Washington’s St. Patrick’s Day General Order

Saint Patrick’s Day honors St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who was born in England and lived during the 5th century. Early in life, he was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and ended up living in Ireland. He is credited with converting the Irish to Christianity, as illustrated in the legendary tale that says he drove the snakes (a metaphor for pagans and druids) from Ireland.  He established many churches and was honored with a feast day in his name.

Over time, Saint Patrick’s Day shifted from a religious holiday to a secular celebration of Irish culture and history. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737. By the time the Revolutionary War started, there was also a parade in New York City and the holiday had become a meaningful celebration to Irish-Americans. Subsequently, during a cold winter encampment in 1780 in Morristown, New Jersey, General George Washington, then commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, noticed his men were having a bout of particularly low morale. The soldiers were low on food, had very shabby shelters, and the winter was harsh.

Washington, a man of many curiosities, became interested in the political goings-on in Ireland, which was also ruled by the British. He could see that Ireland, like the colonies at that time, was struggling to find common ground with the Crown in England. He found the Irish struggle relatable, and also useful. Perhaps, if England could be distracted enough by unrest in Ireland, they would falter in the war against the colonies.

Recognizing the need for a boost, and the opportunity to resonate with specific groups, Washington issued an order on March 16, 1780. Today, it is known as the St. Patrick’s Day General Order. It reads in full:

Head Quarters Morris Town March 16th, 1780
General Order

The general congratulates the army on the very interesting proceedings of the parliament of Ireland and the inhabitants of that country which have been lately communicated; not only as they appear calculated to remove those heavy and tyrannical oppressions on their trade but to restore to a brave and generous people their ancient rights and freedom and by their operations to promote the cause of America.

 Desirous of impressing upon the minds of the army, transactions so important in their nature, the general directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for tomorrow the seventeenth, a day held in particular regard by the people of the nation. At the same time that he orders this, he persuades himself that the celebration of the day will not be attended with the least rioting or disorder, the officers to be at their quarters in camp and the troops of the state line to keep within their own encampment.

St. Patrick's Day General Order

Copy of Washington’s St. Patrick’s Day General Order. Credit: National Archives

The celebration in the camp was the only day the men had off throughout the winter of 1780. According to Washington, the army was in a perilous state well into May. However, the day of rest and celebration certainly helped the troops soldier on. It seems that March 17th was meant to become a day of happenings for George Washington and his army, because 4 years previous to the Morristown order, Washington and his men watched the British retreat from Boston during the opening act of the Revolution.

Irish George Washington

So, this year as you don your shamrocks and green top hats, think of: Hercules Mulligan, a spy for the continentals born in Derry, Ireland; Henry Knox, artillery master extraordinaire and a Boston-native with Irish parents; General Richard Montgomery who before “he caught a bullet in the neck in Quebec” for the cause and had a father in the Irish Parliament; and all the other Irishmen who helped create a free and independent nation here before their own nation could gain that same freedom.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

A Lucky Diary Discovery

At the end of 2019, Dr. Edward E. Moore donated a collection of family documents to Historic Kenmore.  Dr. Moore’s is the great-great grandnephew of Esther Maria Lewis Moore, who was the great granddaughter of Lawrence Lewis. Lawrence was the son of Betty and Fielding Lewis.  Among the papers donated was a small pocket diary covered in blue silk.  This diary, dating from 1826, belonged to Esther Moore’s grandmother, Esther Maria Coxe, and then to Esther Moore’s father, Henry Llewellyn Dangerfield Lewis, who received it on his sixteenth birthday in April 1859.

Upon cataloguing this diary, I was surprised to find eleven four-leaf clovers pressed between the various pages.  I had never seen a four-leaf clover personally and was surprised to find the dried remains of so many in this 200-year-old book.  Besides knowing the three-leafed varieties are called shamrocks and the four-leafed varieties are considered lucky, I knew really nothing else about clover. With St. Patrick’s Day approaching and on my mind, I decided to investigate what clover is, when it became “lucky”, and what exactly is the difference between four-leaf clovers and shamrocks.  In the process, I learned how this symbol of Ireland first evolved out of the tumultuous political atmosphere of the 18th century and an Irish political group that looked to the American Revolution for inspiration?

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Four-leaf clovers inside the Moore family diary.

 

There are over 300 different types of clover but the one most associated with the “four-leaf clover” is white clover.  White clover is an allotetrapoloid, meaning it has 4 chromosomes instead of 2 like humans and most other organisms.  Additionally, each pair of white clover’s four chromosomes comes from different species.  Basically, these little plants have incredibly complicated genetic structures.

Why some white clover sprout four leaves and some only three is not entirely clear but it is likely some combination of genetic mutation and weather.

Similarly, the association of four-leaf clovers with “good-luck” is not entirely clear either and seems to mostly come from the fact that they are rare.  Your chances of finding one are around 1 in 5,000 three-leaf clovers.

While there is no genetic different between a shamrock and a four-leaf clover, the shamrock is traditionally considered to have just three leaves.  It also has much more of a historical mythology or folklore, which is wrapped up tightly with St. Patrick and Ireland.  The word shamrock comes from the Irish word “seamrog,” meaning “little clover.” It is an ambiguous term that includes white clover, hop clover, red clover, and many other different types.

The first documented mention of shamrock in the English language was in the works of Elizabethan scholar Edmund Campion in 1571. In his work Boke of the Histories of Irelande [sic], he stated the Irish ate “shamrotes, watercresses, rootes, and other herbes” and, soon enough, the shamrock became a plant associated with the Irish people.

The shamrock didn’t become associated with 5th century missionary St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, until about a hundred years later.  The first thing connecting him with the shamrock was an image from around 1675 showing him holding one.  Then, about fifty years later, around 1725, the legend of St. Patrick and the shamrock was first recorded.  It says that St. Patrick used the three leaves of the clover to represent the Holy Trinity when trying to convert Ireland’s native Celts to Christianity.

Kilbennan's St. Benin's Church window depicting St. Patrick holding a shamrock

Window depicting St. Patrick holding a shamrock in St. Benin’s Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland. Credit: Andreas F. Borchert/Wikipedia

Around the same time as the emergence of the St. Patrick legend, Ireland, much like the America, was in political upheaval.  At the time, the shamrock became a symbol of Irish politics.  The Irish Volunteers, a militia raised to defend Ireland from French and Spanish invasion after the British withdrew troops to fight in the war in the colonies, began using the shamrock as its symbol.[1]  Additionally, inspired by the American Revolution and its anti-monarchical goals, the Society of United Irishmen sought to get rid of the rule of the King in Ireland.  They used the iconic clover as a symbol of freedom.[2]

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The official Tourism Ireland logo is a stylized shamrock. Credit: Tourism Ireland

Even today, the shamrock continues to be used in the emblems of many state organizations, both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  In fact, the traditional green shamrock is a registered trademark of the Government of Ireland and they advocate its use only to sell products that have a connection with Ireland or are Irish products.

 

So at your St. Patrick’s Day party you can entertain your friends with the interesting genetics of clover, the history of the shamrock, and how Ireland’s iconic emblem evolved in turbulent political times to represent a group inspired by the American Revolution.  All thanks to the lucky find of some lucky four-leaf clovers in a centuries old diary donated to Kenmore by a descendant of Betty and Fielding Lewis.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Allan Blackstock, Double Traitors?: The Belfast Volunteers and Yeomen, 1778-1828, Ulster Historical Foundation, 2000: pg 2

[2] The Shamroc, [sic]. Printed by Joseph Mehain 22, Castle-street. 11 March 1799.