In the early dawn hours of April 12th, 1861 a shell from a 10-inch mortar exploded over Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, the first shot in America’s Civil War which would claim over 600,000 lives. Three days later, President Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 volunteers from the state militia to join the Army in helping to put down the rebellion and preserve the Union. On April 23rd, the second of NY’s militia units, the 69th drawn from NY’s Irish American Community, marched past what is now Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral to waiting ships that would take them south and to the war’s first battle at Manassas. The Irish Americans of the 69th likely shared the eternal belief of soldiers marching off to war before and since that it would be a “short war” and “they would be home soon.” None of them knew that many of their ranks would never return and that this was the start of the bloodiest four years in American history. On that day, the 69th was marching into history and legend as the first regiment of what would later become the famed Irish Brigade.
It was an irony that only the Irish could appreciate that as they were marching past Old St. Patrick’s they were marching past walls that were erected by fellow Irishmen, maybe even some in the ranks that day, to protect the church from being burned down by anti-Irish nativists who claimed that the Irish Catholics could never be loyal Americans. Yet, here were hundreds of Irish American marching to defend their adopted country. While help wanted ads still ran in newspapers with the phrase “Any country or color except Irish”, it seemed that that prejudice was now suspended when it came to the war.
The 69th was born out of the nativists questioning of Irish American loyalties and the failed Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. With the failure of the rebellion in Ireland, Irish nationalist activity transferred to the large immigrant community of New York. Exiled leaders of the rebellion saw the formation of militia companies as a means of showing loyalty to their adopted country while creating a training cadre for future struggles for Ireland’s independence. In late 1848, they organized independent military companies in the city that eventually became the “First Irish Regiment” with former Young Irelander Michael Doheny as a company commander. Doheny would be the driving force behind the creation of several additional Irish American Regiments. In 1849, New York State mustered the “First Irish Regiment” into the State Militia as the 9th NY regiment. Soon after the “Second Irish Regiment” was formed and mustered into the NY State Militia on November 1, 1851 as the 69th Regiment. Subsequent Irish Regiments were also raised, but eventually all, including the 9th, would be consolidated into the 69th.
In October of 1860 it was announced that the 19-year-old Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne, would visit New York City. New Yorkers, saving the Irish, were swept up in the equivalent of “Royal Fever”. A military parade followed by a Grand Ball was organized. NY State militia units, including the 69th Regiment, were to march in the parade to be reviewed by the Prince. The men of the 69th, many forced into immigration because of British indifference to the plight of the Irish during the Great Hunger, took the order as an insult. The 69th commanding officer Colonel Michael Corcoran issued a statement that he “ …could not in good conscience order out a regiment of Irish born citizens to parade in honour of a sovereign, under whose reign Ireland was made a desert and her sons forced into exile.”. For his refusal to march in the parade, Corcoran was arrested and held for court martial. However, with the attack on Fort Sumter, and realizing that a unit such as the 69th could not be spared, the charges were quickly dropped and Corcoran was returned to command to lead his regiment south.
In the first battle of the Civil War, a disaster for the Union Army that would be called First Manassas, the regiment served in William Tecumseh Sherman’s brigade and distinguished itself for its professionalism. It was one of the few Union regiments to retain discipline in the face of the Confederate victory, this despite the wounding and capture of its commanding officer Col. Corcoran. While other units broke and ran for Washington, the 69th served as the Army of the Potomac’s rear guard, successfully holding off Confederate Cavalry under Jeb Stuart and helping to avoid total disaster. It would not be the last time.
The distinguished performance of the 69th at Manassas led to the formation of the Irish Brigade of five Irish American regiments organized under another Young Irelander, Thomas Francis Meagher, whose name would be forever entwined with it. In the early years of the Civil War, when the Union Army suffered crushing defeat after crushing defeat, it was often only the regiments of the Irish Brigade that prevented total Confederate victory, causing Confederate General E. P. Alexander to observe of the early war Union Army “His cavalry is numerous but can’t ride and his infantry, except the Irish, can’t fight.” The Irish Brigade and its fist regiment the 69th fully lived up to the motto emblazoned on its green regimental flag “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn Iann” (“They shall never retreat from the charge of lances”). The Irish Brigade and the 69th earned this reputation at a terrible price, the Brigade would suffer more than 4,000 casualties, more than the total of men who served in it at any one time, and the 69th would suffer more casualties than any other NY Regiment in the war. The 69th’s battle honors include almost every significant battle of the eastern theater of the Civil War: Manassas, First Bull Run, Peninsula Campaign, Fair Oaks, Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Appomattox
On August 22, 2006 Mayor Bloomberg unveiled a monument to the 69th, honoring their sacrifice in defense of America. Sadly, the monument is in Ballymote, Co. Sligo, there is no similar monument to the 69th in neither the city nor the state which they served so loyally. As we enter into the 150th Anniversary of the war that made America a whole nation, let us not forget the brave Irish Americans who made it so and ensure their sacrifice are recognized and remembered.
Historian Neil F. Cosgrove
Did You Know That?
- At the Battle of First Manassas, the Irish Americans of the NY 69th engaged what would become one of the most famous infantry units of the Confederacy, Wheat’s Tigers, composed predominantly of Irish Americans from New Orleans.
- The 69th’s commanding Officer Col. Michael Corcoran was captured at First Manassas. While Corcoran was imprisoned the U.S. had made threats to execute captured Confederate privateers. Corcoran was one of several Union prisoners who were selected by lot for execution if the U.S. carried out its threats against the privateers. Thankfully no such executions took place and Corcoran was exchanged and promoted to Brigadier General.
- The 69th is the only regiment of the Irish Brigade that is still in existence and it maintains the traditions of all the Irish Brigade Regiments from the Civil War.
- President John Fitzgerald Kennedy opened his address to Irish Parliament on June 28, 1963 with a tribute to the gallantry of the Fighting 69th and presented the Irish nation with the regimental flag carried by the regiment in the American Civil War. It is currently on display at Leinster House, Dublin.
- Of Six commanding Officers of the Irish Brigade, only two would survive the war.