- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

It was Confederate commander Robert E. Lee who first called the 69th New York Infantry regiment the “Fighting 69th,” a sobriquet the unit, today part of the New York Army National Guard, still carries proudly.

This nickname would find its way onto theater marquees across the United States in 1940, when James Cagney and Pat O’Brien helped further the regiment’s fame in the popular movie “The Fighting 69th.”

During World War I, the 69th was assigned to the Rainbow Division along with National Guard units from many other states, including those from the former Confederacy. In a memorable scene, Irish-American soldiers find themselves face to face with that legacy as Alabama guardsmen recall a confrontation between the one-time foes at Marye’s Heights during the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, son of a Virginia mother and a Regular Union Army officer and Medal of Honor recipient, had personally assembled the Rainbow Division from the cream of National Guard regiments nationwide; he brigaded the old 69th (temporarily redesignated the 165th U.S. Infantry) with the old 4th Alabama (soon redesignated the 167th U.S. Infantry, but formerly part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia) into the 85th Infantry Brigade.

This partnership elicited some comment when the Alabamians arrived in the frozen north to train with the 69th at Camp Mills on Long Island, a scene portrayed in the film. Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, portraying Paddy Dolan of the 69th, welcomed one of the Alabamians, addressing him as “Dixie.”

The Southerner, after commenting on the cold weather, asked which unit Dolan was from, to which the answer was the 69th. A Southerner asked if that was the “69th Irishers.” Another Southerner then recognized the name, adding “we whup your pants.”

The Alabamians then got into an altercation with “Big Boy,” which threatened to develop into a riot until the intervention of Father Francis Duffy, chaplain of the 69th (played by Pat O’Brien) and Col. “Wild Bill” Donovan, commanding officer of the 69th (portrayed by Ireland native George Brent).

Col. Donovan, who later would become the nation’s top spy master as director of the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, explained that the assault of the Irish Brigade (including the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry) on Marye’s Heights had indeed been repulsed by the Army of Northern Virginia, which included the 4th Alabama. He also noted, however, that the Southerners had been so impressed with the Irish Brigade’s gallantry that they had cheered them all along the Confederate line.

In fact, the 4th Alabama was part of Evander Law’s Brigade of John Hood’s Division (the right of James Longstreet’s Corps), and therefore not directly opposite the 69th. Hence, the regiment was in a position to both see and cheer the gallantry of the Irish Brigade.

After this, all was forgiven, and the units’ record during the war reflected cooperation. The gist of Mr. Brent’s lines to the Southerners was not dramatic Hollywood invention, but fact, documented, ironically, by Confederate Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett.

Tradition holds that when Lee was informed that the 69th (which had performed gallantly during the Seven Days Battles and the Peninsula Campaign as well as at Bull Run) had taken the field at Fredericksburg, he remarked, “Ah, yes, that Fighting 69th.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide