N.Y. Guard's 'Fighting 69th' returns to Fredericksburg

[FREDERICKSBURG, VA. Dec. 7, 20120] — New York Army National Guard Soldiers from Company A, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry visit the historic battlefields of their regiment this weekend as part of the Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration Friday through Sunday at the National Military Park here.

About 75 Soldiers from the battalion’s Company A, based at Lexington Avenue in New York City, and led by Capt. Terry Benson of Glens Falls, N.Y., will travel to Fredericksburg by invitation of the National Park Service to participate in the commemoration of the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.

The troops will conduct routine military training at nearby Fort A.P. Hill for their weekend drill before joining in the sesquicentennial celebration on Sunday.

The National Guard representatives will rededicate the Irish Brigade monument, alongside members of the Irish Defense Forces. The Soldiers will then march through the City of Fredericksburg at 1 p.m. Sunday to retrace the footsteps of the 69th Regiment, alongside re-enactors and members of the 69th Infantry Veterans’ Corps. The Soldiers will carry the battalion’s battle flag along the route of the march from Riverfront Park up to the Sunken Road.

Joining the Soldiers for the march through Fredericksburg will also be Lt. Col. James Gonyo, of New Windsor, N.Y., the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry commander.

The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battles fought here with four large battle anniversaries and several smaller programs, exhibits, and performances that highlight events which took place in Fredericksburg in 1862.

Members of the 69th Infantry will tour the battlefield, learn about the military decisions and orders of the battle and meet up with former foes of the Confederacy, Soldiers of the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, part of the Virginia Army National Guard. The unit is a legacy of the Stonewall Jackson Brigade from the Army of Northern Virginia.

The two groups will join at the Sunken Road for music, words, reflection and a salute to their service in 1862.

The battle of Fredericksburg, unusual for the season in which it was fought, was fought Dec. 11-15, 1862, in and around the town between General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

Burnside’s plan was to race across the Rappahannock River and through Fredericksburg in mid-November to seize the Confederate capital of Richmond before winter. Logistics delays prevented Burnside from crossing the river before Lee could challenge him to block Burnside’s advance.

Union forces crossed the river under fire and forced their way through Fredericksburg on December 11-12, but failed to carry their assault against strongly defended Confederate positions on a fortified ridge west of the city known as Marye’s Heights.

Soldiers of the 69th Infantry, part of the famed Irish Brigade under Brig. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, were in the second wave to assault the heights and suffered terrible losses  By coincidence, the Irish Brigade attacked the area of Marye’s Heights defended by fellow Confederate Irishmen of Col. Robert McMillan’s 24th Georgia Infantry. One Confederate who spotted the green regimental flags approaching cried out, “Oh God, what a pity! Here comes Meagher’s fellows.”

The Irish Brigade, attacking the stone wall in front of the now famous sunken road on Marye’s Heights, saw its fighting strength reduced from 1,600 Soldiers to 263 in a matter of minutes. It was at Fredericksburg that Robert E. Lee allegedly referred to Meagher’s regiment as the “Fighting 69th.”  In a matter of two hours, four Union divisions were thrust into the attack, suffering some 4,114 casualties and gaining no ground before the fortified positions atop Marye’s Heights.

Confederate Gen. James Longstreet is said to have remarked to his commander, Robert E. Lee, “General, if you put every man on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line.”

Union forces in front of Marye’s Heights suffered eight casualties for every one of the Confederacy.  The battle is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the Civil War, with Union casualties more than twice those suffered by the Confederates. All told, Union casualties after the battle were 12, 653 while Confederate losses were 5,377.