The Fighting 69th
Something for the weekend. The Fighting 69th sung by the WolfTones.
Formed in 1851, the regiment served during the Civil War as part of the Irish Brigade. The 69th earned its “fighting” sobriquet, according to legend, when General Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg, told that the 69th had made a gallant assault against the Confederate lines, and recalling the regiment from the Seven Days battles, stated “Ah yes. That fighting 69th.” Made up mostly of Irishmen during the Civil War, the regimental battle cry was Faugh an Beallach, Clear the Way. The regimental motto was the traditional, and accurate, observation about the Irish: “Gentle when stroked; fierce when provoked”.
The Irish Brigade fought at almost every major engagement of the Army of the Potomac in the Virginia theatre of the War. At Fredericksburg, the Irish Brigade went into battle with only one of their famed green banners. The others, torn from battle, had been sent back to New York, and they were awaiting new ones. It was unthinkable for the men of the Irish Brigade to go into battle without green, so they wore sprigs of boxwood in their caps. After Chaplain Thomas Ouellet, go here to read a post I wrote about him, had blessed each man in the 69th, Colonel Robert Nugent , commander of the 69th, placed a sprig of boxwood in the Chaplain’s hat, and told his men, to their intense amusement, “I’ll make an Irishman out of the Father this day!”.
Going into the battle the Irish Brigade mustered approximately 1700 men. After the slaughter 263 were still fit for duty.
In accord with the brio that was an essential part of the Brigade, General Meagher commandeered a theater in Fredericksburg the day after the battle and held a banquet for the survivors, at which new green flags to replace their tattered banners were presented to the men of the Brigade. This moment calls to mind for me the observation of G. K. Chesterton, ”For the great Gaels of Ireland / Are the men that God made mad, / For all their wars are merry, / And all their songs are sad.” A first-rate history of the Brigade at Fredericksburg is here.
On July 2, 1863, the 530 men of the Irish Brigade, survivors of the 2500 who originally enlisted to fight under the Stars and Stripes and the green harp banner of the brigade, were about to be sent into the Wheat Field. Brigade Chaplain Father William Corby addressed the troops.
Father Corby stood on a boulder in front of the brigade. He decided, due to the certainty that many of the men of the brigade would soon die, to give a mass absolution, an application of the sacrament unknown in America. Father Corby sternly reminded the soldiers of their duties, warning that the Church would deny Christian burial to any who wavered in their duty. The members of the Brigade were instructed to confess their sins to a priest in the usual manner at their earliest opportunity. Then the entire brigade knelt, Catholics and Protestants alike. Father Corby raised his right arm and recited the ancient words of forgiveness: “Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat”. With their sins forgiven, the Irish Brigade plunged into battle and were met with withering fire from the Confederate soldiers. At the end of the day, 198 of the men whom Father Corby had blessed had been killed or wounded.
In 1917 the regiment was re-called to duty as the 165th infantry regiment for service in World War I.
The regiment entered the trenches at Luneville in the Lorainne sector in late February 1918, as part of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division, which acquired its name from the fact that the division consisted of National Guards units drawn from sea to sea like a rainbow across America.
The regiment saw a great deal of fighting until the armistice ended the war on November 11, 1918: the Baccarat sector; the Champagne sector; the battle of the Ourcq; the St. Mihiel offensive; and the grinding hundred day Meuse-Argonne offensive at the end of the war. The 69th spent a total 180 days in combat and 900 of its men were killed. Go here to read a post I wrote about the famous Father Francis Duffy, chaplain of the Fighting 69th in World War I. Go here to see a clip from the 1940 movie The Fighting 69th. Among the men who served in the Fighting 69th during the Great War was Joyce Kilmer who was killed in action. Go here to read a post I wrote about this remarkable man.
During World War II the Fighting 69th fought in the Pacific at Makin, Saipan and Okinawa. Go here to read a post I wrote about unforgettable Father Larry Lynch, the chaplain the troops referred to as “Father Cyclone.”
The regiment most recently saw service in Iraq, and its website is here. Long may it prosper.