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.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Since a child, I have owned a book about Father Duffy, by Jim Bishop.

    It’s now (since WWI) the 165th NY/NG part of the 42nd (Rainbow) Div.

    In WWI, they covered themselves again with glory, were commanded by “Wild Bill” Donovan, and General Douglas MacArthur was the 42nd Div. (Rainbow) commanding general.

    They’ve been deployed to Iraq several times and saw action with (sadly) quite a number of KIA’s. There are NY/NG troops patrolling Penn Sta., etc. even today, in body armor and armed, while the rest of us (sheep) toddle through on our way to make a living. Not enough Americans have an appreciation of the costs of this war.

    Point of information: The 69th NYS Militia existed in NYC long before the CW. In fact, they once “came out” to protect St. Patrick’s Cathedral from No-Nothing arsonists.

    My ancestor, from Ireland after the Famine, was KIA with the 69th at First Bull Run. The Irish Brigade was formed shortly after that.

    Glory O, Glory O to the Brave Fenian Men!

    See the clip of the song in Rio Grande. John Ford slipped that one into a cavalry movie . . .


    I will be on the wrong coast the Patty’s Day [sigh]. Good for my liver. Still, me and Jameson will have an abbreviated, bitter/sweet “talk.”

  2. The 69th Infantry Regiment was first organized in 1849 from new and existing units, some of which go back to the Revolution.

    In 1963 the 165th Infantry was redesignated the 69th Infantry in the Army numbering system. One of the very few National Guard units that have kept their state number in the Army’s sequence.

  3. The clip ends with FTPSNI.
    I can only think that this refers to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. If it does, you should reconsider using the clip.

  4. I didn’t know the Irish brigade was apart of the Rainbow Division in the Great War. My great-grandfather was in the Rainbow Division during the war; don’t know what specific regiment, though. He was from Ireland and then lived in the Bronx when he got to the states, so perhaps he was in the Irish Brigade.

  5. The 69th was part of the Rainbow Division Francis in World War I, but not the Irish Brigade. The Irish Brigade was a Civil War formation that the 69th was part of during the Civil War only.

  6. Rather than me continuing to complain about the sentiment “F*** The Police Service of Northern Ireland”, may I commend this item which shows the Irish Guards leaving for Iraq?

    The earlier clip was from the Queen’s birthday parade, rather than the St Patricks parade, by the way.

    Oh….and more amusingly, in the British Army the old 69th Regiment was called The Ups and Downers

  7. For some reason Jim the abbreviation is missing from the video when I run it. Alas, quite a bit of Irish related videos on youtube make reference in some manner to “The Troubles” whether the video has anything to do with that conflict or not.

    Your clip is a fine one. You might find this story amusing. After the Boer War Winston Churchill went on a speaking tour of the US. He was giving a speech and was being vociferously heckled by a group of Irish-Americans. Their boos changed to cheers when he related how the day was saved at an engagement he participated in by a furious charge of the Dublin Irish Fusiliers!

  8. Yes. HRHQEII’s birthday. The tune is “The St. Patrick’s Day March.”

    The regiment parades on St. Patrick’s Day. And, a member of the royal family (presumably one that isn’t falling down drunk or too rank of a moron) presents the regiment with a basket of shamrocks.

    And, if it weren’t for those Irishmen, and millions (my father and uncles at the latter one) Yanks in 1918 and 1942, the queen would be speaking German.

  9. LOL. The first tune In the saxon clip is “Whiskey in the Jar.” Great armada: the band, two companies and no weapons.

    I’m working on locating a liquor store near the hotel. Hotel Bar prices will bankrupt a man with a thirst.

    Not looking forward to flying all day to get at a drink.

  10. TS
    Every man in the Irish Regiments of the British Army receive a shamrock on St Patrick’s day. Did you know that the first celebration parades in America were organised by the British Army?

    Nowadays there are only two Irish Regiments, the Irish Guards and the RIR

    You may remember their colonel in Iraq….

    We go to liberate, not to conquer.
    We will not fly our flags in their country
    We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own.
    Show respect for them.

    There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly.
    Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send.
    As for the others, I expect you to rock their world.
    Wipe them out if that is what they choose.
    But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.

    Iraq is steeped in history.
    It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham.
    Tread lightly there.

    You will see things that no man could pay to see
    — and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis.
    You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing.
    Don’t treat them as refugees for they are in their own country.
    Their children will be poor, in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.
    If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day.
    Allow them dignity in death.
    Bury them properly and mark their graves.

    It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive.
    But there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign.
    We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back.
    There will be no time for sorrow.
    The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction.
    There are many regional commanders who have stains on their souls and they are stoking the fires of hell for Saddam.
    He and his forces will be destroyed by this coalition for what they have done.
    As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity.
    It is a big step to take another human life.
    It is not to be done lightly.
    I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts.
    I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them.

    If someone surrenders to you then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family.
    The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.
    If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer.
    You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest — for your deeds will follow you down through history.

    We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation.
    It is not a question of if, it’s a question of when.
    We know he has already devolved the decision to lower commanders, and that means he has already taken the decision himself.
    If we survive the first strike we will survive the attack.

    As for ourselves, let’s bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there.

    Our business now is north.

  11. TS
    I think you’ll find that WWI started in 1914 and WWII in 1939, rather than 1918 and 1942. And that Irishmen were fighting from the start of both wars, rather than arriving later with your relatives.

    As for “the band, two companies and no weapons”. You may note four infantry companies in the batallion. And by convention in Britain, our soldiers do not carry weapons when marching through towns lest they begin a military coup.
    We have certain occasions when a regiment may march with weapons, as in here

    The A&SH has the freedom of the city so may march with bayonets fixed. Officers and NCOs march without weapons.
    The bagpipes count as weapons of war, following an odd ancient law. The Pipes and Drums are viewed as infantry and form the Heavy Weapons Company in these units, unlike bandsmen.

    Do American musicians fight as infanteers?
    Or is it all shiny shoes and turning up a few years late……

  12. T.Shaw and Jim, I do not think this combox is going to be able to resolve the English-Irish conflict that goes back to Strongbow. This post was meant to celebrate the Fighting 69th and we are going far afield here. Let’s stay on topic.

  13. The 1940 movie is “Catholic.” We see Pvt. Plunkett eventually, through (Father Duffy’s) prayer and grace, attain redemption through contrition, repentence of his “weakness”, penance, amendment of life, and good works.

    I have a book, A Doughboy in the Fighting 69th (sic). The author an Irishman named Eichinger (mother’s Irish) tells the story of the (he called him “eight-ball”) Cagney character. The man, an Irishman transferred from a MA NG unit, was on guard duty outside a French Church. It being winter, the French priest gave him a sip of “whatever juice.” The man had a terrible thirst and forced more, and got drunk. When the priest tried to stop him the soldier fired at him. Luckily, he missed (even more luck: the man didn’t hit him. He was a Boston club fighter). A court-matrial sentenced him to death for drunk on guard and firing his weapon at a civilian. Father Duffy and the French priest begged mercy and the sentence was commuted to constant duty in the lines. The man and his partner were wounded on the first day of the big 1918 offensive and both refused evacuation for two or three days into the attack. Both died of gangrene.

    A man like Plunkett would have been off the line way before the movie depiction. Probably shot (then not now), either by firing squad or by an officer or NCO for refusing orders in combat. Only Hollywood would come up with . . .

    lol. TCM is airing Joan of Arc, 1948, Ingrid Bergman. The English are about to have her burned at the stake.

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