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Hibernian Chronicle: Edward T. O’Donnell139 years ago: the 69th has a baptism by fire

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The firing upon of Fort Sumter in April 1861 set the stage for Irish glory the following summer.

In the summer of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln faced a dilemma. The Civil War had begun officially in April with the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and his subsequent call for volunteers brought hundreds of thousands of men to recruiting stations across the North. All seemed to agree that this would be a short and glorious war. Surely they’d all be home by Christmas, if not sooner. All they had to do was march south, sweep aside the inferior "rebs," and seize Richmond, the Confederate capital.

But Lincoln knew better. He knew his army lacked experience and training. He also understood that his aged general, Winfield Scott, had devised a wise plan for subduing the rebellion. Dubbed the "Anaconda Plan" because it proposed to slowly strangle southern resistance, it called for a tight naval blockade of the southern coast and the seizure of the Mississippi to divide the Confederacy. The problem was that such a plan would likely take months, perhaps years, to implement — far too long given the mounting pressure for decisive military action. Before long, sooner than he wanted, Lincoln would have to heed the call of "On to Richmond!"

That moment came on July 21 when 30,000 Union soldiers under Gen. Irwin McDowell headed south toward the town of Manassas, Va., site of an important railroad junction, to attack smaller Confederate force under P.G.T. Beauregard. The venture was risky, but a Union victory might mean a quick end to what Lincoln still called an "insurrection."

Public confidence was high and hundreds of spectators followed the army, many with picnic baskets in hand, hoping to catch some of the excitement.

The First Battle of Bull Run proved to be a clash of inexperienced armies. Beauregard positioned his army above Manassas on the south side of a small stream named Bull Run. McDowell attacked and at first it appeared he might drive the Confederates from the field. Beauregard, however, managed to stabilize his troops and when reinforcements arrived late in the afternoon, the Confederates staged a furious counter assault. Exhausted and undisciplined, Union soldiers panicked and began a chaotic retreat. Unable to regroup his men, McDowell ordered a retreat to Washington.

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One of the few Union units that earned praise in the wake of the inglorious defeat was the 69th Regiment of New York State Militia. Comprising mainly Irishmen and led by Col. William T. Sherman, it routed the 4th Alabama but eventually was forced to retreat before the Confederate counterassault. Unlike most other units, the retreat of the 69th was orderly and it was among the last to leave the field that day. This explains why it suffered such high casualties — 38 killed and 59 wounded. Another 95, including Colonel Michael Corcoran, were taken prisoner.

Bull Run was a humiliating defeat for the Union Army but the beginning of a storied career for one of its most famous regiments. The unit’s exceptional performance at the Battle of Bull Run convinced the Union Army to permit the formation of an Irish Brigade, with the 69th at its core. Led by Thomas Francis Meagher and augmented by the 63rd and 88th New York, the 28th Massachusetts, and the 116th Pennsylvania regiments, the Irish Brigade would go to distinguish itself at battles such as Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania. Its heroism led to horrific casualties, but also earned it the nation’s begrudging respect.

The first battle of Bull Run shattered any illusions of a quick and bloodless war. It also opened an important chapter in the Irish-American experience. America was about to discover that the very people it considered unassimilable threats to the republic were in fact willing to sacrifice their lives to save it.

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

€ July 21, 1873: Jesse James and his gang stage the first train robbery in the U.S., nabbing $3,000 from the Rock Island Express at Adair, Iowa.

€ July 23, 1803: Robert Emmett stages his ill-fated uprising of United Irishmen in Dublin.

€ July 24, 1997: Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, one of the court’s most liberal voices, dies.

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

€ July 22, 1890: Rose (Fitzgerald) Kennedy, mother of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, born in Boston.

€ July 23, 1888: Father of the hard-boiled detective novel, Raymond Chandler, born in Chicago.

€ July 23, 1936: Anthony Kennedy, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, born in Sacramento, Calif.

€ July 25, 1894: Three-time Academy Award winner, Walter Brennan, born in Lynn, Mass.

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