Dying Together: From Bull Run to Baghdad

By Joseph E. Gannon (originally published in 2006)

Millions of people across the world were horrified when they heard reports of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. One such group was far from home and surely more horrified than any other: the men and women of the Louisiana Army National Guard in Iraq. They began returning home in September, a process now complete, but for some not to the same lives they left behind.

While in Iraq they served with another group of soldiers who became familiar with immense tragedy: The famous "Fighting" 69th of the New York Army National Guard, whose members served their fellow New Yorkers in the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11. This was not the first close contact between the 69th and combat units from Louisiana, however.

On a late afternoon of a pleasant July 1st, southeast of Richmond, Va., in 1862, grimly determined men dressed in blue from the 69th and 88th New York Volunteers of the Irish Brigade were ordered into a wooded section of Malvern Hill. There, they encountered equally determined men wearing gray, including the men of the 10th Louisiana Volunteers.

Courtesy of Brad Schmehl
The Irish Brigade and 10th Louisiana fight hand to hand at Malvern Hill in "Donnybrook at Dusk" by Brad Schmehl.

Soldiers seldom met in hand-to-hand fighting during the American Civil War, but on this occasion they did. Face to face, they killed and wounded each other with bayonets, bowie knifes, clubbed muskets, and bare hands. The 10th Louisiana, which would come to be known as "Lee's Foreign Legion," included many men from Ireland. No doubt at some point in the tangle of humanity Irishmen fought Irishmen.

When it was over, the Confederates had been repulsed with heavy losses, but the New Yorkers had suffered as well. The New York regiments had 22 killed and more than 100 wounded. The 10th had lost 22 dead and 36 wounded, with 26 captured, including their commanding officer, Col. Eugene Waggaman. The dead and wounded were strewn along the ground, as they had been at the first major battle at Bull Run and would be in every major battle in the East during the war.

On Jan. 6, 2005, just outside the village of Awad Al-Hussein, in Iraq, six National Guard soldiers from Louisiana and one from New York, serving in the 256th Infantry Brigade, the "Tiger" Brigade, died while riding in the same Bradley fighting vehicle, after a roadside bomb detonated. Louisianians and a New Yorker, dying together again, 142 years later, but this time fighting a common enemy.

Pfc. Kenneth G. VonRonn

The New Yorker was newly wed Kenneth VonRonn, from upstate Pine Bush. The Louisianians were Kurt Comeaux, of Raceland; Huey Fassbender, of LaPlace; Warren Murphy; of Marrero; and three men from Houma, with a population of about 30,000: Bradley Bergeron, Christopher Babin, and Armand Frickey. That three from a town could perish while serving together in a conflict illustrates a danger that exists in National Guard units today, as it did for many of these units' Civil War forebears. Units recruited locally, and bad news from the battlefield could, and does, wreak tremendous pain on small communities.

The 256th Infantry "Tiger" Brigade (Mechanized) is based in Louisiana, and traces its nickname to the 1st Special Lousiana "Tiger" Battalion of the Civil war. During its deployment to Iraq, it included National Guard troops from Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as the men of the 69th. The permanent units of the 256th include the 156th Infantry and the 141st Field Artillery of the Louisiana National Guard.

Historical Art Prints
The famous Washington Artillery, Army of Northern Virginia, in action at Antietam, portrayed by artist Don Troiani.

The 141st Field Artillery was formed as the Washington Artillery in 1838 and first fought with Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War. During the Civil War it was,arguably, the most famous artillery unit of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. On Dec. 13, 1862, its guns, frowning down from Marye's Heights in Fredericksburg, Va., helped repulse the desperate charge that included the 69th and the rest of the Irish Brigade.

The 156th Infantry's history predates Louisiana's statehood, and it has something in common with the 69th: There is an Irish element to its origins. The 156th traces its history to the "The Regiment of City Militia" of New Orleans, organized in 1769 by the governor of Louisiana province. The province was then under Spain's control, and the man whom the Spanish had appointed governor of the province was General Don Alejandro "Bloody" O'Reilly, born in Baltrasna, County Meath, in 1723.

The 69th has often invoked its spiritual connection to the Irish Brigade that served in the French army prior to the French Revolution. In the Union Army, Irish Brigade commmander Thomas Francis Meagher at times used the battle cry, "Remember Fontenoy," referring to the greatest victory of France's Irish Brigade.

General Don Alejandro "Bloody" O'Reilly

Spain also had a long history of Irishmen serving in its army, extending into the 19th century. One of the most famous was the Hibernia Regiment, formed in 1710. O'Reilly served in that regiment, joining it as a cadet while still a child. He eventually rose so high in the esteem of the Spanish government that he was sent to retake the Louisiana province in 1769, following a revolt there by French residents. This he did, earning his sobriquet, "Bloody," by executing six of the insurrection leaders, and forming militia regiments to help control the region. Thus, through him, the 156th can claim connection to the Irish regiments of Spain.

The 156th has continued on in some form. In the Civil War, it became the 2nd and 3rd Louisiana Volunteer Infantry regiments. The 2nd fought in all major battles of Lee's Army from the spring of 1862 through the war's end. In nearly every one, the soldiers of the 69th were fighting on the other side. That included Malvern Hill, where the two units fought on different parts of the field.

Sgt. Christian P. Engeldrum, the first member of the 69th, and the first New York City firefighter, to die in Iraq.

In the end, 10 men of the 69th lost their lives in Iraq, and 9 soldiers from Louisiana died while serving with the 69th. Many of the Louisiana guardsmen were from the New Orleans area. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they found themselves more worried about their friends and family at home than about their own well-being. Houma has been hosting more than 1,200 refugees from New Orleans.

The days when soldiers from Louisiana and New York were trying to kill each other is a part of history. The men of these storied military units are now comrades who fought, and in some cases, died, together, on the roads and fields in Iraq. These former foes' service represents yet a new chapter in American military history.


Members of the "Fighting 69th" / TASK FORCE WOLFHOUND
who made the ultimate sacrifice for a free Iraq, for a secure America, and for their brothers in arms - they have joined the legion of the fallen of the Fighting 69th, their memory must be kept forever green.

Azhar Ali
Kurt Comeaux
Armond Frickey
Henry E. Irizarry
Wilfredo Urbina
Hernando Rios
David Michael Fisher
Christopher Babin
Christian Engeldrum
Peter J. Hahn
Wai Phoy Lwin
Kenneth Von Ronn
Alain Kamolvathin
Christian Reardon*
*died in training
Bradley Bergeron
Huey Fassbender
Paul Heltzel
Warren Murphy
Anthony Kalladeen
Gerard Baptiste#
#FDNY killed 9/11/01

Members Wounded in Action

Jacque Ballay
Sebastian Cila
Jose Dorsey
Joseph Frisella
Michael Kazmierzak
Miguel Luna
Rustin May
Brian Rathburn
George Smith
Paul Christian Walter
Har Wing Sum
Bryan Beaudreaux
André Blake
Richard Cornier
Juan Espaillat
Seán Gilday
Heflyn Lalite
William Macy (2)
Adrian Melendez
Todd Reed
Daniel James Swift
Edward Walther
Brian Jesus Lopez
Jin Chen
Richard Strzalka
Randolph Burgher
John Cushman
John Fernandez
Anthony Gilkes
Bernard Leinfelder
Daniel Maiella
Jerry Moore
Colin Smith
Felix Vargas
Cody Ward
Donald Spence
Alexannie Kairupan
Casey Carroll
Damien Dickson
Christian Franco
John Hersey
Mario Lozano
Jeff Maldonado
Rakesh Ramnarine
Derrick Smith
Rafael Vasquez
Daniel Barr
David Lluvera
Vincent Brown


Views: 1251

Tags: Asia, Diaspora History, Military History, United States

Comment by Al on February 20, 2014 at 6:00pm

You forgot to mention the several Confederate Irish Units ? Also the General Officers of Irish Heritage.........just saying ;)


"Up the Republic"

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 9, 2016 at 8:43am

Al, this article wasn't meant to be a recap of all the Irish participation in the Civil War. It was specifically about the relationship of the 69th NY and the LA Guard units that fought each other during the Civil War, and served together in Iraq.


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