The heroic sacrifice of the men of the 69th at battles like Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, and many more boosted the reputation of the Irish in America and provided a new and more ennobling connotation to the phrase “fighting Irish.”
The 69th originated in the militia mania of the 1840s and 1850s. The regular U.S. Army was tiny in those days, reflecting the longstanding republican fear that a large standing army could be used to advantage by a despot. Most agreed that America was best defended by hundreds of volunteer militia units. Many were little more than glorified fraternal organizations, filled with men who liked to parade, drink, and when time permitted, drill. Often they recruited from certain trades or ethnic groups. Every city, it seems, had its O’Connell Guards and Kossuth Rifles. On occasion, the more serious of these militia units, especially those with political connections, were mustered into the formal state militia.
One such company formed by Irish immigrants in New York City was the Irish Volunteer Regiment. It was mustered into the New York State Militia in April 1850 and was followed by others such as the Irish Rifles. By October 1851, these units were consolidated into a new regiment, the 69th New York State Militia Regiment. According to Richard Demeter, in his fine history of the regiment, it consisted of eight companies of 643 men, most of Irish birth or parentage. Within a year it topped 1,000.
Many of the Irish men who joined did so out of a blossoming sense of nationalism, both American and Irish. They were proud to serve in the defense of their adopted land and hopeful that military training would enable them to return to Ireland and liberate it from British rule. The embodiment of this spirit was Michael Doheny, a 43-year old exile who’d fled Ireland after his participation in the ill-fated Young Ireland uprising of 1848. He joined the 69th Regiment and rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel by 1853. He would give a rousing speech on St. Patrick’s Day that same year, linking the young 69th with the great Irish Brigade that had fought in 18th century France. Five years later, in 1858, Doheny would help establish the nationalist organization the Fenian Brotherhood.
Doheny was joined in the 69th by a fellow exiled nationalist, Michael Corcoran. He’d arrived in New York City in 1849, taken up running a popular Irish saloon, Hibernian House, and joined the Irish Rifles that soon became part of the 69th. By 1853 he was a Captain and six years later, in August 1859, he rose to become commander of the entire 69th Regiment. A little more than one year later, he found himself at the center of an international incident.
In October 1860 all of New York was abuzz over the impending visit of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. A huge parade had been planned to welcome the 19-year old prince and his entourage. All the city’s military units were expected to march, including the 69th. But then Col. Corcoran let it be known that he and his mostly Irish unit would do no such thing. He would rather risk court martial than pay homage to the son of Ireland’s oppressor.
News of his defiance made Corcoran a hero to Irish America. Irish American newspapers praised his bold nationalism and rallies were held in his honor in several cities. In his home city of New York, the Irish presented him with a green flag as a token of their appreciation.
To a great many Americans, however, Corcoran was a scoundrel, living proof that Irishmen made poor Americans. The story grabbed headlines across the country and editorialists condemned Corcoran for tarnishing what was supposed to be a great celebration of Anglo-American harmony.
As expected, Corcoran was charged with insubordination and stripped of his command. Court martial proceedings began in early 1861, but were delayed when Corcoran took ill. They were still in hiatus when the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861. At the urging of several prominent Irish Americans, including Archbishop John Hughes of New York, the Lincoln administration arranged to have the court martial quashed and Corcoran reappointed as head of the 69th.
Corcoran issued a call to the Irish of America to join the 69th and soon had 5,000 applicants for only 1,500 billets. On April 23, just eleven days after the clash at Ft. Sumter, Corcoran and his regiment gathered in lower Manhattan in preparation for transfer to Annapolis, MD. In long columns they marched down Broadway, past Archbishop John Hughes who dispensed his formal blessing. Hours later they steamed away from New York to take their position in the defense of the Union capital. The first battle of what was destined to be a bloody and protracted war, Bull Run, was but two months off.
To be continued next week…
Sources: Richard Demeter, The Fighting 69th: A History (2002); Joseph G. Bilby, Remember Fontenoy!: the 69th New York and the Irish Brigade in the Civil War (1995). Learn more: at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Oct 12, 1984: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and several high-ranking government ministers are nearly killed when an IRA bomb explodes in Brighton.
Oct 18, 1881: Charles Stewart Parnell, imprisoned during Britain’s crackdown on the Land League, issues the No Rent Manifesto, calling upon Irish tenant farmers to withhold their rents.
Oct 18, 1950: Cornelius “Connie Mack” McGillicuddy retires as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics after 50 years.
Oct 14, 1882: President and Taoseach of Ireland Eamon DeValera in New York City.
Oct 15, 1858: Heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan in Boston.
Oct 16, 1890: Nationalist, government official, and military leader, Michael Collins, in Clonakilty, Co. Cork.