An Army Stretched Out on the Hills
The expansive Fitzhugh farm, four miles northeast of Fredericksburg, Virginia, had been crawling with Union soldiers since the beginning of 1863. Dan Sickles, formerly a Tammany Hall politician of tarnished reputation and lately the commander of the Third Corps, had occupied the house as his headquarters through the latter half of that winter, but on the cold and lowery afternoon of March 12 he surrendered the grounds to a wedding reception for one of his junior officers. The groom had been unable to secure a furlough to be married, so the ceremony transpired in the camp of the 7th New Jersey, in which the groom commanded a company. Besides the betrothed captain, who hovered within a few days of his twenty-fourth birthday, the wedding party consisted of a bride not yet nineteen and nine adventurous bridesmaids, who had accompanied her on the steamer from Washington City. Chief among the guests stood Major General Joseph Hooker, who for the past forty-five days had commanded the Army of the Potomac. The entire regiment turned out under arms to form a hollow square around them all.
The second week of March had alternated between luscious spring sun and soggy reminders of winter - but, unfortunately for the ladies in their light gowns, March 12 fell on the chillier side of that cycle. Raw winds reddened bare arms and chests, while foreboding Virginia skies demanded a canvas canopy to protect the nuptials. The New Jersey chaplain officiated while Daniel Hart and Ellen Lammond knelt before an altar of stacked snare drums to pledge themselves to each other, and when they arose as husband and wife the brigade band announced it with a blaring processional. Ladies, generals, band, and all then adjourned for a banquet and ball under tents raised in the yard of the Fitzhugh farm, where they prolonged the festivities into the evening. The brassy echo carried far across the hills of Stafford County, serenading thousands of envious soldiers sprawled in their camps above Fredericksburg.
Weddings naturally prompt reflections on the future, but any such thoughts on this occasion could only have dampened the festive atmosphere. The shock of a bloody and lopsided defeat at Fredericksburg, only three months past, had not been forgotten. Just seven weeks before the wedding, a disastrous flank march had sent the dejected army into winter quarters, from which, inevitably, it would soon emerge for another attempt to subdue Robert E. Lee, his Army of Northern Virginia, and the rebellious states of the Southern Confederacy. Another seven weeks would find many of the participants dead, or seriously wounded. Captain Hart would be among the latter, and although he would survive his wounds he would never find successful employment outside the army; by cleaving to him, Nelly Lammond consigned herself to a dozen years on the barren plains of West Texas, sixteen years of widow's weeds, and an early grave.
The celebrants therefore dwelt upon the present. Starved as they had been for distaff company, most of the soldiers doubtless found the present agreeable enough, with the bride's retinue to brighten the affair, and few men in that army appreciated female companionship more than Dan Sickles and Joe Hooker. So appealing were the bridesmaids to Sickles that he persuaded them to stay on another day - inviting them, the newlyweds, Hooker, and a host of Third Corps generals, colonels, and staff officers back to the Fitzhugh farm the next night to celebrate his recent promotion to major general. Detailed soldiers and servants festooned the yard with evergreen boughs and flags, and when the guests arrived that evening, Friday the 13th, the tents all glowed with the glitter of hundreds of candles. Even a couple of somberly clad chaplains sipped some wine and partook of the feast, though they stood aside for the dancing and departed before midnight.
It was perhaps such contrived gaiety, more than the frequently dismal weather, that led one Yankee artilleryman to remark a few days later that their winter along the Rappahannock had been “uncommon pleasant,” and the men wearing shoulder straps let no excuse for merriment pass. Saint Patrick's Day provided an opportunity for epic revelry, and as one might have expected, the Irish Brigade greeted it in that spirit. Outside their camp above Falmouth, enlisted men wielded shovels that their officers might play. On relatively flat ground they cleared a racetrack a mile long, complete with hurdles and ditches as wide as ten feet. Thomas Meagher, the hard-drinking brigadier, appeared in knee breeches, a cutaway coat, and a white stovepipe hat, reminding his troops of a circus ringmaster. He further cultivated that image by barking for donations to fund the frolic, although the facilities had all been produced by the labor of government soldiers. “Here is a large capacity,” he apprised his assembled subordinates and superiors, holding the stovepipe hat upside down; “now fill it.” The donations afforded graduated prizes for the three fleetest horses and riders, but much of that ended up in Meagher's pocket anyway: it was Meagher's Irish adjutant, dressed in bright jockey attire and astride the general's own little grey mare, who took first prize in the steeplechase after three heats. Following the main event Meagher opened the track to anyone else who wanted to ride, at a fee of five dollars dropped in his cavernous hat. That afternoon the reverberations of a heavy skirmish at Kelly's Ford, miles upstream, interrupted the entertainment in the middle of a sack race. “Get out of those bags,” Meagher bellowed at the participants, and the brigade fell in to join the fray, but the alarm subsided before the first man stepped off.
David Birney, commander of a division in the Third Corps under Sickles, refused to be outdone by the loudmouthed immigrant Meagher, and he scheduled his own festival for March 26, to celebrate nothing in particular. The same sports prevailed: horse racing, with and without hurdles; a greased pole; sack races; and “buckfights,” in which men bound in a squatting position tried to knock each other over. General Hooker attended this gathering as he had all the others, and with him came the usual assortment of women. The bridesmaids had all returned to Washington, but scores of officers had brought their wives and daughters down to board at houses around the countryside, or to live with them in tents or stockaded huts, and that population obligingly submitted to corsets and crinoline. Garnering the most attention were the wives of two New York colonels. Both women inspired abundant occupation for the eyes and tongues of the troops, but it was the one who called herself Princess Salm- Salm whom everyone remembered. Formerly an actress under the name Agnes Leclerq, she had recently married Colonel Felix Prince Salm, a Prussian soldier of fortune who had come to America for this war. Princess Salm-Salm insinuated that she had seen only twenty-one winters, but an artillery officer who observed her that afternoon remarked that she and the other colonel's wife “have been very handsome women in their day.” He considered them “still good-looking enough to stand very well in the eyes of General Joe,” but Joe Hooker was nearing the end of his fifth decade. The day closed badly for the erstwhile Miss Leclerq: horses and riders showed less grace, with many a mount balking at the hurdles and numerous horsemen taking dangerous tumbles. Colonel Salm fell so hard that witnesses at first deemed his injuries mortal, but General Sickles gallantly consoled the princess while the surgeons saved her prince for death on another field.
That near tragedy may have diluted enthusiasm for further orchestrations. Colonels were paid too well...