause and so they agreed and the Irish Brigade was born. It included the 69th, 88th and 63rd NY regiments and, later, the 28th Mass and 116th Pennsylvania. Some joined for the $300 signing bonus which was sent to family in Ireland, some out of a sense of duty toward their adopted land and some because of British support for the Confederacy.
The Irish Brigade saw some of the war’s harshest battles and they earned a reputation as the most courageous unit in the Army of the Potomac. After one battle, President Lincoln visiting the troops lifted a corner of the Irish battle flag, kissed it and said, God Bless the Irish Flag. Meagher had ordered 69-caliber smoothbore muskets for his men. They were considered obsolete, but very effective at close range which was the style of fighting he wanted because they fired the more deadly buck and ball ammunition and could take down 3 men at a time. Close up fighting made the Brigade fearsome, but also produced heavy casualties since they had to get up close to be effective. The Brigade fought in every campaign of the Army of the Potomac, from the peninsular campaign in 1862 to the surrender of Lee at Appomattox in 1865. At Fair Oaks, Gaines Mill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and every major battle fought by the Army of the Potomac, the figure of General Meagher was seen leading his men into battle. Between campaigns new Irish were recruited to replace the fallen. Among all their battles the three most costly were Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. The Sept, 1862 battle of Antietam was the deadliest day in American history, with 23,000 killed and wounded. The Brigade suffered 540 casualties and Gen McClelland later wrote, The Irish Brigade sustained their well-earned reputation, suffering terribly in officers and men, and strewing the ground with their enemies, as they drove them back. Three months later, the Brigade assaulted Confederate entrenchments along Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg achieving international fame with the tenacity of their attack and eliciting cheers from their rebel adversaries, many of whom were Irish themselves. The next day, only 280 of 1,300 men were able to report for duty. Gen. Robert E. Lee later wrote, Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry. In July 1863 at Gettysburg they successfully countered a Confederate offensive near Little Round Top losing 202 men killed out of 530. When Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, the Brigade was there. One rebel officer told a Union officer, the only reason you won was because you had more Irish than we had! On May 23 and 24, 1865 they paraded in review in Washington D.C. and in the following months, they returned to their homes to celebrate the new national holiday declared by President Lincoln two years earlier — Thanksgiving. Returning to New York, they received a tumultuous welcome from not only the Irish citizens, but from all who had followed their courageous history.
In post-war America, the Irish still faced poverty but discrimination had diminished. Many Americans accorded the Irish a new level of respect since many thousands had made the ultimate sacrifice defending the Union and, as a testament to their bravery, 7 were presented with the Medal of Honor. Soon it became unfashionable to discriminate against the Irish and the NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs began to disappear from Help Wanted ads. And that was perhaps the greatest victory for the Irish Brigade. Of the 7,715 men who served in its ranks, 961 were killed and more than 3,000 were wounded – more than ever served in its ranks at any one time. The 69th NY suffered 75 per cent casualties while the British Light Brigade memorialized by Alfred Lord Tennyson for riding into the ‘Valley of Death’ lost less than 37 per cent. There is no famous verse for the Irish, but author Joseph Bilby in his book Remember Fontenoy wrote, The Irish Brigade was, many said, the best brigade in the Army of the Potomac. Some said it was the best brigade in the whole Union army and perhaps the best infantry brigade on either side. Today, others with the perspective of history have come to believe it may have been the best infantry brigade that ever was!
A Freedom For All Ireland Fundraiser, Guest speaker will be Martin Galvin, National FFAI chair. Monies raised will go to the FFAI Christmas appeal. Event will be October 26th, 2019 at 6:00 pm. A turkey dinner will be provided for $20.00 at 7:00 pm.
For more information please contact:
AOH Major Degree Ceremony
The major degree of our Order will be exemplified by the Richmond County Cu Chulainn Celtic Warriors Major Degree Team and hosted by New York County at the Archbishop Hughes Center, 32 Prince Street, New York, NY 10012 on Saturday, October 19, 2019. All Candidates are asked to register at 11 am. Degree will commence at 12 Noon.
All degreed members are welcome to support those receiving their degree.
If you have not received your major degree, it is your obligation to do so. Candidates who have not received a major degree please plan to attend and get into contact with either County Board President Dennis Grogan at firstname.lastname@example.org or County Board Vice President Edward Meehan at 201-795-0316. Please inform your Division President as well.
Pricing is TBA.
Closest Subway Stops:
6 Train to either Bleecker or Spring Street
N, R, W Trains to Prince Street
E, D, F, M Trains to Broadway-Lafayette St
J, Z Trains to Bowery Station
*Note, the B Train does not run on Weekends
Congressman Brian Higgins, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, representing Buffalo and Niagara Falls New York, recently met with New York State AOH President Tom Lambert and District 2 Director Craig Speers where issues affecting Ireland and Irish America were discussed. The Congressman specifically commented on Brexit by noting “Brexit’s backstop should be Irish unity”. Mr. Higgins also noted that with its self-inflicted political dysfunction of Brexit, Britain has “influenced growing support for Irish unity.”
The AOH leaders met the Congressman to discuss Irish community concerns about, issues including Brexit, legacy and freedom for all Ireland. The two AOH leaders also discussed Congressman Higgins’ recent trip to Ireland along with Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Neal, then expressed appreciation to Congressman Higgins for all he has done on crucial Irish issues.
New York State AOH President Tom Lambert noted:
“Congressman Higgins has a long record of support on Irish issues. However, it is important for our elected representatives to hear how much their work on Irish issues means to their voters”.
“The AOH believes that American Congressional scrutiny can help make a difference on issues like Brexit, immigration and all for legacy victims in their long fight for truth and justice. We welcome Congressman Higgins’ statement and as NY State AOH President I am encouraging our members around the state to meet with their local elected officials”.
Congrats to the New York State Board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians on receiving the Second Place AOH Marching Unit award from the March 16, 2019 NYC St Patrick’s Day Parade. On hand to accept the award from the NYS board was John Manning NYS AOH Vice President, Immediate Past NYS AOH President Victor Vogel, and NYS AOH Treasurer Tom Beirne.
Worthy President Tom Lambert is happy to report that a contract has been signed for the 2021 NYS AOH / LAOH Convention in Syracuse at the newly renovated Marriott Syracuse downtown. Congratulations to the Brothers and Sisters of the host committee!