NEW YORK — For New York Army National Guard Capt. Richard Reilly, family traditions and regimental history go hand in hand at the 69th Infantry Regiment.
Reilly, commander of Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, honored ancestors as he led his Soldiers from the battalion armory on Lexington Avenue through the St. Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue on March 16.
The 69th Infantry, known as the “Fighting 69th,” for its combat actions in the Civil War, was organized in 1849 from Irish immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side.
Strong in traditions and rich in history, many of its modern Soldiers, such as Reilly, maintain the spirit of family service with the 69th across generations.
“Every time I walk into the Lexington Armory, I think about my family members who served before me. I think about how my actions stretch back in my family history before the Battle of Bull Run,” Reilly said.
Reilly’s family service traces back to the Civil War and his great-great-grandfather, Philip Reilly. Philip lied about his age to enlist at age 12 in the 69th Infantry just one week after the Civil War began.
“On Philip's enlistment paperwork, the age is left blank,” Reilly said.
“Philip Reilly enlisted with his big brother Bernard Reilly in the 69th New York State Militia on April 20, 1861,” the latest Reilly Soldier said. “Philip being assigned to B Company at age 12, Bernard assigned to H Company.” They both were mustered into service on May 9, 1861.
Their original enlistment was for three months, and both Soldiers served at the Battle of Bull Run, Reilly said, and mustered out of federal service after their 90-day term. But both would serve again.
“The commanding officer of the 69th Militia was Col. (Michael) Corcoran,” Reilly said. “Both Philip and Bernard Reilly waited for their colonel's return from being a POW in Richmond (after his capture at Bull Run) and enlisted in his new regiment, the 170th New York, on Sept. 20, 1862.”
Many of the New York Irish of the old 69th New York Militia did the same, Reilly explained.
Philip Reilly, however, was still under age, having just turned 13. When his parents learned that he was training on Staten Island with his new regiment, they took him home, Reilly said.
“He is listed as deserted at age 13,” he said.
Philip Reilly remained determined to serve and less than a year after learning of his brother’s death in action at the North Anna River on May 24, 1864, Philip Reilly, then 15, reenlisted in the 69th Infantry, again giving a false age to join Jan. 27, 1865.
The Reilly family tradition of service continued in World War II, with a new generation of Soldier, this time Capt. Reilly’s great-uncle James Reilly, who enlisted Oct. 1, 1940, in the New York National Guard and served with Company C of the 69th Infantry for two years.
Discharged Oct. 15, 1942, he returned to serve, this time outside of the regiment, receiving an officer’s commission as a second lieutenant and deployed to Europe, rising to the rank of captain by the end of the war.
Capt. Richard Reilly’s newest generation of military service for his family began July 31, 2008.
Being a part of a unit that has been a part of his family since its creation is very important to him.
The 69th Regiment and its Irish history play an important role in both his family and in the modern day battalion traditions, Reilly said.
Reilly even had the opportunity to visit the Irish Parliament House and see the regimental colors on display there during an 1848 Tricolor Event, first presented as a gift to the Irish people from President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
“It was a proud moment to know Philip Reilly marched under those colors during the Grand Review in Washington, D.C.,” Reilly said, “And how the Republic of Ireland hasn't forgotten those men who were driven from their home and came over here and adopted our nation as theirs and many like Bernard Reilly sacrificed their lives for our beliefs.”
This was Reilly’s final St. Patrick’s day parade with the 69th Infantry Regiment as he transfers to a new unit this spring, although there may still be more Reillys to come into the regiment in the future, he said.
“The important traditions of the regiment are my family traditions,” Reilly said, “they are one and the same. The regiment and my family will always be ready to defend our nation and stand up for what is right.”