'The Fighting 69th' Makes History, Yet Again

By Gerry Regan

The emblem of the Washington Artillery of the Louisiana National Guard.

NEW YORK -- More than 150 years after its founding, the 69th Infantry continues to make history, today in conjunction with members of Louisiana's National Guard, its one-time Confederate foes. The storied regiment, part of the New York Army National Guard, has just completed a nearly year-long tour of duty in Iraq, where it made frequent headlines in New York newspapers. The 69th was brigaded with Louisiana units, fighting and dying side by side, sharing camaraderie and respect with the Southerners.

It was only 140 years or so ago that men from these two locales were pitted against each other during America's Civil War, so their shared destiny in Iraq, along with the subsequent ravages of Katrina, adds more poignancy to these soldiers' newly completed homecoming. WGT Managing Editor Joe Gannon elaborates on those bonds, both past and present, in a newly minted feature, headlined"Dying Together: From Bull Run to Baghdad."

Harper's Illustrated Weekly
Michael Corcoran

Also creating some news copy this month is Michael Corcoran, no matter that he's been dead for more than 141 years. Admirers of the former Fenian leader, the 69th's most famous commander during the so-called Southern War for Independence, are in town raising funds and generating buzz for their effort to honor him and the 69th with a monument and research center in Ballymote, County Sligo (population 981, up from 975 in 1837). We'll have more on the effort in the coming months, but meanwhile, check our archives to get up to speed on Corcoran's heroics.

But back to today's 69th: Amicable ties with Louisiana, among the most Irish of Southern states, undoubtedly began much earlier, but Louisiana donated a fire pumper, dubbed the "Spirit of Louisiana," to the city of New York after the attacks of Sept. 11th. A contingent from the Fire Department of New York, long a haven for Irish-Americans, recently drove the truck to New Orleans, where more than 300 volunteers from the FDNY contributed to the relief effort.

The 69th proudly claims them as brothers-in-arms.

The 69th, too, as one might imagine, pitched in after Sept. 11, dramatically coming to the notice of a new generation of New Yorkers, serving in lower Manhattan and at West Point, providing New Yorkers with an additional sense of security as the city worked to recover the remains of those killed in the incident. As well, its armory became a processing center for those searching for loved ones caught in the attack, becoming a frequent backdrop to news reports.

The regiment, when founded in 1849, attracted Irish immigrants new to New York who looked for opportunities denied to them in Ireland. Bristling at centuries of British oppression of their homeland, they welcomed the opportunity to train militarily, to both prove themselves worthy participants in American democracy and to gather skills they hoped to use to overthrow British rule in Ireland. By 1860, the 69th had become the premier Irish regiment in the New World.

D.T. Valentine's Manual, 1862
The 69th NYSM leaves St. Patrick's Old Cathedral to travel to the seat of the war, April 23, 1861.

It was Confederate commander Robert E. Lee who first called the regiment "The Fighting 69th," providing the regiment with the sobriquet that it carries proudly forward into a new century. It was a title that would find its way onto theaters marquees across the United States in 1940, when Jimmy Cagney and Pat O'Brien and County Dublin native George Brent helped further the regiment's hallowed traditions in the popular film, "The Fighting 69th."

The film underscores the unit's pedigree as one of the U.S. Army's best-known regiments. During World War 1, the 69th was assigned to the Rainbow Division, along with National Guard units from many other states, including those from the former Confederacy. In a memorable scene, Cagney and other Irish-American soldiers find themselves face to face with that legacy as Alabama guardsmen tell the New Yorkers "We whup your pants" at Marye's Heights, during the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg. 

Jimmy Cagney

The 69th lost 34 soldiers there, one in seven engaged, as they attempted to dislodge Confederates from behind the stone wall. WGT Contributing Editor Liam Murphy tells us more about the film, and how it reflected both the ongoing national reconciliation and the 69th's already formidable reputation.

There certainly was no love lost between North and South by the Civil War's close in 1865. Lincoln worked to quell the North's desire for retribution, but his assassination fueled the very forces he set out to temper.

The 69th, one of Fox's legendary "300 Fighting Regiments," squared off with units from the late Confederacy on battlefields throughout the Civil War, and perhaps no soldiers provided stouter resistance than those from Louisiana, which, by the way, had no shortage of Irishmen in its ranks. Louisiana, in fact, according to Louisiana state Ancient Order of Hibernians historians Terrence Fitzmorris and John D. Fitzmorris III, was second only to New York as a point of entry for Irish entering the United States from 1847 to 1853, the darkest years of An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger (aka, The Famine).

This shared history came full circle in Iraq, as the 69th was assigned to duty with the Louisiana-based 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, aka the "Tiger" Brigade, from the Louisiana Army National Guard. In fact, nine members of the Louisiana National Guard died while assigned to the 69th, as part of Task Force Wolfhound (the regimental mascot). The 69th proudly claims them as brothers-in-arms, forever part of the heritage of "The Fighting 69th."

The emblem of the 256th Infantry "Tiger" Brigade.

As the unit flew home piecemeal in the first weeks of September, the poignancy of their service comes into greater relief. Their losses in Iraq include 19 killed and 17 wounded in Iraq, and so the unit's homecoming was bittersweet for the family of those who died. Meanwhile, Hurricane Katrina struck as the unit prepared their return. Their comrades in arms, men from the Louisiana National Guard, return to a region devastated by Hurricane Katrina, trading the death and destruction in Iraq for that in greater New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.

Some of the Louisiana soldiers have lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. According to a report on MSNBC.com, all will qualify for a 14-day leave and then be eligible for demobilization. The first contingent stopped at Shannon Airport for their jet to refuel, and, over beer and cognac, watched TV images of the destruction in Louisiana.

More help is on the way, much of it green, of course, but some of it also coming from "The Wearin' of the Green." Looking to assist New Orlean's hundreds of thousands of refugees, relief organizations have raised more than $500 million to funnel into the disaster area. Among those helping is the national Ancient Order of Hibernians, which has established its own Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. The AOH Charitable Gift Corp. has announced that it would work with the Louisiana National Guard to target assistance to Katrina's victims.

By the way, look for the 69th's official homecoming ceremony at the regiment's armory March 17, the day the unit traditionally leads New York's parade up 5th Avenue. WGT

RELATED LINKS:

Dying Together: From Bull Run to Baghdad

69th NY National Guard

Filmmaker Loach's 'Route Irish' Indicts Privatization of Iraq War

256th Infantry Brigade (Mechanized)

New York Army National Guard Home Page

Irish Soldiers in Iraq: Past and Present

Company A, 69th New York Volunteers Re-enactment Unit

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