One of the highlights of our North Gallery in our 4th-floor Luce Center, which reopened last April, is the magnificent painting Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, N.Y.S.M. from the Seat of War, painted by Louis Lang (1812-1893) in 1862. The painting depicts the regiment marching off the ship and into the Battery in Lower Manhattan, welcomed by their family, friends, and throngs of excited men, women, and children grateful to see them return after their defeat at the Battle of Bull Run on July 1861. In this three-part blog series, we’ll unpack not only the historical figures of this painting, but its resonance in public memory today for Americans and Irish Americans alike 150 years after Lang finished this magnificent work.
Sowing the Seeds of Rebellion
Lang’s recreation of the scene incorporates key members of the 69th Regiment, the most prominent being Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher. Born in County Waterford in 1823, Meagher was raised in a prosperous household with his father’s successful career as a merchant eventually paving the way for political office. Meagher, raised in a Roman Catholic family, attended school and gained significant proficiency in oratory skills, priming him for his eventual rise in the Irish nationalist movement—a position that would ultimately expel him from his native land and propel him to the head of the famed 69th Regiment.
Ireland’s position within the British Empire was nothing short of complicated. Historians often refer to the island country as the oldest English colony, citing the Statutes of Kilkenny, a series of laws that in 1367 sought to regulate Irish mobility and solidify English supremacy and landownership. Debates over Ireland and its autonomy within the broader British Empire are hotly contested in the historiography, but it is widely accepted that by the 18th century, Irish subjugation to their English counterparts ultimately relegated the bulk of the population to an inferior social and economic position. Amidst the religious wars of the 17th century between Protestants and Catholics, Ireland became an even more contested island. Penal laws stripped Catholics of their lands, requiring conversion to Anglicanism in order to retain ancestral lands or to legally participate in politics, which necessarily consolidated the power into the hands of the pro-English elite.
Ireland’s position was certainly complicated, with Protestants and Catholics alike fostering hopes of independence from England; one rebellion failed in 1798. After the Act of Union, which followed in response to the 1798 rebellion, the Irish Parliament essentially voted itself out of existence, and further solidified control over Ireland into English hands. By the 1840s, the penal laws were less enforced and Catholic Daniel O’Connell rose to prominence, advocating for the peaceful protest against British control. While O’Connell advocated for pacifism, another faction comprising much younger men began calling for rebellion, inspired by the wave of independence movements on continental Europe.
Yet in Ireland, the social and economic barriers that frustrated hopes of independence were far greater than those in continental Europe. Ravaged by famine brought on by a potato blight that infected crops for several years in a row, the Irish population suffered, starved, immigrated, and died. Even as the famine destroyed the potato crop, other food, such as wheat and cattle, were exported to Great Britain from Ireland, sparking criticism and outrage among the starving population. In 1848, at the height of the famine, Meagher and other members of the Young Irelander movement initiated a rebellion, and while he sought to overthrow the Act of Union, he also emphasized the suffering that all Irishmen and women faced while in the throes of famine. Yet the rebellion failed, unable to maintain revolutionary fervor in the face of death and starvation. Meagher and his fellow revolutionaries were exiled to Van Diemen’s Land, present-day Tasmania, where the English often sent convicts, felons, and other political prisoners. After three years in Tasmania, Meagher planned an escape to the United States, in which he succeeded in 1852.
Immigrants and Exiles on the Shores of New York
When Meagher arrived in New York City, he was met by crowds of fellow Irish men and women. Refugees from the famine that ripped apart countless families faced their own obstacles once they arrived on America’s shores. Nativist groups expressed disdain for the Catholic Irish, discriminating against their religion and their impoverished status, and in many cases, their different language. Not all Irish spoke English, and while those who did had a greater chance of employment, those who only spoke Irish faced even greater hardship. Additionally, those Irish who arrived in America were those who actually had enough money for the passage. The alternative route, to arrive in Canada, was reserved for the truly impoverished, as passage between colonies within the British Empire was significantly cheaper than passage to the United States. Thousands of these impoverished Irish are reported to have died on famine ships, referred to as coffin ships, or upon immediate arrival to Grosse Ile, Quebec due to widespread disease. The ones who arrived in New York City, then, were considered lucky.
As tensions between nativist groups and immigrant gangs came to a head, the 69th Regiment emerged as a bastion of heroism, patriotism, and distinctly Irish heritage. Irish revolutionary leaders formed small skeleton military companies, creating drills preparing for military engagement with the hope of organizing and returning to Ireland for a successful revolution against Great Britain. Under the guidance of Michael Doheny, a former Young Irelander, the first Irish regiment formed, followed by several other small regiments filled with young Irish hoping to liberate their native land. By 1851, the small regiment acquired approval and authority as an official regiment of the New York State Militia. In 1858, the 69th incorporated two other smaller Irish regiments, now fully formed, on the eve of the American Civil War.
While the 69th was forming, a different kind of violence flourished on the streets of New York. Gangs comprising immigrants, such as the prominent Dead Rabbits, clashed with rival nativist gangs, like the Bowery Boys, a violent faction that supported the Know-Nothing Party, an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant political party. Because of their staggering numbers, the gangs often overwhelmed the police force. In 1863, these gangs were a driving force in the draft riots that wreaked havoc for three days in response to the conscription of impoverished men into the Union Army. Abraham Lincoln ultimately sent regimental troops to New York City to quell these riots—although the 69th was not one of those dispatched. The violence asserted by these gangs often led to reports by the Know-Nothings that the Irish were violent, anti-American, and refused to assimilate.
While the 1850s presented significant obstacles for the Irish seeking assimilation, or at the very least acceptance, by the 1860s, with the Union embroiled in the Civil War, the Irish also began to assert a new identity: patriotic and heroic. The 69th fought fiercely on the battlefield, with Robert E. Lee coining their nickname the “Fighting Irish” in the midst of battle. While they suffered defeat at the Battle of Bull Run, with one of their generals Michael Corcoran captured by the Confederacy, their steadfast dedication to the patriotic cause disproved the frequent Know-Nothing assertion that the Irish were violent or anti-American, especially when Irish tensions rose during the 1863 Draft Riots. Not all Irish actively supported the Union cause in the American Civil War—many were ambivalent, while others were actively anti-abolition and pro-slavery. Yet the 69th Regiment, with their brave actions and fighting spirit, aligned the Irish with American patriotism and heroism in the face of the nativist opposition to Irish acceptance in the mid-19th century.
A Witness to History
According to his recollections and letters penned by the artist, Lang witnessed this scene from the Bowling Green firsthand, and recreated it with painstaking detail. Lang painted this piece for his friend, Irish businessman Charles Connolly. Lang, himself a German immigrant, befriended the Irishman and harbored little prejudice against this other immigrant population. Recreating this scene from memory, Lang identified the primary figures by name in a pamphlet which accompanied this piece on its first exhibition in 1862. Meagher, waving his cap to his excited receivers, is accompanied by a variety of Irishmen and soldiers. The biographical sketches in the Goupil’s pamphlet acknowledge the wounded, the imprisoned, and even the likenesses of several individuals who were present to welcome their friends home, including John Hennessey, John Savage, and Richard O’Gorman. General Corcoran, a prisoner of the Confederacy, is depicted on the newspaper sold by a young boy. The pamphlet reads, “The boy selling the portrait of General Corcoran (then a prisoner in Richmond) was not only a fact, but it enabled the Artist to have the Hero present by proxy in the Picture.” With the revolutionary fervor still running through their veins, the 69th Regiment persevered when other regiments failed to hold the line. The pamphlet went on: “When others broke and were in retreat, the 69th, animated by Colonel Corcoran, held its ground. When disaster was beyond control, it formed a hollow square and carried in its centre[sic] the commanding general from the field. These deeds have made the 69th historic.”
In 1862, when the Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment was first exhibited, the pamphlet that accompanied the exhibition highlighted the historic significance both of this painting and of what it represents and depicts. “Whether as a representative of American citizen soldiery, or of Irish endurance, pluck and heroism, it commands the enthusiastic admiration of the whole people,” the pamphlet reads. “Among our Irish population, its name and fame have a talismanic effect and well may our adopted citizens be proud of a regiment that has nobly sustained the glory and heroism of their native land, while defending the flag of their adoption.” At a moment in which the flood of Irish Catholic immigrants—refugees from the potato famine that devastated the island—provoked outrage and opposition among nativists, artist and German immigrant Louis Lang befriended the Irish and depicted their courage and heroism to his fellow New Yorkers, forever solidifying the Fighting Irish in public memory.
— Kelly Morgan, Curatorial Assistant