“Faugh a Ballagh” or “Clear the Way” has been the motto of 69th Infantry Regiment or “The Fighting 69th” since the regiment was first active during the Civil War in 1849 as the 9th Regiment New York State Militia. They were a key part of helping the Union defeating the Confederacy. In five wars from Appomattox in 1865 to Hindu Kush in 2009, the 69th Infantry Regiment has played a vital role in some of the most important battles that the United States has ever fought. They are the face of New York, the defenders of American freedom for the Empire State.
One of the very few of its kind, the 69th Infantry Regiment started out at the Center Market in New York, as a skeleton infantry in 1849 performing drills and other military exercises. From here, “The Fighting 69th” was born. The first company commander of the infantry was Michael Doheny. Before the infantry, Doheny was an Irish refugee that fought in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. Because of his influence and military background, his background made him the ideal recruiter for many of the infantry’s Irish immigrants. Thanks to Doheny and other Irish revolutionary leaders, the 69th Infantry was established by the state of New York on December 21st, 1849. Along with Colonel Benjamin Clinton Ferris as Commander, the First Irish Regiment first formed as the 9th Regiment in junction with the New York State Militia on May 29th, 1850. Not long after the formation of the First Regiment, The Second Irish Regiment gathered on October 12th, 1850, than was formed into the New York State Militia on November 1st, 1851 becoming known as the 69th Infantry Regiment. The first company commander, Michael Doheny, became the Lieutenant Colonel of the 69th Regiment. By then, Doheny was about to establish a Fourth Regiment and Thomas Francis Meagher, another Irish refugee whom along with Michael Doheny fought in the Young Irelander Rebellion, was named commander. From 1850-1858, all three of the Irish Regiments in existence until they formed into the 69th Infantry Regiment.
As the Irish Regiments were starting to form in the 1850s, there was a forming of bigotry and nativism against immigrants, especially towards those of Irish descent. One of the political parties established because of this ideology was called the Know Nothing Party. The party members were limited to those who were of British ancestry and of the Protestant faith. Many in the party felt that the influx of immigrants coming into the United States were ruining the fabric of what was established by those came to the country from the United Kingdom in the 17th Century. In retaliation against immigrant Regiments such as the 69th, members of the Know Nothing Party established the 71st Infantry Regiment in 1852. Although both the 69th and 71st Infantry Regiments had opposing views and ideologies, they were able to form a bond in 1861 when they were stationed in Washington, D.C. during the First Battle of Bull Run. Even though the 69th Regiment was able to mend fences with the 71st Infantry Regiment, and found a common brethren in the field of battle, this would not be the first time that the Regiment will face turmoil in the face of bigotry, especially from members of the Know Nothings.
In 1855, bigotry and opposing political and religious ideologies came to a boiling point as riots occurred between the Know Nothings and Irish Catholics in New York. The Know Nothings did what they could to stoke the flames of hate against members of the Irish community. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1855, members of the military were not going to march in the parade. There were four Regiments that were scheduled to March in the parade: 69th, 12th, 9th, and 7th. Only one made the decision to march, and that was the 69th Infantry Regiment. Because of the racial tensions of the 1850s, a decision was made to no longer organize ethnic oriented militias. Into the 1860s, the 69th Infantry Regiment were the only ethnic militia in any of the armed forces.
In 1861, the 69th Infantry Regiment went on to fight a war that would change the fabric of the United States, the Civil War. Tensions came about as the Union (North) and the Confederacy (South) fought over state’s rights and what were the roles of slaves in American society. The Regiment had a reputation of fighting in some of the fiercest battles that could be asked of them, or as a correspondent during the Civil War stated, “When anything absurd, forlorn, or desperate was to be attempted, the Irish Brigade was called upon.” During the Civil War, the 69th Infantry Regiment was called into five battles during the Civil War: Bull Run (Washington, D.C.), The Seven Days (Richmond, Virginia), Malvern Hill and Antietam (Richmond), Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg (Virginia), and Petersburg and Appomattox (Virginia). Even though the 69th Infantry Regiment played a vital role in the Union’s victory over the Confederacy, it wasn’t without attrition. By the end of the Civil War, the 69th Infantry Regiment sustained losses of 41 officers and men killed, 85 wounded and 60 prisoners. Those were able to survive the carnage, marched in the The Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, D.C. on May 23rd and May 24th, 1865. Their role in the Civil War, helped the United States to remain intact and help sow the division that was caused by the war. Even in the years after the Civil War, the Regiment served as a place for unity for many of their Irish American members.
In World War I, the 69th Infantry Regiment faced their first ever battle overseas. Arriving in France in November 1917, the Regiment faced five battles: Rouge Bouquet (February 26th, 1918), Champagne (June 18th, 1918), Château-Thierry (July 24th, 1918), St. Mihiel (September 12th, 1918), and Meuse-Argonne (November 7th, 1918). Before going into action, 85% of the Infantry Regiment were of Irish descent, but due to the casualties of World War I, that number decreased to just 50%. The 69th Infantry Regiment relied on reinforcements that were a combination of many other ethnic groups. Because of their help, the strength of the 69th Regiment Infantry not only was intact, but was made stronger because of it. By the end of World War I, the casualties of the 69th Infantry Regiment were the highest in their history: 644 killed in action and 2,587 wounded during 164 days of combat. After World War I, the 69th Infantry Regiment received reinforcements thanks in part to the New York Guard and the New York Constitution. Because of this, a replacement 69th Infantry Regiment was created in 1917. The 165th Infantry Regiment in junction with the 69th Infantry of the New York Guard, combined as the 69th Infantry Regiment. Their service would be needed again, as they took part in one of the most significant events of the 20th Century: World War II.
Along with the 27th Division, the 69th Infantry Regiment served under the designation of the 165th Infantry. They began training in Alabama and Louisiana, before being sent to Inglewood, California a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They were there to provide protection of the West Coast from the Japanese. In the beginning of 1942, they were sent to Hawaii from California. During World II, the 69th Infantry Regiment (then the 165th Regiment) saw action in three battles while being deployed to Japan: Makin Island (November 20th, 1943), Saipan (June 15th, 1944), and Okinawa (April 1st, 1945). While they were recognized for their bravery and heroism during World War II, the 69th Infantry Regiment suffered a significant amount of casualties. It is believed that 472 members of the Regiment were killed in action.
Throughout the Cold War era, like many National Guard units, the 69th Infantry Regiment did not see action or were deployed during the Vietnam or Korean Wars, however they were asked to assist in times of disasters and disturbances here in the United States. However, after the Cold War era, the 69th Infantry Regiment found themselves in the middle of the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States on September 11th, 2001.
From their headquarters from the Armory on East 25th Street and Lexington Avenue, the 69th Infantry Regiment were one of the first military units to respond to the attack on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Because of their quick and efficient response, members of the 69th Infantry Regiment were able to secure Ground Zero. Even with their best of efforts, they lost two of its members, 1st Lieutenant Gerard Baptiste and Specialist Thomas Jurgens during their rescue operation. Along with others who lost their lives during the tragic event, their names are to be found at 9/11 Memorial. Their efforts symbolize the bravery and commitment to service that has made the 69th Infantry Regiment one of the most decorated and respected units in the armed forces.
Not long after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the 69th Infantry Regiment were deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom on May 15th, 2004 after training at Fort Hood, Texas and Fort Irwin, California. It was the first time that the 69th Infantry Regiment was sent overseas since World War II. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Regiment saw action in two battles under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Slack and Command Sergeant Major George Brett: Taji and Baghdad. After their efforts and heroism, the Regiment was celebrated at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 2006.
Just after Operation Iraqi Freedom, 300 members of the 69th Infantry Regiment were deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) in 2008 as a part of Task Force Phoenix, fighting along with the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. While in Hindu Kush, the 69th Infantry Regiment assisted in training Afghan security forces. In 2009, the 69th Infantry Regiment returned back to New York. While in Afghanistan, the Regiment lost four members in action. However, the Regiment returned 300 soldiers to Afghanistan for the continuation of the mission for the National Guard. They were lent to the 2nd Battalion of the 108th Infantry. Today, the Regiment is sent throughout the four corners of the world along with other companies to such places as Puerto Rico, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Thailand.
For 165 years, “The Fighting 69th” not only has made an impact with Irish American service members, but also in the most important battles that the United States has fought in. Those who have fought alongside them or have been a member of their Regiment has spoke of them in the highest of regard. They are symbolic of the patriotic melting pot that the United States was founded upon. For whenever their services are needed, the 69th will be there.