69th New York State Militia
Although they were not yet officially in Federal service at the start of the Civil War (1860-1861), the Fighting 69th, as they became known – a militia composed of volunteers and inductees from the Irish community in lower Manhattan- was assigned to guard a railway depot in the vicinity of Annapolis, Maryland. On May 3 1861 they were relieved of this by the 5th New York Infantry. The 69th proceeded to Georgetown College (Georgetown University ) where they encamped and began training. On May 9 they were sworn into Federal service.
Three weeks later, reinforced by the arrival Company K, Capt. Meagher’s Irish Zouaves, and The 69th occupied the heights in Arlington, Virginia and began construction of fortifications commanding the approaches to Aqueduct Bridge. Federal officials had estimated that to build the redoubt 650 ft by ft with fourteen foot high walls and emplacement for heavy guns would take a month more. The Irish troops, no strangers to hard work, completed construction of fortifications with one week. They christened it Fort Corcoran. They celebrated the of 4th of July that year firing the fort’s guns for the first time.
The following day the 69th experienced its first and only mutiny. The Regiment received no pay since leaving New York. Most of the rank and file were working men. They had left families behind who were dependant on them. On the morning July 5th, Company F and the Engineering Company refused to report for duty until they were paid. Col. Corcoran paraded the remainder of the Regiment and threatened fire upon them. The mutineers returned to duty and all was forgiven.
The Regiment was paid for their full 30 days service by July 12. Regimental Chaplain, Father O’Reilly, departed for New York City with the soldiers’ pay to be distributed to their needy families. With spirits high, the 69th marched out of Fort Corcoran and into Virginia on July 16th
The next day they were attached to a brigade commanded by Col. William Sherman. Thrown into the line on the left of the brigade, they advanced to Germantown. The enemy retreated before them and Sherman’s Brigade captured the town.
At dawn the next day they captured Centerville. Later that same day the Brigade was ordered up to support Tyler’s Brigade which attempting to gain control of Blackburn’s Forge across Bull Run. Finding the Forge defended, Tyler ordered a retreat. The retreat was not as orderly as Tyler would preferred. Among his troop rushing to the rear were the 13 New York State Militia.
Organized in Rochester, N.Y., they were uniformed in cadet gray.
Thinking they the advancing cadets were rebels, the men of the 69th leveled bayoneted muskets and prepared to repell the mis-perceived attack. It was the quick action of Captain James Haggerty, that kept them from firing upon their fellow New Yorkers. Haggerty would be killed in action few days later.
Under the command of General McDowell, the 69th was stationed on the hill overlooking Centerville. They were still there on July 20th when their obligation to perform Federal service ran out. Although they could have both legally and morally left the field the 69th stood to duty. They had come to fight. On July 21, still attached to Brigade, they advanced on Bull Run.
The 69th crossed Bull Run in single file and deployed on the other side. The troops fell back to Henry Hill. The 69th advanced in to a wooded meadow and their first serious opposition, The Louisiana Zouaves. a regiment made up of Catholic immigrants. They would earn their own battle laurels and the nickname Louisiana Tigers. But today it was fighting Irishman against fighting Irishman.
Volleys of "buck and ball" from the 69th’s smooth bore muskets cleared the field "It was Sherman’s Brigade and the 69th New York in advance, that arrived at about twelve-thirty o’clock, and a most deadly fire assisted in breaking the enemy’s lines, soon after one o’clock the wood which had been obstinately held were cleared of the enemy!" wrote Col. Ambrose Burnside in a letter to Col. Official Sherman’s Brigade who was then attached to Col. Hunters Division who was preparing assault Henry Hill.
The confederates on the hill were commanded by Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson who, with his soon to be famous brigade, were about to earn their legendary place in history. Brigaded with the 69th was the 12 Wisconsin and the 79 New York, a Scottish-American regiment know as the Cameron Highlanders. The 12 Wisconsin was the first to attack. Making two gallant tries they left 112 dead and wounded on field. The Highlanders were next, making only one attempt but losing 198 brave men.
It was hot and humid, summer in Virginia. As the day wore on the 69th waited their turn to assault Jackson’s Brigade. Many men stripped off heavy woolen coats. They charged, some in shirt sleeves and others bare-chested, screaming their Gaelic battle cry of "Faugh A Ballagh!" or "Clear the Way!". This was as close as a Victorian age warrior would get to the wild, naked charges of his ancient Celtic ancestors.
Col. Corcoran, leading the charge, received a leg wound but retained command. Capt. Meagher had his horse shot out from under him, rolled to his feet, waving his sword, shouting, "Remember Ireland and Fontenoy."
Because the Regiment’s flag was drawing too much fire, Corcoran ordered the colors lowered. The Color bearer refused and was shot dead by the enemy. Another man took his place only to be cut down. In all, the 69th charged and rallied three times but were unable to carry their objective. They retired, under fire. General McDowell would later commend them on their bravery that day. After pulling back, Corcoran had the regiment form a square around Col. Sherman and stood ready to repel a Confederate cavalry attack.
The Army under McDowell began a retreat toward Washington. The 69th retired in good order toward Centerville, but the wounded Col Corcoran and the Regiment’s national colors became separated from the main body. A hand full of men and officers refused to leave their stricken chief. They retired to a nearby house to make their last stand. In order to save the lives of these gallant men Col. Corcoran surrendered himself and the colors to the Confederates.
The 69th won its first battle laurel that day and acquitted itself well in what was disastrous defeat for the Union forces. From July 16 to July 21 they lost a total of 192 killed, wounded or captured. With their dash in attack and courage under fire they to establish the reputation of the "Fighting Irish".