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The 69th Regiment of the American Civil War
The 69th Brigade - The Fighting Irish
"They shall never retreat from the charge of lances!
The Bravest Irish Infantrymen - Battle of Bull Run
All told, the 69th Brigade were engaged in 8 battles of the American Civil War.
- Mannassass , VA 1861
- Yorktown, VA 1862
- Antietam, MA 1862
- Fredericksburg, VA 1862
- Gettysburg, PA 1863
- Chancellorville, VA 1863
- Petersburg VA, 1864
- Appomattox, VA 1865
The 69th Brigade was formed out of three units - New York 69th Infantry, the 182nd Infantry New York State Volunteers and the 69th National Guard Infantry State Militia.
In spite of the federal governments reluctance to form military units on ethnic grounds, the 69th Regiment was formed in the main by those of Irish descent living in New York State and surrounding areas.
Indeed, many of them were Irish born and bred, including their illustrious leader Colonel Michael Corcoran. The Civil War occurred within 20 years of the Irish Famine and many of those who emigrated were active in the military in the Civil War.
Corcoron was under court-martial when the Civil War began and was drafted into action immediately after the attack of Fort Sumter, his misdemeanors overlooked in this, the Union's hour of need.
The 69th Brigade's first action of the civil was in the Battle of Bull Run (also known as the Battle of Manassass) when they were part of Colonel Sherman's brigade. In spite of some gains against the 4th Alabama Regiment, the 69th Brigade were left high and dry by others in the batallion.
Sherman panicked under heavy fire and his men disbanded in all directions; most of them fleeing north in the direction of Washington DC.
The Fighting Irish retreated later than the others and Corcoron was captured by the Confederates and imprisoned. The 69th Regiment thereafter came under the command of Colonel Burnside.
Bull Run was a wake up call for the Union who realised that the quick call to arms following the attack of Fort Sumter had left them ill prepared for the battles to come. It is fair to say that both sides left the bloody Battle of Bull Run under no illusions of the fight ahead.
The Fighting Irish, unlike some of the other brigades, retreated still fighting towards the north.
The Federal government under Lincoln went back to the drawing board and reconsidered their plans for their advance South and the defeat of the Confederate Army.
"Strange, is it not, that battles, martyrs, blood, even assassination should so condense - perhaps only really lastingly condense - a Nationality."
"The pageant has passed. That day is over. But we linger, loath to think we shall see them no more - these men, these horses, these colours afield."
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Yorktown, Antietam and Fredericksburg - 1862
The 69th Regiment fought as part of a more unified force, the Army of the Potomac, with Captain Thomas Meagher in charge.
Meagher was certainly an Irishman with an interesting past. He was exiled in New York after escaping from Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania) when he was transported there by the British after his rebellion in Ireland during the 1840s.
The regiment were engaged in an engineering role at Yorktown, preparing roads, paths and camps for advancing Union troops. Their own camp was well organised too with lots of shamrocks and harps on display to show their roots.
Amazingly, they even had time to organise a horse race for amusement, the Chickahominy River Steeplechase where officers rode their horses over open land, hurdles and fences. The prize of a tigerskin was won by Major Cavanagh.
In July 1862, Meagher returned north to undertake more recruitment and returned with 250 troops to strengthen the 69th Regiment. He had had a tough time though with Corcoran also recruiting Irish men to his own 'Legion'. Meagher had hoped to return with several hundred troops but competition for Irish troops was too hot and 250 was the best he could manage.
The Battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest battle of the Civil War with over 22,000 men dead or wounded. The 69th Regiment saw most of the men fall dead or wounded at that battle but their acts of bravery astonished the Confederates.
Colour bearers (flag bearers) all fell dead or wounded and their commanding officer tried to drive on those remaining without their flags. Other soldiers took the flags from fallen comrades and advanced anew, the flags full of bullet holes and covered in their comrades blood.
Meagher's new recruitment drive was wiped out in one fell swoop as almost all of those new 250 troops were killed in this one battle. Still the 69th Regiment returned to camps and held aloft their symbols and colours, their flags emblazoned with harps and shamrocks - beaten but unbowed.
After Antietam, the Regiment lost its commanding officer, George McClellan who was replaced by General Ambrose Burnside.
Many of the men considered leaving the army because they respected McClellan but the 69th Regiment were talked around by Captain Meagher who reminded them that they were 'American' and fighting for their new country.
After a winter encamped in Virginia, Burnside readied his men for perhaps their greatest test at Fredericksburg. In spite of reinforcing the Irish Brigade with additions to the 69th Regiment the Irishmen were always fighting a losing battle.
Burnside was let down as a result of logistics. Pontoon bridges meant to cross rivers for the advance towards Richmond did not arrive in time and Burnside moved too slowly, allowing Lee to take the initiative; effectively moving the battle to Fredericksburg.
The 69th Regiment were honoured by Lee after their battling display on Zook's flank. Lee, thereafter caling them 'the fighting Irish'.
Fredericksburg was a battle involving over 200,000 men, a long and bloody affair in which the union were beaten back. not by any lack of bravery but in failures in the chain of supply to troops at the front line. Lee took full advantage of the union's inability to press forward.
Gettysburg - 1863
Gettysburg is often described as the turning point of the Civil War.
The 69th Regiment, whose numbers were much depleted after Frederickburg and Meagher's failed attempts to bolster the Irish Brigade marched all night along Taneytown Road and advanced into Rose's Wheatfield in pursuit of Confederates hiding in woods beyond the wheatfield.
The Regiment were by this time a tiny force yet their contribution was very telling. They were lined up facing westwards, bolstering the advance of the 116th Pennsylvania and 28th Massachusteetes Regiment. Other infantrymen were provided by the 88th, 63rd and 69th New York Regiments(New York again well represented).
In spite of being small in numbers, the 69th Regiment overcame the 7th South Carolina, taking prisoners along the way.
On 1st July they advanced on Gettysburg, only 75 men strong. By the end of the campaign at Gettysburg a further 25 men had died leaving the 69th Regiment a quarter of its original complement of men.
After some minor skirmishes at the end of the war, the 69th Regiment finally began their return to New York, marching home to a city grateful for their efforts.
They were marched down Pennsylvania Avenue waving their flags; being loudly cheered by the crowds.
Each man had a small sprig of boxwood in his hat; the same one which was given to them before the Battle of Fredericksburg by their commanding officer - meant as a sort of good luck charm for the fighting Irish who wore it.
So many of their comrades had fallen, it must have been a day of mixed emotions.
69th Regiment Since The Civil War
The 69th Regiment were mustered out of Federal service on 30th June 1865 having served full war service for the union cause.
The 69th regiment has served in one configuration or another in 5 wars -
- Civil War
- World War 1
- World War 2
- Iraq War
- Afghanistan War
During World War 1, it was renamed the 165th Regiment but retained its Irish heritage. The regiment saw a lot of action in World War 1, 60 men were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Once again, they returned to their native New York to huge gratitude and celebration.
During World War 2 the 69th Regiment served in the Pacific in the fight against the Japanese.
They have also served in the more recent war on terror campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 69th Regiment's heart is an Irish heart - not all of its men are of Irish descent but each of them understands the history of the 69th regiment and that it was formed, in the main, from a group of immigrants only too eager to prove that their new country meant everything to them.
The Irish had left their homeland during a famine for a new opportunity on the American east coast and within 20 years, they and their sons were engaged in a civil war.
They carried their Celtic flag into each battle with hearts bursting with pride. They took a priest with them to grant absolution before they went into battle - the story of the 69th Regiment is a truly human story - men showing their mettle and fighting for their new nation with their old nation's pride.
Irish Americans one and all.