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Washington’s Army Celebrated St. Patrick’s Day to Cure Winter Blues

Washington declared the day a holiday in an attempt to raise morale and acknowledge the army’s many soldiers of Irish descent

These reproduction huts in Jockey Hollow are similar to what Washington's army would have used during the brutal winter of 1779-1780. (Rob Shenk/Flickr CC)
smithsonian.com

The winter of 1779-1780 was a lousy one for the Continental Army, led by General George Washington. It was extremely cold, according to the Mount Vernon estate, while provisions were scarce and the colonial economy was a mess. Two years after wintering at Valley Forge, at the beginning of December 1779 the army found itself encamped in an area known as Jockey Hollow.

“Here, they would winter as conditions continued to deteriorate,” the estate writes. Twenty-eight separate snowstorms struck the encampment, writes History.com, burying it in snow and making it difficult to get food and firewood.  

By March, the men must have been exhausted and worn out. So on March 16, 1780, Washington declared a holiday for the next day, St. Patrick’s Day.  “The General directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for tomorrow,” the orders read, noting that March 17 was “a day held in particular regard” by the people of Ireland.

It was the first day off the Continental Army had received for more than a year. The reason that day was granted on what was barely a celebration in the United States had to do with the composition of Washington’s army, according to the Mount Vernon estate. A large part of the army’s membership by 1779 was Irish Presbyterian immigrants, the estate records. In addition, Americans were keenly focused on what was happening on the Emerald Isle:

General Washington, and the larger American population, was fascinated by the mounting political unrest in Ireland. Not only did Ireland’s patriotic struggle against the British crown mirror their own hunger for liberty, interest in the conflict was also strategic: trouble for the British just across the Irish Sea was closer to home. It could effectively distract England from her independence-bent colonies, dividing not only attention but resources.

Although Ireland didn’t have a full-out war, in the late 1770s patriots crusaded for independence, spurred on by the American Revolution. By making Ireland’s patron saint’s day a holiday for his troops, Washington showed his admiration for their efforts as well as acknowledging his many soldiers of Irish descent.

Washington’s expectation of his men was that “the celebration of the day will not be attended by the least rioting or disorder.” No record of any such misbehaviors survives, according to History.com, though at least one division had a hogshead of rum purchased by its commander.

Washington wasn’t the first to publicly celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in America.The first-ever recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in New York in 1762, while earlier celebrations may also have taken place. Many of the earliest Irish settlers in the United States came as indentured servants.

Although the day off was probably a welcome relief, Washington’s letters reveal that the condition of his army remained perilous as late as May 1780. It would be three long years before the war reached a resolution.

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