History of the 69th New York
by Claire Morris
THE 69TH NEW YORK STATE MILITIA
The 69th New York State Militia was founded in 1851 and it was designated by the state as New York's 2nd Regiment of Irish Volunteers. Two other Irish immigrant based units, the 9th and 75th New York militias were consolidated with the 69th in 1857, leaving the new unit with the designation as the 69th.
Many of the members of the militia unit were members of, or were very sympathetic towards the anti-British "Young Ireland" movement. The senior officer of the 69th New York Militia, Colonel Michael Corcoran, along with many other members of the 69th NYSM were founder members of the “Fenian Brotherhood”, an Irish republican movement which campaigned for an Ireland free from British rule. Colonel Corcoran famously snubbed an invitation to meet the Prince of Wales at a ball given in his honour. Corcoran was set to be court marshalled by the state, but luckily for him the Rebels fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and the Civil War began, and his presence was required against the Rebels to help preserve the Union.
On 12th April 1861 the 69th New York State Militia had only 245 men on its regimental roster, but within a few days it had swelled to just over a 1,000 men, composed in almost all its entirety of Irish Americans, who had a 90 day service period.
At the beginning of May 1861, the 69th New York State Militia were billeted on the grounds of Georgetown College in Washington, where they were drilled hard by ten West Point cadets who had been detached from the military college to work the Irishmen hard for seven hours a day. On 23rd May as they crossed into Virginia over the Potomac River, where they were then joined by Captain Thomas Francis Meagher's "Irish Zouaves," who were re-named company K 69th New York State Militia.
BATTLE OF 1ST BULL RUN (MANASSAS)
The 69th New York State Militia where placed in McDowell's First Division of Colonel William T Sherman's brigade, along with the 2nd Wisconsin and the 13th and 79th New York State Militia. By the 21st July 1861 the 69th New York State Militia found themselves, along with the rest of McDowell's army at Bull Run (Manassas). The 69th joined the battle in mid flow in the afternoon on Henry House Hill, where they almost committed an act of friendly fire on the grey-clad soldiers of the 13th New York State Militia.
The 69th were doing well in their own little corner of the battlefield against the 4th Alabama. General McDowell who had been watching the Irishmen charge at the Rebels rode up to the 69th NYSM and personally thanked them for their bravery; but sadly the rest of the battle was not going well for the rest of the Union forces. The Rebels were counter attacking well, and Sherman's brigade began to disintegrate under superior firepower, and the newly arriving Rebel reinforcements. Corcoran tried an orderly retreat switching between the defensive square formation and column, because of the terrain and the threat of Rebel cavalry. But Sherman ordered his brigade to break ranks and get away as quickly as possible, essentially every man for himself. Colonel Corcoran was wounded and captured with a number of other soldiers of the 69th New York State Militia, along with the regiments Stars and Stripes, the national colours. Captain Meagher had a lucky escape, he was one of the last Union men to leave the field, but he had to swim across Bull Run before he could reach the rest of the regiment who had retreated with the rest of McDowell's army.
The 69th New York State Militia had proved its self well in battle but they lost a number of men; 38 men were killed, 59 wounded and 95 were missing. On the 25th July, only four days after the battle, the 69th New York State Militia's 90 day service period ran out, and they returned home to New York, battered, bruised, and half naked, but to a heroes welcome as they were paraded through the city streets with a Militia escort.
FORMATION OF THE 69TH NEW YORK STATE VOLUNTEERS
By the end of August 1861, volunteers were needed to form a new 69th New York, a volunteer regiment. The old 69th New York State Militia remained as a militia unit during, and after the Civil War. Many of the old 69th wanted to see the 'job done' and see the Rebels beaten, so many joined the 69th New York State Volunteer regiment. According to Joseph Bilby, several hundred members of the 69th New York State Militia joined the new 69th New York State Volunteers, commanded by Colonel Robert Nugent; the writer Paul Jones believed the figure to be over five hundred.
Meagher was offered command of the 69th New York State Volunteers but he declined. He had other, larger plans. He wished to form a brigade, a brigade of elite Irish American soldiers. This idea was a very plausible proposition. In the twenty years preceding the American Civil War, more than two million Irish emigrated to America. By 1860, forty percent of all immigrants into the United States were of Irish birth, with New York State boasting half a million of those, living in the main areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn, but with also large concentrations in Buffalo, Rochester, Albany and Syracuse. There was definitely an available population to fill the ranks of an all Irish, ethnic brigade within the Federal Army, and Meagher had the vision to make this proposition into a reality.
The 63rd New York's State Volunteers were already being formed when Meagher's brigade was in the planning stages. The 69th and the 88th New York State Volunteers were almost entirely officered by veterans of the Bull Run battle, from the 69th New York State Militia.
Most of the 69th New York regiment was made up of recruits from New York City, but Company F came from Brooklyn, and most of Company K came from Buffalo, and Company D came all the way from Chicago Illinois.
The men who filled the ranks of the newly formed Irish Brigade were from diverse walks of life. Many were canal workers, diggers, railway track layers, building labourers and hod carriers, whilst others were cabmen, porters, streetcar drivers, waiters and barkeeps. Others were lawyers, college professors, school teachers, newspaper men, public officials, students, merchants and businessmen. Others were veterans of armies form around the world, seeing active service in various wars and campaigns. Men had previously served in the Hungarian Hussars; in Syria; in the British army in India and the Crimea; in the Papal Brigades serving the Pope in 1860 and 1861. It is easy to determine therefore that the experience previously gained by the men in conflicts would serve the Brigade well in future campaigns.
As the 69th New York State Volunteers were the first regiment of the Irish Brigade to reach their quota of men, they were designated the 1st Regiment of the Irish Brigade which can be seen clearly on the regimental flag. On 18th November 1861, a flag ceremony, was held on Madison Avenue to present the regiment with the national Stars and Stripes, and the regimental colour, which had been made by Tiffany and Company.
The 69th New York left for Washington almost immediately after the flag ceremony with its 745 men. Despite not being at full strength the 69th New York left New York ahead of the 88th New York and the 63rd New York, as it was the only fully organised regiment in the brigade.
The 63rd New York had camped at David’s Island, in the East River, Long Island Sound in New York in November 1861. Father Dillion held a service on the 17th November, where a huge majority of the regiment joined his temperance society. Speaking to the men, Father Dillion said, “You are going to the war, my comrades. Many of you will find a grave in the sunny South. I can not say how many, but the number will be large, as it will not be a holiday excursion. The South has a population of five millions, and vast wealth. So has the North. Believe me, the longest purse will carry the day. It is my honest opinion that the Irish Brigade, to which you will be attached, under the leadership of the chivalrous Thomas Francis Meagher, will be always in the van, in the post of danger, the post of honor. It has been ever thus. It is a tribute to your Irish valor, and you should be proud of it,” (Corby pg 292).
The 69th New York travelled to Washington carrying somewhat antiquated weapons. Two thirds of the regiment carried .69 cal Prussian smoothbore muskets shooting ‘buck and ball’, and the remaining third of the regiment were armed with British Enfield rifled muskets. The 69th New York then travelled on to an area just west of Alexandria, Virginia, where they were encamped at a place called ‘Camp California.’ The 63rd and 88th New York joined the 69th at Camp California for the rest of the winter and drilled the men to a high and competent standard.
The Irish Brigade celebrated Christmas Eve as a group in 1861. A young 14 year old boy Johnny Flaherty from Boston, who accompanied his father to war, played music from his violin as his father played his bagpipes as they sat round a huge fire entertaining their comrades. Groups of men danced around the fires doing Irish jigs and reels. After the dancing, songs such as, "The girl I left behind me" and "Home sweet home," were sung as the soldiers reminisced of their loved ones at home. Most of the Brigade went to the Christmas Midnight mass that was held on camp.
Thomas Francis Meagher officially took command of the Irish Brigade, as Brigadier General at Camp California on the 5th February 1862, after which there was a huge, but unplanned celebration. A more formal celebration took place a week later, when the Irish Brigade's officers were entertained by the 2nd New Jersey infantry band.
Despite the very severe winter conditions at Camp California the 69th New York were well fed and clothed, and they often received care packages from home containing such things as pairs of socks, a new shirt, biscuits or perhaps even a bottle of brandy or whiskey, so the Irish were in good spirits and in good health. The regiment’s spiritual health was maintained by Father Thomas Ouellet, a French-Canadian Jesuit priest.