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 the first installment of this three-part blog series, we looked at the history of Irish Americans and the figures featured in the painting. Here in the second installment, we’ll look at Lang’s inspiration for the painting, its provenance, and its restoration to our Luce Center, where it continues to resonate with Americans and Irish Americans alike.
According to his recollections and letters penned by the artist, Louis Lang witnessed this scene from the Bowling Green firsthand, and recreated it with painstaking detail. A German immigrant, Lang forged a friendship with Charles Connolly, an Irish merchant who welcomed the 69th along with Lang and the numerous other onlookers excited for their boys to be returning home. Lang recalled a request from one old friend: “Charles Connolly, who witnessed with me the most extraordinary excitement in Broadway, while the troops came up, wives, girls, children etc. mingled in the march embracing. . . the returned soldiers. My friend C.M. Connolly who loved pictures and possessed several of mine, gave me at once an order—to put this scene on canvas.”
Initially Lang hesitated, aware of the monumental task ahead of him. Not only was the scene itself extraordinary, but it would be necessary to include accurate depictions of the primary figures in the regiment, such as Thomas Meagher, in order to confirm its status as a historical painting. Yet he acquiesced to his friend and wealthy Irish-born merchant and began crafting this scene in earnest. The following year, Lang exhibited it in Goupil’s Gallery, located on Broadway and Ninth Street, and in the pamphlet associated with the painting, Lang identified the figures that would be most memorable for the public audience, such as Brigadier General Thomas Meagher and Father O’Reilly, the chaplain to the regiment. Lang acknowledged that a variety of portraits in the scene were intended to represent the Irish men and women who greeted their loved ones after their return home, conveying their pride at their heritage and their adopted homeland. The Fighting 69th—along with Lang’s clear support for the downtrodden Irish immigrants—effectively contributed to an eventual shift in the perception of the Irish in New York City.
Lost to History: The Fall of the 69th
After its exhibition at Goupil’s Gallery, the Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment remained in Lang’s possession. Connolly, who passed away and whose family refused to take possession of the piece, ultimately left it in Lang’s hands. Lang, a member of the New-York Historical Society, offered it to the museum, stating, “I can only hope the beholder of the picture will find a true rendering of the scene of July 27, 1861, and that the work may become more interesting in aftertimes.” The true value of the piece, then, according to Lang, is its accurate depiction of a pivotal and seminal event in American history, which would, like all history, be considered and reconsidered in the decades after the event as opinions and perceptions evolve over time. The New-York Historical Society accepted the donation and it has been displayed in various iterations and in several exhibitions at the Museum over the past 130 years, as seen in these images. This includes a stereoscopic image that, when seen through a specifically designed viewfinder, conveys a three-dimensional view of the gallery! Lang’s masterpiece is seen on the far left of this picture.
At some point in the mid-20th century, Lang’s iconic piece went into storage, with its last record identifying its location and position as secured to a board. About thirty years later, Lang’s magnificent painting was discovered in pieces. Steps were taken in the 1980s and 1990s to protect and preserve the fragments, and in 2009, the painting was brought to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center to facilitate its reconstruction.
According to the magazine Art Conservator, the painting underwent significant treatment, as seen in these images from the 2010 article. The painting not only underwent physical reconstruction, much like a jigsaw puzzle, but painting conservators inpainted areas of the sky and seamlessly covered any hint of its prior fragmentary condition. The reopening of the New-York Historical Society after a monumental renovation provided the impetus for the reconstruction of the painting – a literal “return” of the Return of the 69th—to its rightful place on the walls of the museum. The newly restored painting was unveiled on Veterans Day, November 11, 2011, also marking an exhibition that honored the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. The painting itself, since its reconstruction and conservation, resonates with the New York public in a variety of formats, such as its reproduction on the wall of a well-loved pub in the Financial District, called the Dead Rabbit.
The Fighting 69th Resurrected and Remembered
In 2017, the New-York Historical Society unveiled its renovated Luce Center, which highlights objects and paintings from the permanent collection that also ties in with specifically New York-related history. A draft wheel from the New York City Draft Riots in 1863, which the Dead Rabbits and other assorted gangs participated in, is held in the same room as Lang’s monumental history painting honoring the sacrifices and service of the Fighting 69th. Lang was correct in his assertion—the painting held even greater meaning in the “aftertimes.” The resurrection of the painting (its return, as its name reminds us) to its place of honor in the Luce Center—and its symbolism on the perseverance of both the Irish and Irish-Americans—resonates even more deeply now than Lang could have anticipated. Lang’s painting today symbolizes the perseverance of a downtrodden immigrant group, its support of its adopted homeland, and its love for its native land, all while fostering collaborative and supportive relationships with other immigrant groups and with the nativist population that once denounced their arrival. With the return of the Return, Lang’s painting holds even more significance today as it did when it was first unveiled in 1862.
Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment is on permanent display in the North Gallery of our Luce Center on the fourth floor of the Museum, along with an interactive module that allows you to engage with the painting and its protagonists virtually.
—Kelly Morgan, Curatorial Assistant