MENANDS, N.Y. – A dozen veterans of the New York Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry spent a snowy March 10 morning honoring Irish-American Civil War veterans buried at two Albany-area cemeteries.
Former members of the 69th Infantry, which began as an Irish-American militia regiment, marked the graves of Civil War Soldiers who served in the Irish Brigade and the Irish Legion at St. Agnes Catholic Cemetery and Albany Rural Cemetery with American and Irish flags.
The two historic burying grounds are next door to each other.
“As we approach St. Patrick’s Day, it is a great opportunity to thank them for their service and in paving the way for all immigrants who served,” said Lt. Col. Sean Flynn, the operations officer for the 42nd Infantry Division and a former commander of the 69th Infantry.
The New York National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment was organized in 1849 and made up of Irish immigrants who had fled that country due to famine or because they opposed British rule there.
During the Civil War, the 69th was part of the Irish Brigade made up of New York infantry regiments recruited from the Irish community.
Since 1851 the 69th Infantry has led the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade and St. Patrick’s Day is the 69th’s unit day, Flynn explained.
Veterans of the unit who are still serving are invited to march as well.
While the bulk of the Irish recruits in the 69th and the Irish Brigade came from New York City, a lot of those men came from the Albany area or came to live there after the war, Flynn explained.
“We wanted to do something for the upstate members of the 69th,” said Maj. Shawn Tabankin, the assistant operations officer of the 42nd Division and a former member of the 69th Infantry.
The 69th Soldiers marked Civil War graves at St. Agnes Cemetery with American and Irish colors on a single staff. They also took time to visit the grave of Sgt. David Fisher, a New York Army National Guard Soldier from the 1st Battalion, 101st Cavalry who was serving with the 69th Infantry in Iraq in 2004 when he was killed in a vehicle rollover accident.
At Albany Rural Cemetery, the veterans again marked Irish Brigade graves in the Soldiers' Lot, a plot of land donated to the federal government by the cemetery association in 1862 to provide gravesites for Soldiers who died in Albany military hospitals.
There are 149 Civil War Soldiers buried in the plot. Veterans who had no family, or whose family could not afford a private site, were buried there until 1897.
At the Soldiers' Lot, the veterans placed a wreath with Ireland’s orange and green colors at the foot of the Grand Army of the Republic memorial which was erected in 1873, along with marking gravesites.
The 69th Infantry and the Irish Brigade were filled with immigrants seeking a better life and ready to give theirs for freedom and liberty, Flynn said during his remarks.
“Today the 69th is still a regiment of immigrants, although it’s no longer the Irish,” Flynn pointed out.
Of the 10,000 members of the New York Army National Guard, 960 are naturalized American citizens and another 515 are legal residents of the United States.
Brig. Gen. John Andonie, the director of Joint Staff for the New York National Guard and a former commander of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry read the poem “Rouge Bouquet” to end the short event.
The poem was written by 20th Century poet Joyce Kilmer to mark the first deaths of 69th Infantry Soldiers in combat during World War I in the spring of 1918. Kilmer himself was killed in action while serving as a sergeant in the 69th’s intelligence section.
“Rouge Bouquet” is traditionally read during memorial services for members of the 69th Infantry.
Maj. Gavin Dermot, who currently serves in the 42nd Division, said that he was proud of his Irish heritage and history of service of the Irish Brigade. As a second generation Irish immigrant – “My mother was fresh off the 747 from Dublin”—the history is important to him, Dermot said.
Tony Esposito, the president of the cemetery board, said that Albany Rural is always happy to host these kinds of events.
"There's a lot of history in this place," Esposito said.
President Chester Arthur is buried in the cemetery, and the New York National Guard presents a wreath from the White House at his gravesite each year.
Among the Irish American Soldiers buried in the Soldiers' Lot is Pvt. Bernard Trainor.
Trainor was an Irish immigrant who came to New York during the Irish famine in the 1940s, Flynn said.
Trainor enlisted in the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry in August 1862, one month before the regiment fought at Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the war. Half of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry was killed or wounded in that battle.
Trainor was wounded slightly in the leg at Antietam but returned to duty.
Trainor’s good luck held out in December when the 69th and the Irish Brigade attacked a well-entrenched Confederate force at Marye's Heights above the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
While the 69th suffered tremendous losses again, Trainor survived without injury.
His luck finally ran out at Gettysburg in June 1863. By that time, the 69th was a shadow of its former self, deploying with fewer than one hundred Soldiers.
Trainor was severely wounded fighting at the "Wheat field." He was discharged as a result of these wounds. He was sent to Albany to convalesce, where he died in 1868.
Also buried in the Soldiers' Lot are musician Joseph Maguire, a member of the 63rd Infantry of the Irish Brigade, as well as Cpl. Richard Jefferson, 170th Infantry, and Pvt. Michael Curtain, 164th Infantry, of the Irish Legion.
Founded in 1861 and 1862 respectively, the Irish Brigade and the Irish Legion were Union Army brigades comprised of volunteer regiments recruited almost exclusively from Irish Immigrants in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
Most Albany-area residents who served in these units were assigned to the 63rd New York Volunteers of the Irish Brigade. Many are buried in Albany Rural Cemetery, St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, New York, and Calvary Cemetery in Glenmont, New York, Flynn said.