American male citizens between 18 and 45 were subject to military service in the state militias and nation. American Irish leaders adopted the idea that service to New York State and by extension the United States, could be used as a vehicle to create an Irish liberation army within the ranks of the militia.
The Irish Republican Union formed in New York City for the purpose of aiding those of their countrymen who arrived sick and starving as a result of the Great Famine find food, shelter and work. The Union formed a military company in 1848. The leaders of the Union began to lobby for membership in the New York State Militia undergoing reorganization during this period.Their effort received a boost when the escaped leaders of the Young Ireland Movement arrived in New York and began their efforts to free Ireland from England. They found sympathy and support from the American Irish in the city.
Michael Doheny, a principal leaders of the Young Irelanders, saw that if these uniformed, trained Irishment had been In Ireland in 1848, the outcome of the failed rebellion might have been decidedly different. A lawyer by trade, Doheny gained admittance to the New York bar and founded several Irish newspaper that agitated for Ireland’s independence from England. He melded with American Irish leaders such as James Huston and Michael Phelan to push efforts to create an army for service in Ireland when the time was right for another try at revolution.
The Union’s military organization had grown to muster a regiment regularly organized according to the Militia Law of New York. Michael Phelan, one of the best-known Irishman in America, handled negotiations with the division commander of New York City, Major Charles W. Sandford and their provisional brigade commnder Brigadier General Charles Yates. Both officers recommended inclusion of the Irish in the militia and Governor approved the petition 21 December 1849; the regiments was designated the Ninth Regiment (1st Irish). The Ninth New York had organized in 1799 and had a long and distinguished career of service to the state and nation. The Ninth, in common with many other militia regiments, numbers had fallen so it was a regiment in name only. The Militia Act of 1846 consolidated or disbanded companies and regiments that were no longer viable organizations.The old Ninth disbanded and the Irish Regiment assigned its number. The First Irish Regiment, “The Michell Guard,” became the first all Irish regiment in the New York State Militia. Benjamin Fenton Ferris commanded the regiment. Doheny commanded Company C “Irish Pike Guard.” Phelan commanded a company of the Ninth also.
The Ninth Regiment was the first regimental sized unit in the New York Militia. Irish companies could be found in almost all militia regiments of the state. Brooklyn, an independent city during the years prior to the Civil War, located across the East River in King’s and Queen’s Counties, had a substansial Irish community. The Fourteenth Brooklyn Regiment boasted three Irish companies and the Seventieth Regimanet (Cavalry) had an Irish artillery company. The State Legistlature authorized a new regiment for King’s and Queen’s Counties to be numbered Seventy-second, eventually becoming the “National Gurd” and later the “National Rifles”
Irish patriot leaders decided to form a second Irish regiment following the plan to create an Irish Brigade within the New York Militia. The Second Irish Regiment opened recruiting offices in October 1851. The new regiment mustered into state service 1 November 1851and numbered Sixty-ninth. Dohney left the Ninth Regiment and was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the new regiment. Phelan remained with the Ninth. These two regiments technically formed a brigade as the state militia statues stated brigades could be from two to four regiments. The Ninth and Sixty-ninth served in the Second Brigade of the First Division, whose headquarters were in the city. The Seventy-second served in the Second Division.
By 1852 six thousand men were enrolled in the uniformed milita. Twenty-six hundred, one-third were Irish serving in the Ninth, Sixty-ninth regiments and companies in other regiments within the city.
The milita regiments of the first division played host to visiting dignataries stopping the city. Lajos Kossuth, leader of the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848, stopped in the city on his tour of the United States. Major General Sandford invited Kossuth to review the division Twuesday 16 December 1851. Many leaders and participants of failed revolutions that erupted across Europe in 1848 making their way to the United States for refuge and new opportunities. The Irish viewed their exile as temporary and had undertaken the task of building an Irish Liberation Army within the framework of the various state militias.
This effort received a powerful boost when Thomas Francis Meagher, the leading orator of the movement, escaped from his exile in Australia and reached New York’s welcoming arms. Doheny and the other exiled Young Irelanders as well as American Irish leaders in New York and elsewhere embraced Meagher. Meagher also received an invitation from General Sandford to review the first division which he accepted.
Meagher stood on the reviewing stand with Sandford. His chest swelled as the Irish companies and regiments of the division’sregiments passed in review. Meagher’s agile mind quickly grasped thescene unfolding before him. If these men had been Ireland four years ago, the revolution possibly would have succeeded rather than fizzle out as the Crown forces moved to arrest the leaders and drove others into exile. Meagher determined to call for a general muster of all Irish companies and regiments of New York City and State.
Tuesday 27 July 1852 was the time and Battery Park the place chosen to parade New York’s Irish military organizations. America had never seen such a gathering of Irish soldiers. New York City mustered all its companies and regiments; Brooklyn and Williamsburg ( a separate city) sent their Irish units across the river; Jersey City, Newark and Paterson represented New Jersey’s Irish companies. The parade completed, the officers of the Irish regiments reparied to Castle Garden to deliver an address honoring Meagher. The Sixty-ninth’s Lieutenant Colonel Michael Dohany delivered the address.
Meagher’s reply called for an increase in Irish military organization in New York and other states with large numbers of Irish.The officers from New York’s First Division initiated steps to enlist another Irish rifle regiment, the Fourth that day.
Michael Phelan joined Doheny in agreeing to recruit and train the new regiment. Phelan had a reputation for his military acumen among the more militant members of the Irish Confederation.He had a hand in organizing the Irish regiments in the city. The nucleus for the new regiment was the “Mitchel Light Guard” commanded by Captain Joseph Brennan; the officers and men of the company, except for Brennan himself, hailed from County Waterford, meagher’s home. The Smith O’Brien Cadets were prevailed upon to join the Mitchel Guard in the new regiment. This company had formed with the intention of joining the Ninth Regiment. The new regiment numbered Seventy-fith in the New York Line, became known as the “Republican Rifles” with Meagher as Colonel and Doheny Lieutenant Colonel in 1852.
The year 1852 was significant for the foundation of the “Silent Friends,” later known as “Sinn Fein” (Ourselves Alone). The movedment was founded by James Huston, a captain in the Ninth Regiment; the idea and society rapidly caught on in the Ninth and Sixty-ninth Regiments and other Irish units in the city and spread across the East River to the Irish regiment and companies in the Second Division. All the Young Irelanders joined with American Irish in the new society.
The Irish brigade began to unravel in 1854. The Seventy-second had become a predominantly German as Irish members left the area for other parts of the state and nation. One all Irish company remained in the regiment. The Fourth Irish languished as Meagher, its titular commander frequently left New York for speaking engagements to Irish citizens in other states and cities of the Union. Meagher’s message hammered home the creation of a liberation army created by Irishmen forming armed and uniformed companies for the state militias where they resided. Doheny was the defacto commander of the regiment. December 1854 the regiment was reorganized. The Christmas Day edition of New York Times carried an article on the accpetance of the reorganized regiment once commanded by Colonel Doheny. The retained the number Seventy-fifth, but the nom de guerre was “Irish Rifles.” The regiment had seven full companies, about 350 men; John H. McCunn was commissioned Colonel.
The Adjutant General’s Report to the State Assembly stated that the Ninth and Seventy-fifth regiments were amalgamated. The reports usually detailed is silent on the reason of consolidation. It might have been caused by the Panic of 1857 or the migration of Irishmen to the California and Colorado goldfields. It is also possible that the declared intention of the Irish militia was the liberation of Ireland, may have triggered a diplomatic protest from England to the U.S. government.
The final blow to the First Irish Brigade was the decision in 1858 to consolidate the Ninth and Sixty-ninth regiments; leaving the Sixty-ninth the only all Irish regiment in the city militia district. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded t the same time in the law office of Michael Doheny. Meagher, Phelan, Huston and others were founding members. The Brotherhood took firm hold in the Sixty-ninth.
Three years later the Irish Brigade would rise again as Civil War gripped the nation. All the Irish or predomiantly Irish regiments contained members of the original brigade in its ranks
About the Author
William O’Neill was born in New York City and has a lifelong interest in military history;the Civil War has been a passion since 1960 when I saw my first Civil War reenactment in 1961.