George Washington was truly a brilliant commander. Not only in the sense of his tactical decisions, but also in his ability to know of how to motivate his troops.
We can only begin to grasp the difficult life of a foot soldiers in the Continental Army. Spring had not brought relief from a savage winter in the early months of 1780. Supplies were so scarce that Continental foot soldiers sometimes nourished themselves with tree bark. They often marched on frozen ground without shoes. They slept together in log huts barely sheltered from more than two dozen winter storms which pelted them with snow.
Washington only gave his troops one day off during the winter of 1780. In fact, the holiday was the first day off that the soldiers had enjoyed in over a year. You might be surprised what that holiday was. Washington decided to give his men the day off on March 17th. This holiday did not happen by accident. Washington may have had fond memories of the British Evacuation from Boston on March 17, 1776, but he knew that a holiday on St. Patrick’s Day would be meaningful for his troops. Seven of the eleven brigades that were with Washington in Morristown, New Jersey were led by generals whose parents were born in Ireland or were born there themselves. In addition, more than a quarter of the Continental Army had Irish roots, and half of some regiments were made up of men who were born in Ireland or had Irish parents. The Irish people themselves were known to have great sympathy for the Revolution. Although Washington cautioned his troops that “the celebration of the day will not be attended with the least rioting or disorder,” it was reported that the Pennsylvania Division were treated to “a hogshead of rum” by their commander. A hogshead was a unit of measurement of the time that equates to approximately 64 gallons. The Pennsylvania Division must have had quite a celebration. Because of Washington’s decision, The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick named him an honorary member two years later.
Evacuation Day, held on March 17th, continues to be a civic holiday in Suffolk County, Massachusetts (which includes the city of Boston). Attached is an image from the 2006 St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I wonder if any of the 2013 St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Boston strive to consume “a hogshead of rum”?