69th New York State Militia Becomes the "Fighting 69th" and Goes To War on Nov. 18, 1861
SARATOGA SPRINGS , NY (11/15/2011)(readMedia)-- They'd already seen combat at the Battle of Bull Run, but that didn't stop most of the members of the 69th New York State Militia from enlisting in the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry and promising to serve for three years.
Between September and November 1861, men from New York City--most of whom had already served for three months with the 69th Militia-- joined the regiment. But Soldiers of the new regiment also came from Brooklyn, Buffalo, and there was even a company recruited in Chicago from the Irish immigrant community there.
On November 18, 1861, the regiment that would become known as the "Fighting 69th" through the Civil War, and World Wars I and II and Iraq as well, left New York City for service in the Washington D.C. area.
Mustered under special authority from the War Department, the 69th Infantry was one of the four regiments of the Irish, or Meagher's, Brigade, named for its commander, Thomas Meagher. Three of the regiments came from New York City, the forth was from Massachusetts. Most of the members had also been members of the Fenian Society, a revolutionary group opposed to British rule in Ireland.
The 69th's first station was Fort Corcoran, a fortification around Washington named for the commander of the 69th Militia who had been taken prisoner by Confederate troops at the Battle of Bull run.
The 69th New York Volunteer Infantry saw combat for the first time at the Battle of Fair Oaks on May 31 and June 1 1862 during a series of running fights between Richmond and Yorktown, Virginia known as the Seven Days Battles. The 69th and the rest of the Irish Brigade stopped a Confederate attack, losing 208 men killed, missing, or wounded.
At the Battle of Antietam, on Sept. 17, 1862 the 69th Infantry was in the thick of the fight for the sunken road that became known as Bloody Lane, losing 196 men killed , wounded, or missing out of 317 present for duty.
But it was during the bloody Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, on Dec. 13 1862, that the 69th is reputed to have earned its nickname from Confederate commander Robert E. Lee.
With Lee's troops dug in on a hill known as Mayre's Height's just outside Fredericksburg, the union commander General Ambrose Burnside, ordered his men to charge the center of the Confederate lines. The Union Soldiers, including the Irish Brigade and the 69th Infantry repeatedly tried and failed, taking horrendous casualties.
When told that the 69th New York Volunteers had been in the attack, Lee, who had faced the 69th during the Seven Days Battles is reported to have said "Ah yes, that fighting 69th."
The regiment suffered 128 Soldiers dead, missing and wounded in that battle.
An alternative story, is that Lee gave the 69th its nickname during the Seven Days Battle earlier that year when a counterattack by the 69th stopped an attack by Louisiana's Tiger Brigade. Ironically, in 2004/2005 the 69th served in Iraq as an element of the 256th Brigade Combat Team, which carries the lineage of the Louisiana Tiger Brigade of the Civil War.
The 69th went on to fight at the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 and then helped hold the Union line at "The Wheatfield" during the Battle of Gettysburg.
In 1864, with the regiment's three years of service up, enough men reenlisted to allow the 69th to carry on with an influx of new recruits.
The 69th fought at the Battles of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor in 1864 and finally took part in the last battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Sailor's Creek in April 1865, just before the Confederate Army surrendered.
The regiment's Civil War Era battle cry was "Faugh a Ballagh," which is Irish Gaelic meaning "Clear the Way."
The 69th Infantry Regiment was mustered out and returned to New York on June 30, 1865.
The 69th lost the greatest number of men killed or wounded of any of the New York regiments in the Union Army. It sustained the 6th largest loss numbers of any regiment in the United States Army. Out of the 1,513 men who belonged to the 69th Infantry between 1861 and 1865; 261 died from wounds and 151 from other causes and 63 died in prisons.
The unit's history is carried by today's 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, which consists of a single light infantry battalion and is part of the New York Army National Guard's 27th Brigade Combat Team of the 42nd Infantry Division.
The regiment has seen combat in four wars; the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and Iraq War, and Soldiers from the unit have also served in Afghanistan. It has participated in 23 campaigns; so many that the staffs of its regimental colors are authorized to be one foot longer than normal to accommodate the campaign ribbons the unit is authorized .
It was made famous in the 1940 movie, "The Fighting 69th" starring Jimmy Cagney and Pat O'Brien, which told the story of the regiment's role in World War I.
The Irish folksong, "The Fighting 69th" also celebrates the exploits of the 69th in the Civil War.
More than 500,000 New Yorkers enlisted in the Army and Navy during the four years of the Civil War and 53,114 New Yorkers died.
Throughout the period of the Civil War Sesquicentennial observance, the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs will produce short articles about New York's Civil War experience researched by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.
For more information, go the NewYork State Military Museum Civil War Timeline Website at http://dmna.state.ny.us/civilwar