'The Fighting 69th'

The regiment that Robert E. Lee christened is going strong at 150

PART 1 IN A TWO-PART SERIES

By Lt. Col. Kenneth H. Powers, NYARNG (Ret.)

Kevin Kennedy photo
The men of the modern-day 69th New York marching to St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in the heart of Old Irish New York, in January 1999. Click for a close-up view.

The year 2001 is not only the first of the third millennium, it also marks the sesquicentennial of the 69th Regiment of New York, which will be celebrated at a dinner in its Armory on October 13. Originally the Second Regiment of Irish Volunteers, it was accepted as part of the New York State Militia and designated as the Sixty-Ninth Regiment on October 12, 1851.

The dedication of the 240th consecutive New York St. Patrick's Day Parade this year was shared by Labor and by the 69th Regiment. This was appropriate given the fact that most of the citizen-soldiers throughout the history of the 69th (like the citizen-soldiers of the Irish Citizen Army in 1916) have been working men.

The 69th is, at the same time, unique in history and representative, not only of all of Irish America, but also of "Wild Geese" throughout the world. It was formed by Irish exiles in New York for the expressed purpose of gaining military training in the service of the United States to acquire martial skills to use to liberate Ireland.

Among the members of the euphemistic Emmet Monument Association who founded the 69th were Michael Doheny of Tipperary and Michael Corcoran of Sligo. The regiment itself was formed from companies of the old Irish 9th Regiment of New York plus a number of independent companies, which had not previously been part of the New York State Militia (what we would today call the Army National Guard). Late Veteran Corps Commander Barney Kelly's Company "A" of the 69th traces its lineage back through the War of 1812 to the force that assaulted Quebec, under General Richard Montgomery on December 31, 1775.

CORCORAN'S DEFIANCE

By 1860, the 69th New York had become the premiere Irish regiment in America. In that year, its new Colonel, Michael Corcoran, was called upon to parade the regiment in honor of the visiting, so-called "Prince of Wales," son of the English queen who had presided over An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger, which had decimated the Irish population at home, and forced over a million to emigrate.

The same conspirators who had formed the 69th had also, in 1858, founded the Fenian Brotherhood in America to support the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland to prepare for revolution in Ireland whenever England's difficulty might become Ireland's opportunity for liberty. Corcoran's refusal to parade was immensely popular among the Irish, but not among the Nativists, who demanded his court-martial. It was during this court-martial that Fort Sumter was fired upon. The American Civil War had begun.

Courtesy of Lt. Col. Ken Powers
The "Prince of Wales" flag, which the regiment followed into battle at Bull Run, has been restored and is archived in the 69th Regiment Armory, in Manhattan.

Would the Irish fight for the United States? That was the question. Michael Corcoran offered to lead the 69th to war, all charges against him were dropped, and the 69th New York State Militia departed for Washington under the Stars and Stripes, under their green flag with Fenian sunburst, presented by the ladies of New York to commemorate Corcoran's earlier (11th October 1860) refusal to parade (affectionately known as the "Prince of Wales" color).

The 69th responded to President Lincoln's personal appeal not to go home at the end of their 90-day enlistment, instead marching to battle at Bull Run, where they were one of the few Union units to be cited for maintaining good order and discipline throughout the day. Corcoran was captured there and, refusing parole, remained in prison for a year until exchanged. That green flag, carried so honorably, hangs in the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City today.

AN IRISH BRIGADE

When the 69th New York State Militia returned to New York, veterans of the Bull Run campaign sought to form a new 69th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment to return to the fighting front. There were so many volunteers that, inspired by the example of the Irish Brigade in the service of France (1692-1792)Thomas Francis Meagher decided to form an Irish Brigade (beginning with the 69th, 88rd, and 63th New York Volunteer Infantry regiments, and later adding the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania). The 69th and the 88th trained at Fort Schuyler, in the Bronx, before going off to war. [In recent years, County Waterford, whose banner bears the image of Meagher, has been led up Fifth Avenue during New York's parade by an Irish Brigade Honor Guard made up of authentic Civil War re-enactors (many of whom portrayed the 69th Pennsylvania in the movie "Gettysburg").]

Currier & Ives
Thomas Francis Meagher leading the Irish Brigade into battle at the Battle of Fair Oaks (May 31-June 1, 1862), as depicted in this popular Currier and Ives lithograph.

The Irish Brigade's 69th New York participated in 23 campaigns during the American Civil War, from Bull Run through Appomattox. Its dash and gallantry in the many battles of those campaigns earned for the 69th, and for the brigade, a military reputation that equaled, or eclipsed, the reputations of previous Irish Brigades. The rescue of the Irish 9th of Massachusetts at Gaines Mill (June 27, 1862), the assaults on the Bloody Lane at Antietam (September 17, 1862) and on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862), and the fight in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg(July 2, 1863) have assumed legendary stature, right up there beside the assault of the Irish Brigade in the service of France to turn the tide of battle against the English at Fontenoy (May 11, 1745).

After Michael Corcoran was freed by the Confederacy, he was invited to dine with President Abraham Lincoln in the White House, at which time Lincoln asked Corcoran to recruit what would be, in effect, a second Irish brigade for the Army of the Potomac. Now General Corcoran, with the help of comrades of the 69th New York State Militia, formed yet another 69th New York State Volunteer regiment, which became the first regiment of Corcoran's Irish Legion (including the 155th, 164th, 170th and 182nd New York), which served for the remainder of the war, suffering particularly grievous losses at Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864).

In the American Civil War, Medals of Honor were awarded to Timothy Donoghue, to Joseph Keefe and to Peter Rafferty. Since the war, the legacy of the three "69th" Regiments has resided in the one, current 69th Regiment of New York. Riamh nar druid o sbairn lann.

Lt. Col. Ken Powers, a former officer in the 69th, is the unit's regimental historian.

 

This page was produced by Gerry Regan, with research assistance from Liam Murphy.

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Tags: American Civil War, Kenneth H. Powers, New York, St. Patrick's Day Parade, The Fighting Sixty-Ninth, The Irish Sixty-Ninth, The Irish-American's Song.

Comment by Eamon Loingsigh on November 14, 2013 at 9:22am

Great and informative article Mr. Powers! Thank you so much. 

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