Civil War hero Michael Corcoran (far left) with his men in Arlington, Virginia

Unseen photo of Fighting 69th commander Michael Corcoran unveiled


Civil War hero Michael Corcoran (far left) with his men in Arlington, Virginia

Google opened a rich new seam in Irish-American history when it published images from Life Magazine’s back catalog late last year. Now on display is a previously little known photo of Michael Corcoran, a famous Irish commander who led the Fighting 69th Militia.

Life Magazine is known for its daring photographers and high-quality images. The archive dates back to the 1860s and this image of the prominent Irish American in the early days of the Civil War is one of its oldest photos.

In 2006 New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited Sligo to unveil a monument honoring the Fighting 69th Militia. The regiment fought at the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Details of Corcoran's life adorn the copper monument in Sligo, which is partly made of steel from the World Trade Center in memory of Sligo firefighter Michael Lynch, who died on 9/11.

Bloomberg's press release praises the Fighting 69th, saying it "won wide notoriety for its members’ bravery and valor in many Civil War battles." The statement describes Corcoran as "one of the Civil War’s most revered heroes." 

The black-and-white Life Magazine picture shows a group of men standing around a seacoast howitzer cannon, which leans over a wall as if ready to fire. Corcoran stands bravely on the wall (to the left of the image) while his men shelter behind it. He looks straight ahead, as if at an unseen enemy.

By all accounts, Corcoran was no ordinary soldier, and he was to become a friend of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

Michael Corcoran was born in Carrowkeel, Sligo, in 1827. A recent article in the Sligo Champion, reviewing a book called “The Irish in the American Civil War,” tells how soon after the devastating Irish potato famine, he emigrated to the U.S. His mother followed him shortly afterwards. He began his U.S. army career as a private in the 69th regiment.

Made up largely of Irish immigrants, it would become the most famous Irish unit in the Federal army.

Corcoran had an excellent reputation as a soldier, and within three years he worked his way up to the position of captain. The New York state regiment at that time included several Irishmen who had fought in the 1848 Irish uprising against British rule, and Corcoran was also the first New York member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

It was in the midst of Civil War fighting that he got to know Abraham Lincoln. In the early 1860s Southern soldiers in Virginia wounded and captured the Irish colonel. He was exchanged for a Southern prisoner-of-war and on his safe return, huge crowds led a parade in celebration. Lincoln invited Corcoran to dinner, and promoted him to the position of Brigadier General.

Brigadier Michael Corcoran died in 1863. He was just 36 years old.


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