The Manhattan-based 69th Infantry Regiment is widely known and beloved as the Fighting 69th, a National Guard unit of the U.S. Army with an illustrious history dominated by its huge Irish membership dating back to Civil War times.
The 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue has been the home of the Fighting 69th since 1906, and is chock full of military artifacts and records that not only tell the fascinating story of how the Irish fought battles for their adopted country, but how they helped to shape America going forward.
The Fighting 69th is still helping to fight America’s wars – most recently, volunteers were called to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members today are especially well-known for leading off the annual New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which they’ve been doing with their Irish Wolfhound mascots in tow every year since 1851.
The Armory, which stretches from 25th to 26th Streets on Lexington, was bestowed with National Historic Landmark status by the federal government in 1996. Owned by the state of New York, the building remains in decent shape, but a large number of the artifacts are in need of repair and preservation. Members and supporters of the Fighting 69th are also looking to initiate other projects that will allow for greater access to the regiment’s history and contents.
“The story of the Fighting 69th is a remarkable one and deserves to be told,” Bert Cunningham, regimental historian for the unit, told the Irish Voice during a recent interview at the Armory.
On Wednesday evening, October 15, a fundraiser will be held in the Armory’s Duffy Room, one of the spaces in need of refurbishment. The room is named in honor of Colonel Edward Duffy, who was commander of the 69th when the Armory was opened in 1906. His portrait is in the process of being restored with help from the state museum and will be back in the room for the fundraiser.
New York State, Cunningham points out, does its part to help with the maintenance of the Armory, but there are several vital projects that require private funding.
“We have so many portraits of our heroes that have fallen into disrepair and need refurbishing,” says Cunningham.
“We want to restore our artwork and the other artifacts we have such as our flags.”
One of the flags encased in the Duffy Room, the Second Irish Color of the 88th New York Volunteers, was recently returned to the Armory after a year of painstaking re-stitching and restoration. The 88th was part of the Irish Brigade in the Civil War along with the 63rd and 69th New York volunteer militias, and the flag was presented to the unit in 1862.
The Armory, Cunningham said, is hoping to establish a research center where its written materials can be digitized to reach a wider audience through the Internet. There are a countless number of letters and rare documents dating back to the Civil War and beyond which would undoubtedly find an enthusiastic audience if they could be made available digitally.
It’s also crucial to gather modern military memorabilia from the Fighting 69th’s Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Cunningham adds. The Armory is currently organizing its Project Garry Owen, which “is focused on obtaining copies of emails, photos, videos and any other items the veterans would like to donate to the archive,” he says.
“We need to preserve the 21st century digital records of the 69th’s recent veterans before they disappear.”
Supporters of the Fighting 69th’s efforts – the regiment established a 501 (c) (3) charity called The Sixty-Ninth Regiment Historical Trust – will also have the chance to help fund stipends for college interns to assist with the archiving of the Armory’s massive collection of documents and other war collections, many of which remain in rooms waiting to be categorized.
Viewing the Irish American military history at the Armory is a fascinating experience – a visitor could spend days examining the exhibits and reading correspondence.
Cunningham, a member of the Fighting 69th from 1969-’74, knows every nook and cranny of the Armory, and virtually every detail of the 69th’s storied history.
One of the Armory’s most prized possessions is its 1860 Prince of Wales Flag, which was given to the 69th in recognition of Michael Corcoran’s refusal to allow the 69th New York Volunteer Militia to march in a parade honoring the Prince of Wales.
Corcoran, born in Co. Sligo, was head of the militia and was brought up on charges over the slight to the prince, but was never prosecuted because the Civil War broke out in 1861 and the 69th was needed to help fight for the Union.
Eventually wounded and taken prisoner by the Confederates, Corcoran was one of the great Civil War heroes and one of Abraham Lincoln’s closest confidantes.
Corcoran’s epaulettes (ornamental shoulder pieces) are displayed in a glass case at the Armory along with a vast array of other war artifacts such as tiny pieces of dice hand-carved from chicken bones by Corcoran while he was held prisoner.
Also on display is an 1860 liquor cabinet owned by Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher, the Co. Waterford-born Civil War hero who became the acting governor of the territory of Montana after the war.
The Fighting 69th’s Regimental Cocktail – one part Irish whiskey, and two parts Champagne – stems from Meagher, who used to enjoy whiskey mixed with branch water. When the water was unavailable, one of his soldiers used Champagne instead and Meagher enjoyed it just the same. The cocktail remains a Fighting 69th tradition and is served at every festive gathering of the regiment, including St. Patrick’s Day.
“That’s our biggest day by far,” says Cunningham.
Members past and present gather at the armory at 5:30 a.m. for a ceremony before marching to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Mass. The regiment then takes its place at the start of the march, and afterwards heads back to the Armory for further celebrations.
America, and particularly New York, is a much better place because of the heroic efforts of the Fighting 69th down through the years, Cunningham says.
“It’s crucial that we preserve the artifacts and records of the 69th, and the Armory that has been its home since 1906. Along with preserving the unique history of the regiment, which spans over 150 years, the building is one of the last of its kind New York City,” he added.