The Stories Behind the Songs: 'The Irish Sixty-Ninth'

Other "stories behind the songs"

"Kelly's Irish Brigade"
"Camp song of the Chicago Irish Brigade"

Click to buy "The Irish-American's Song"

Several years ago, those of us who are fascinated with America's Civil War and also interested in Irish history were delighted by the release of the album"The Irish Volunteer" by David Kincaid. Because the war occurred only a decade after the huge influx of Irish into the country during "The Great Hunger", many of the new Irish immigrants became enmeshed in the horrific conflict on both sides. It has ever been the Irish wont to write and sing songs about their trials and tribulations—which have often seemed never ending. The Civil War gave them inspiration aplenty, and in the mid-1990s, David Kincaid, who is both a Civil War reenactor and an accomplished professional musician, began a personal—and we can now happily say, successful—mission to revive many of the long-lost songs they left behind. With the help of researchers and librarians, and the collaboration of some of the finest Irish traditional musicians playing today, "The Irish Volunteer" was the first fruit of David's mission. Now he has released his second volume, "The Irish-American's Song." This CD covers songs of both the Union and Confederacy. Each song tells a tale of the people and their time. Over the next several months, David will be giving us more information about the songs on his new album. As the album's liner notes read: "They fought for the Blue, the Gray, and the Green. These are their stories in song."— Joseph Gannon, Managing Editor, WGT


The Stories Behind the Songs:
'The Irish Sixty-Ninth'

By David Kincaid
Special to The Wild Geese Today

Like much of the amazing historical song material I have been so fortunate as to find and record, "The Irish Sixty-Ninth" was discovered in an unlikely and roundabout way. While I was on tour in Germany in 1988, a friend who was employed in a Bremen music archive, aware of my deep interest in the Civil War period, handed me a cassette tape he had recorded from an album by an American folk singer named Frank Warner. It was an out-of-print collection of songs from the American Civil War, originally released in the 1950s, and included such haunting tunes as "Virginia's Bloody Soil," sung in his commanding and emotional baritone voice.

The Warner Collection
"Yankee" John Galusha

This man, as I would find out years later, was not only an amazing folk singer, but a great collector and musicologist, who, beginning in 1938, had scoured the country for 40 years in search of folk songs of every variety. The collection he would amass and publish in 1984 is breathtaking, and of inestimable historic value. He and his wife, Anne, would spend their summer vacations rooting out this or that obscure mountain singer, documenting the lyrics and background, and making primitive recordings on their early Philco battery-powered disc recorder. In 1998, unaware that such a book existed, I stumbled upon a reprint of it and snapped it up immediately.

One of the great musical characters they met in their travels was "Yankee" John Galusha, who was 80 years old in 1939. He had spent his life in the North Country of the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, in and around the village of Minerva, and was well-known for his remarkable abilities in memorizing long stories and songs in the Irish oral tradition. Yankee John's antecedents were said to be Irish, as were those of his neighbors, and he knew many an Irish song, a number of them referencing the American Civil War. His connection to the conflict was close—he had two older brothers who had served in it, and brother Stillman died at home in March 1865 of wounds received while fighting with the 96th New York Infantry Regiment nine months earlier at Cold Harbor, Virginia.

A key to unearthing the song was "Yankee" John Galusha, an 80-year-old singer with a prodigious memory for long stories and songs in the Irish oral tradition.

"The Irish Sixty-Ninth" was one of the songs performed for the Warners, and Yankee John—80 years old, it must be remembered—amazingly recalled eight long verses, full of colorful detail. The subject of the lyric is not the famed 69th New York. This is clear from its reference to Welsh-born Colonel Joshua Thomas Owen in the second verse, a commander of the predominantly Irish 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, a true "green flag regiment." The unit was recruited in the Philadelphia area in the summer of 1861, originally to become part of Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher's Irish Brigade.

Due to the politics of the time and the quotas imposed on the states by the Federal government (Pennsylvania's governor feared credit for the regiment would go to New York, the Irish Brigade being formed of regiments principally from that state), they would never join that fabled unit, serving instead with another outfit of equally tough reputation: the "Philadelphia Brigade." Although the song provides a fairly accurate history of the regiment through the end of 1862, the unit went on to fight many battles, including the July 1863 battle of Gettysburg—the 69th Pennsylvania's finest combat hour among many—and served with distinction to the end of the war.

Aided by the Internet, further research would reveal that the song was in the extraordinary collection of the Library of Congress, and had been published in 1863 as a broadside (lyric sheet with no music notation), by J. H. Johnson, Song Publisher, Stationer & Printer, No. 7 N. Tenth St. 3 doors above Market, Phila, under this title:


IRISH VOLUNTEERS Penn'a's Gallant 69th.


Historical Art Prints
The 69 Pennsylvania withstands the onslaught of Pickett's Charge on a day when the regiment truly was the "Rock of Erin," as depicted here by artist Don Troiani. 

Dedicated to the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers by M. FAY.

The broadside lists the song's air (melody) as "McKenny’s (McKenna’s) Dream." To our great fortune, Frank Warner had every song he found transcribed into music notation, and consequently, "Yankee" John's rendition of this was there in its full glory. The melody turned out to be a classic, though not necessarily the "McKenna's Dream" mentioned above. That melody was found in "Old Irish Folk Music & Songs" by P.W. Joyce (Dublin, 1909), and though it sounds in many ways similar to "Yankee" John's version, it is difficult, as anyone who has delved into folk music can attest, to determine if it is precisely the same tune, as variations in folk music are known to be endless. For myself, "Yankee" John's was the preferred version, although in my arrangement I took it from a 4/4 time signature to that of 6/8, giving it more of the rhythmic feel of a jig.

The broadside also revealed the song had 10 verses instead of John's eight, though may be "Yankee" John had only seen eight. Broadsides of the same lyric were often printed in different versions by different publishers during the Civil War (copyright laws being lax, to put it mildly), and some of these versions were often abbreviated. He also had one verse out of chronological order, and had mispronounced the name of the 69th's later commander, Colonel O'Kane ("O'Keene" according to

Yankee John), who was killed along with Lt. Col. Martin Tschudy, holding the center of the line against the Pickett/Trimble charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. About 45 percent of the regiment became casualties.

"Yankee" John Galusha should not only be forgiven for any minor mistakes, but remembered with great reverence for the astounding wealth of historical songs his great memory has bestowed upon us. Frank and Anne Warner should be remembered with no less esteem. It is my sincere hope that the release of this recording will also help to ensure that the memory of the fighting 69th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, and the great sacrifices of its men, will never be forgotten.

Listen to a cut from the song.

Buy the CD now.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Author David Kincaid, pictured right at Gettysburg, has been the lead singer and guitarist with the rock group, The Brandos, for quite some time. A Manhattan resident, Dave is a keen student of the Irish experience during the Civil War, and re-enacts with Co. I, 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers. His new album, "The Irish-American's Song," can be ordered online from Haunted Fields Music.


Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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Tags: American Civil War, David Kinkaid, John Galusha, The Fighting Sixty-Ninth, The Irish Sixty-Ninth, The Irish Volunteer, The Irish-American's Song.


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