Author of Chicago’s Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War and friend of the site Jim Swan has brought a fascinating artefact relating to the Irish Brigade to my attention. Jim spotted it being displayed by a vendor, The Veteran’s Attic, near Chicago. The object is a cigarette case, but one that bears an intriguing inscription. It commemorates the 33 survivors of the Irish Brigade who attended a Battle of Fredericksburg 50th anniversary dinner on 13th December, 1912. The full inscription on the case reads:
Dinner to the 33 survivors
The 69th Infantry
In Commemoration Of
Dec. 13, 1912
What is the story behind this object? Where was the dinner held and who attended it? I decided to delve into some contemporary newspapers to see if any light could be shed on the proceedings.
It transpired that the dinner in question was part of a wider event in New York to commemorate the Irish Brigade’s actions at the Battle of Fredericksburg 50 years before. The venue was the armory of the 69th New York National Guard at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street, a natural choice given the 69th’s connections to the brigade. The majority of the ‘bent and snowy haired’ survivors were able to attend, and the commemorations began with the veterans conducting a review of the 1912 version of the 69th, beneath the ‘tattered battle flags’ of the Civil War brigade. The flags had been presented by prominent citizens of New York to the brigade during the war, but by 1912 only one of these citizens, Levi P. Morton, was alive to witness the event.
The dinner itself took place at 7.30 p.m. in the same venue and was attended by no fewer than 2,000 people. The attendees filed in to take their places on the Armory floor accompanied by the strains of ‘Marching Through Georgia.’ Those survivors who were present included Col. James. J. Smith, who had been a Lieutenant-Colonel of the 69th during the war, and who had travelled from Cleveland, Ohio to attend. Although the majority of the veterans lived nearby, others had journeyed some distance included Major John Dwyer from Sandy Hill, New York, Captain E. F. O’Connor who came from Providence, Captain Henry Bates from Newburgh and Lieutenant John McGrath who came all the way from San Francisco. All of those who were in attendance were over 70 years of age.
Colonel Louis D. Conley of the 69th National Guard was the toastmaster for the meal, and the first speaker was Dr. James J. Walsh, formerly of the Faculty of Fordham University. Other speakers on the night included General George R. Dyer of the 1st Brigade, New York National Guard, William P. Larkin, Dr. John G. Coyle, Monseigneur M. L. Lavelle, J. I. C. Clarke and Captain Hugh D. Wise of the United States Army.*
The Sun reported on a portion of the speech given by Dr. John G. Coyle at the dinner:
The figures of the losses at Fredericksburg tell the story of the amazing slaughter. The Sixty-ninth regiment, within whose walls we sit to-night, had nineteen officers and 219 men going into the fight. Sixteen of the nineteen officers were killed, wounded and missing, and 112 of the 219 men, making a loss of 57 percent. The Union loss for the battle was 13,771; the Confederates but 5,400. The Irish Brigade was led by the brilliant, intrepid and eloquent Thomas Francis Meagher, who was wounded in the battle. The Sixty-ninth was led by Col. Nugent, who was wounded, his pistol shattered by the rifle ball which wounded him, thus saving his life. The green flag of the Sixty-ninth was missing after the battle and great anxiety was expressed for its fate, for the regiment had never lost a flag since it joined the brigade. The day after the battle the color sergeant was found dead sitting against a tree trunk. Near him lay the staff of the flag. Clasped to his breast was the green flag and through it had gone the bullet that struck his heart.’
The event was widely reported in the New York and Washington newspapers. One, The Evening World, went so far as to the name the survivors in attendance and publish a photograph in their 14th December edition. The men they listed were: Thomas Ferris, Com. John F. Cleary, Capt. E. F. O’Connor, Capt. John R. Nugent, Col. J. J. Smith, Capt. John O’ Connell, Sergt. Laurence Buckley, Capt. W. L. D. O’Grady, Capt. Henry Bates, Com. John A. Butler, John F. Cronin, Major John Dwyer, Lieut. Dennis Sullivan, Com. William Bemmingham, Lieut. R. H. Birmingham, Sergt. Richard Finen, Com. R. R. Ryan, Com. William Sullivan.
The event provides an insight into how the memory of the charge at Fredericksburg had become the defining moment of the Irish Brigade’s wartime experience. The commemoration was clearly very important to the surviving men who attended, as it was to the 2,000 guests who gathered to honour them. One wonders what the veterans made of it all, and what memories were evoked in their minds of the fighting 50 years before. My thanks to Jim for letting me know about this object, thus allowing me to delve into the story of these 33 men, the cigarette case, and the 50th Anniversary of the Battle Fredericksburg.
*Among the other guests were John D. Crimmins, William G. MacDonald, Frank Moss, Dr. James E. Walsh, Major John F. O’Rourke, Thomas F. Smith, John J. Murphy, Patrick Gallagher and General James Rowan O’Beirne.
New York Times, December 15th 1912. ‘Honor the Irish Brigade’
New York Tribune, December 9th 1912. ‘Irish Brigade to Meet’
The Evening World, December 13th 1912. ‘Meagher Brigade, Only 33 Left, Recalls Big Fight’
The Evening World, December 14th 1912. ‘Survivors of the Dashing Meagher’s Brigade Who Stormed Marye’s Heights Fifty Years Ago’
The Sun, December 14th 1912. ‘In New York To-day’
The Sun, December 15th 1912. ‘Veterans of Irish Brigade Dined’
The Washington Herald, December 14th 1912. ‘Irish Veterans Hold Reunion’