(First published 11/17/11) On 27th July 1861, the 69th New York State Militia regiment returned home to New York, and to a hero’s welcome, after the First Battle of Bull Run (aka “First Manassas”). Their triumphal landing at what is now Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan, was recorded -- not by a Matthew Brady photograph, but by an artist, Louis Lang, on a canvas some 11 feet wide and seven feet high. The artist’s perspective is from Bowling Green south toward New York Bay.
The story Lang’s epic painting tells is as complete as a segment on CBS News “60 Minutes.” This magnificent painting, which first went on display in October 1862, is the centerpiece of the just renovated New-York Historical Society exhibition, “Making AmericanTaste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy,” fittingly, opened to the public November 11, 2011 -- Veterans Day.
Although First Bull Run (July 21, 1861) is generally remembered as a Federal defeat, the 69th Regiment of the New York State Militia (NYSM) was one of the few Union units on the field to cover itself with glory that day. The 69th maintained good order and discipline, and combat effectiveness, throughout the engagement, and provided the rear-guard action that enabled most of the routed Union forces to escape.
The "Prince of Wales Flag," presented to the
The 69th NYSM was an “Irish” regiment, made up, in large part of Fenians, mostly natives of Ireland, who wished to acquire the military training and experience needed to defeat the vaunted British military and bring freedom to Ireland. They saw themselves as the cadre of a future Irish rising against their country’s oppressor.
Although their 90-day enlistment had expired, at the personal request of President Abraham Lincoln, they remained in active service to fight in the coming battle. Their colonel, Michael Corcoran, on October 11, 1860, had achieved international fame by refusing to parade the 69th for the visiting so-called “Prince of Wales.” He was captured at Bull Run -- yet in Lang’s stunning portrait, his image appears on the front page of the newspaper being hawked by the newsboy in the painting’s lower right-hand corner.
Another dominant figure in New York’s Irish community, Thomas Francis Meagher, “Meagher of the Sword,” became commander of Company “K” (“Meagher’s Zouaves”) at Bull Run. The famed orator, and a leader of the 1848 Rising in Ireland, is seen, on horseback, near the center of the painting, doffing his hat to the cheering welcomers. In response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers, Meagher would soon raise and command “The Irish Brigade” of the Union's Army of the Potomac. The Brigade’s first regiment would be the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry -- drawing many from the 69th NYSM.
The New-York Historical Society, at 170 Central Park West at 77th Street, offered a Nov. 9 preview of Lang’s work, in the society’s new, main-floor art gallery, which houses the exhibit including Lang’s painting. The society invited members of the 69th Regiment of New York, whose Army lineage includes the 69th New York State Militia, the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry of the “Irish Brigade,” and the 69th New York National Guard Artillery of Corcoran’s “Irish Legion.” Also invited were members (including this writer) of the 69th Regiment Historical Roundtable.
Also present -- underscoring the nexus between the regiment, the Irish experience worldwide and Mother Ireland -- was Ann Cusack, owner of the Granville Hotel,Meagher Quay, Waterford, Ireland. The building, before it became a hotel, was the boyhood home of Meagher. Cusack was presented with an 8½” x 13” print of Lang’s 87” x 140” painting. Prints, by the way, are available in the New-York Historical Society bookshop.
The significance of this painting goes beyond its special meaning to the Irish, the New York National Guard, and the military generally. It is an extraordinary work of art, appropriately included in the society’s exhibit of mid-19th century American artistic tastes.
It is even more -- a positive gesture toward the Irish in a time of Nativist, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment and a most artistic example of what The New York Times’ art critic Robin Pogrebin described in her October 16, 2011, article, headlined “When Applying the Paint Was Spreading the News.” Pogrebin wrote, “Huge, detailed and colorful, [Lang’s canvas] comes from an era when paintings were expressive and descriptive, tools not only to evoke emotions, but also to do the very real work of simply documenting and recounting history.”
The painting itself was donated to the New-York Historical Society by the artist in 1886, and remained on display until some time after the Second World War, after which it seems to have been stored away and neglected, until it was rediscovered, in pieces, in 1977. In 2006, it was decided to assemble the jigsaw-puzzle-like painting and restore it. A 1940s black-and-white photo of the painting, plus the original 1862 descriptive brochure from Goupil’s Gallery, were helpful to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts, which was given the assignment. After more than five years and investment of $220,000, the result is a masterpiece, which looks as if it has just been painted. It is a treasure for all Americans.
Making American Taste exhibition features 55 works from the New-York Historical Society’s collection, each informing the history of American art and the molding of American cultural ideals from the 1830s through the 1860s. The exhibit gives pride of place to The Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, an oil-on-canvas work painted in 1862. The exhibition will be open through August 19, 2012, except for April 1 through May 4.
However, since the Commander of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, Lieutenant Colonel James Gonyo, also left with a print, it is more than likely that that print will be on display by next year in the 69th Regiment Armory, today on Lexington Avenue and 26th Street.
“The Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment” -- too big to travel when the rest of the show goes on the road -- will be installed at the entrance to the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, on the society’s fourth floor. Do not miss it, or the rest of the show. WG