For a list of other features in The Immigrants’ Civil War scroll to the bottom of the page.
“The Return of the 69th Irish Regiment” is a seven-foot high and eleven-foot wide painting. With dimensions like that, it is hard to see how it could go missing, but missing it was for half a century. The New-York Historical Society recently rediscovered the painting in its archives, and it was in terrible shape. After a year of restoration by seven conservationists, it will be unveiled again at the society’s museum on Veterans Day this fall.
Louis Lang, a German immigrant, painted “The Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment N.Y.S.M. From the Seat of War” in 1862-1863, during the Civil War. The painting is rich in symbolism, and captures an important moment in immigrant history: the return of the 69th to New York after the defeat at Bull Run.
The 69th arrived at the Battery on July 27, 1861, and marched up Broadway. While the battle had been a disaster for the Union, the 69h had acquitted itself well, and was given a hero’s welcome.
This painting was made soon after the event and was intended to serve as a visual narrative. It has multiple focal points, each intended to tell a story.
At the center is the 69th itself, led by boy drummers and the famous Irish revolutionary Thomas Francis Meagher riding on a horse.
Meagher had taken over command of the regiment when Col. Michael Corcoran was captured by the Confederates at Bull Run. The painting depicts Corcoran’s capture, shown on the front page of a newspaper being sold by a poor newsboy.
In the upper right of the painting, the Irishmen are hailed by the same sort of wealthy native-born who a few years earlier were trying to exclude the immigrants from power. They cheer from the steps of their well-appointed town houses, waving American flags. Have they accepted the Irish as Americans in recognition of their blood sacrifice? Some of the houses fly Irish flags, recognizing that some immigrants had made it and entered the city’s power elite.
On the left side of the painting are the Irish poor, who waited for nearly a day in the summer sun for their regiment to come home. They aren’t standing outside their homes. They are in a public park. Some of the Irish wear green sashes and green flags are in evidence, signifying that this is an immigrant regiment, sent out to represent an immigrant community. They also underscore the Irish nationalist associations of the 69th.
Even the American-born children of the immigrants understand that this regiment belongs to them. They may be “natural-born citizens”, but they are part of the Irish community and they, too, wave the green flag.
In the background is Castle Clinton, with a huge green flag flying. At the time, Castle Clinton was the immigration station for New York. Many of the soldiers had arrived there from Ireland just a few years earlier. Now they were returning to New York from that foreign country, Virginia, through the same “Golden Door” of immigrants.
The painting also depicts the cost of the battle. A cart on the left carries the seriously wounded soldiers of the regiment. A boy playing soldier turns and looks aghast at a soldier with a crippling leg wound.
Instead of marching in a place of honor in the center of the painting, the regiment’s priest is with the wounded, seeing to their needs and comforting a crying woman carrying her baby.
The painting also depicts a young woman receiving news from a member of the 69th’s Zouave company that her husband was killed. An old woman, the soldier’s mother is stoic, but the wife breaks down. All three ignore the boy offering fruit as a present for the retuned heroes.
This article describes the restoration of the painting, and includes a photo of it prior to restoration.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites