For all his inadequacies as a commander—for all his bluster, his inclination to undermine fellow generals, and his checkered results on the battlefield—Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker appreciated the value of morale. A happy soldier, he granted, was a good soldier. Upon taking command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, a little more than a month after the Federal calamity at Fredericksburg, Hooker began refitting an army in dire need of a new outlook. He approved amnesty for deserters, cracked down on corruption within his officer corps, and offered lengthier furloughs to his men, as well as better rations and medical care.
Hooker also gave his blessing to one of the war’s most ironic events: a grand gala in the Army of the Potomac’s camps in Falmouth, Va., on March 17, 1863. The carnival was the inspiration of Irish Brigade commander Thomas F. Meagher, to build army morale and serve as a St. Patrick’s Day tribute to some of the splendors of his former life on the Emerald Isle. (Not to be outdone, the Irish 9th Massachusetts—part of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, in George Meade’s 5th Corps—also arranged for festivities that day.)
All of the army’s officers were invited to attend the Irish Brigade’s celebration, with Hooker conspicuous among those who showed up. Included in the scheduled events were a greased pig race, a greased pole climb, a wheelbarrow race, and a 500-yard sack-jumping race. Cash—and, in the case of the greased pig race, the pig itself—would be presented to the winners. An elaborate program was printed, a large viewing stand erected, and an evening feast prepared to include roasted ox, duck, ham, even a pig stuffed with boiled turkeys—and plenty of champagne, rum, and whiskey.
The highlight of the day, however, was to be a horse race—the so-called “Grand Irish Brigade Steeple-Chase,” which would take place on a large oval that workers had cut in the grass at their camp. Such contests had long been popular in Meagher’s homeland, and by the Civil War, horse racing had become quite fashionable in America, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. As Meagher promoted the race:
To come off the 17th March, rain or shine, by horses, the property of, and to be ridden by, commissioned officers of that Brigade. The prizes are a purse of $500; second horse to save his stakes; two and a half mile heat, best two in three, over four hurdles four and a half feet high, and five ditch fences, including two artificial rivers fifteen feet wide and six deep; hurdles to be made of forest pine, and braced with hoops.
According to Damian Shiels, author of the blog The Irish in the American Civil War, the riders dressed the part for the race, including “one Galway native who was clad in scarlet with a green-velvet smoking cap, harking back to the colours of the Galway Blazers Club.” Perhaps fittingly, Meagher’s horse, Jack Hinton, emerged the winner.
By the Civil War, horse racing had become quite fashionable in America, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
For many in the Irish Brigade, that St. Patrick’s Day, and the gala itself, would be their last. In early May, the Army of the Potomac was wrecked at Chancellorsville. Two months later, the Federals triumphed at Gettysburg, but the Irish Brigade—although with General Meagher out of favor and no longer in command—suffered heavy losses in the Wheatfield fighting on July 2.
Humans have long been passionate about horse racing, the so-called “Sport of Kings.” In America, equine and human history literally moved forward together with the creation of a new country, enjoying a uniquely symbiotic relationship. Spanish explorers first brought horses to the New World around 1519, but the British and Irish were primarily responsible for bringing a horse-racing culture to the continent, with a documented racetrack laid out as early as 1665 on Long Island. Spanish, French, and other cultures have incorporated horse racing as a sport or recreation, but the Anglo-Irish tradition most heavily influenced what would become the American horse racing experience.
The endless quest to breed excellence and win on the racetrack sometimes overshadowed the extremely practical role horses played in moving passengers and freight, pulling plows and millstones, and working alongside other animals in all varieties of industries. Yet the story of horse racing during the Civil War is one of those aspects of civilian and military camp life that tends to get overlooked. Although racing horses was a popular prewar pastime enjoyed by soldiers on both sides, its association with gambling is perhaps the reason for that.
There does appear to be some basis in fact to several still-persistent historical stereotypes: first, that Southern soldiers, coming from a more largely rural culture, tended to be better horsemen on average; and second, that the cavalry branch in each army attracted men who were innately interested in horses.
For many bored and homesick soldiers, their favorite diversion was horse racing.
Horse racing had taken hold in the South more quickly than in Puritan New England, and because of the stronger racing culture Southern horses were usually considered superior to Northern mounts. Still, by the time of the war the sport was immensely popular throughout the ranks and branches on both sides, in spite of many attempts to ban it or control it.
Letters, diaries, and even some official records show how much it was enjoyed. For many bored and homesick soldiers, and especially those familiar with horses, the “favorite diversion…was racing,” according to Randolph Tucker. A cavalry officer in early wartime Richmond, Tucker recounted for his mother: “We have had two horseraces this week gotten up by way of amusement. The soldiers using their own horses. You know we are quartered at the Ashland Race-Course.”
Before the war, communities sometimes laid out tracks or courses as a way of improving civil order. Establishing them specifically for horse racing away from the center of town and main roads reduced the impact of the gambling, chaos, and accidents associated with racing. Confederate and Union leaders, however, generally failed to adopt such a “proactive” approach.
Many unit regulations and edicts on both sides tried to ban and discourage racing, but soldiers and officers routinely ignored these attempts despite sometimes draconian punishments. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, for example, famously watched a banned race with deliberate stoicism, only to arrest the men for breaking his rules once it ended. Some races were organized at the divisional level and involved illicit bets in thousands of dollars, drawing crowds of hundreds and even thousands of men. A clear majority of the races involved enlisted men, but others saw officers taking their runs as jockeys and as spectators or speculators. Confederate General James Longstreet once bragged about being unbeaten in all types of races, including jumping and other varied competitions, such as the steeplechase.
Although the 1862 regulations for the Confederate Army, which were adapted from the U.S. Army’s 1857 regulations, do not include an explicit prohibition of horse racing, they do regulate gambling, the general behavior of soldiers, and the treatment of horses. The regulations also specify clearly that horses in various branches could be used only for specific military tasks. Similarly, the U.S. Army 1861 regulations have no specific prohibition on horse racing. Early Confederate congressional legislation is also silent on the matter, though lawmakers did choose to regulate other entertainment, such as circuses. Generally, it was up to individual commanders to issue their own orders, which they very often did.
Soldiers on furlough often set off immediately for the public races, which in Washington, D.C., meant a trip to the new National Racecourse. Washington had a history of such racetracks, dating back to the Washington City Race Course (or Holmead’s), first laid out in 1802. Presidents such as Andrew Jackson were known to frequent the tracks in and around the capital (and sometimes to wager). An early premonition of the coming Civil War occurred on this course in 1822 when a braggadocious Southern planter challenged the reigning Northern champion Eclipse to run against Sir Henry from Virginia. Sir Henry pulled up lame, to the delight of Northern fans who heckled the Southerners mercilessly while Eclipse ran across the finish line.
During the Civil War, racecourses were described as being built on “any level stretch” and “all the rage.” Tracks ranged in length from one mile to several miles, and competitions were usually conducted in heats, recognizing that not only speed but endurance were the hallmarks of a superior horse. Most races required winning three out of five heats, or perhaps two out of three. Whenever a camp moved, racetracks were known to be laid out. When Union soldiers adjusted to trench warfare during the 1864 Petersburg siege, for example, courses were created as part of “settling in.” In another race, there was a direct competition between two entire Union general staffs who only recently had competed fiercely for glory on the battlefield (and no record exists of who won the race).
Grand Irish Brigade Steeple-Chase Schedule
✯ A Foot-Race ✯
One half mile distance, best of heats; open to all non-commissioned officers and privates, the winner to receive $7, and the second $3
✯ Casting Weights ✯
The weights to weigh from ten to fourteen pounds; the winner to receive $3
✯ Running After the Soaped Pig ✯
To be the prize of the man who holds it
✯ A Hurdle-Race ✯
One-half mile distance, open to all non-commissioned officers and privates; the winner to receive $7, the second $3
✯ The Wheelbarrow-Race ✯
The contestants to be blindfolded, and limited to six soldiers of the Irish Brigade; the winner to receive $5; distance to be decided on the ground
✯ Jumping in Sacks ✯
To the distance of five hundred yards; the winner to receive $5
✯ Contest on the Light Fantastic Toe ✯
Consisting of Irish reels, jigs, and hornpipes; the best dancer to receive $5, the second best $3, to be decided by a judge appointed by the chairman
9th Massachusetts Celebration Schedule
✯ Sack Race ✯
✯ Race for a Greased Pig ✯
✯ Climbing a Greased Pole ✯
✯ Jumping Matches ✯
✯ Horse Racing (afternoon) ✯
✯ Mock Dress Parade ✯
Source: Damian Shiels’ blog, The Irish in the American Civil War (irishamericancivilwar.com). Schedules are reprinted as they originally appeared.
As Union armies conquered more and more Confederate territory, the federal government naturally gained control of a number of Southern racecourses. The popular Mount Vernon course in Alexandria, Va., for example, came under Union control early in the war. The Doswell racecourse near Hanover Junction, Va., came under Union control during the 1864 Overland Campaign. A well-designed and preserved racecourse was captured in Beaufort, S.C., where the men naturally wanted to race. When such courses were captured or occupied, the men often set up to use them immediately if circumstances allowed.
Both armies strongly discouraged gambling of all types and introduced various penalties and rules to stop it. These efforts met with mixed success. U.S. Colonel William Kirkwood, racing with his favorite mount Archy, won more than 11 additional horses from competitors as part of the spoils of victory. A Texas cavalryman in trouble for going around shirtless literally kept betting on his supposedly fast horse Dick and repeatedly losing his shirt again. Billy, a part-mustang racehorse who went to war, was reportedly worth $5,000 (the equivalent of more than $125,000 today), at a time when soldiers were paid $13 per month.
Virginius Dabney recounts that central Virginians hardly needed any excuse to mount their favorite horse and “run” an errand. By the 1850s, Richmond racing had “degenerated” in spite of building a new track at the fairgrounds in 1851, but the war saw a remarkable revival with an influx of horses, soldiers, and gamblers.
Horse racing was also fraught with personal risk. It was not uncommon for either horses or riders to be seriously injured, and a score of both human and equine fatalities occurred during or because of racing. For example, in the race held by the 9th Massachusetts the same day as Meagher’s St. Patrick’s Day gala, two riders collided violently, with both horses killed and one of the riders—Lieutenant Thomas Mooney, the regiment’s quartermaster—knocked unconscious. Mooney died in a nearby hospital 10 days later.
Racing between enemies was not unheard of. Sometimes troopers stopped shooting at each other and raced to compare horsemanship.
During the Petersburg siege, where boredom constantly challenged military diligence, new racetracks would sometimes appear as the siege lines expanded westward. “Horse racing has become quite the rage in all ranks of the army,” one Northern observer noted. Tracks included those located on Halifax Road, and New Market Road, and races often included rival staffs of larger units. But these races also turned deadly, as, in one example, when a spooked horse crashed into an onlooking soldier and killed him.
It was also not unheard of for racing to take place between enemies. Sometimes troopers stopped shooting at each other and simply raced to compare horseflesh and horsemanship. At Appomattox Court House, Va., at the end of the war, Confederate Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton won a jumping competition on his horse Butler, besting Union Maj. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, riding Old Spot.
Some worried that the impact of the Civil War might temporarily set back the American equine industry, as well as racing. Along with physical and human devastation, the South’s horse population had been severely reduced by the war. There is evidence, however, to suggest that the losses were short-lived, and especially in the North, the post–Civil War racing scene became one of the top three national pastimes (along with baseball and boxing). Ultimately horse racing enjoyed a zenith in the postwar years, growing ever more popular. By 1890, reportedly 314 tracks were operating across the United States.
Jack Trammell is an associate professor of sociology at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., where he teaches and writes social history.