Monday, August 1, 2011

The Fighting 69th

This weekend was spent nowhere near a kayak, a rarity for the summer months. I've been long overdue in visiting No.2 son CaptO and his bride at their new digs in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. There was a high level SKOAC/Sebago Canoe Club summit meeting on the East River in Long Island City Friday night involving me, Bonnie K Frogma, and our support staff (images below) but no boats were involved. Three different 'conference venues' were utilized but no real substantive agreements were reached other than the agreement that the coq au vin with garlic mashed at Cafe Henri looked excellent. The highlight of this trip however, was the personal tour of the 69th Infantry Regiment, the 'Fighting 69th' armory on Lexington Ave between 25th and 26th St in Manhattan.

Both the regiment and the armory have a storied history. The regiment was formed before the Civil War and was wholly Irish in makeup. One of their first mentions was actually for an act of mutiny. New York regiments were ordered to parade to honor the Prince of Wales in 1860. The regiments commander, Col. Michael Corcoran, refused to parade the regiment for an English prince. He was going to be court martialed for disobeying orders but the start of the Civil War made the military authorities reconsider. The regiment fought at several battes including 1st Manasses (Bull Run), Antietem, and the Wheatfield at Gettysburg. It was at Fredricksburg, a disaster for the Union side, that the name the "fighting 69th" was first used by none other than their adversary, Gen Robert E. Lee. The unit fought in most every other war that the US was involved in and a ton of historical info can be found on the regiments official site here.

The armory itself has quite a history. It was completed in 1906 and was designed in the Beaux-Arts style rather than the medieval castle look common with most armories of the time. In 1913 it was the site of the first modern art show in the country. Unheard of artists like Cezanne, Monet, Tolouse-Latrec, Van Gogh, and Picasso had their works exhibited at the armory and were the subject of much ridicule by the press and art establishment. Insane, immoral, and anarchic were some of the milder criticisms and former Prez Teddy Roosevelt declared, "That's not art!" Continuing in an artistic vein, Victoria Secrets fashion shows and other fashion and food events have been held there. In the sporting world, there were national track meets, the first televised roller derby event, and for a while the armory was the home court for the New York Knicks. After 9/11 the armory was used as a counseling center and clearing house for victims and their families and many of the notes, pleas for information, and other documents posted on the walls were preserved.

The tour began with MsE, broBen, and I pushing the door buzzer to state our business. We were buzzed in and greeted by CaptO's buddy, CaptB for the tour. We were turned over to Cpl Nick, a guy who, much like yours truly, is a genuine history nut. I was kind to my companions and didn't ask a ton of questions but I will need to return for more in depth study, hopefully when the O Club is open. First stop was the battalion commanders office, digs that would be the envy of any CEO in the country. An original letter from Abraham Lincoln to the regiment is on one wall and all but one of the Medals of Honor won by soldiers in the regiment are on another wall. Battle flags, a conference table with campaign streamers under the glass, and a great wood paneled motif with fireplace makes for an impressive room on a number of levels.

The rest of the armory was no less impressive. There is an entire room of murals painted by WPA artists during Roosevelts New Deal, depicting battles the 69th had fought in. A displays honored famous division chaplains including Father Duffy, a man played by Pat O'Brien in the 1940 movie "The Fighting 69th". James Cagney played the screw off WWI doughboy that Father Duffy straightened out during WWI. During that time the 69th served with the 42nd "Rainbow" division, whose Chief of Staff was then Major Douglas MacArthur. Other displays honor the Pacific service in WWII and the role that the armory played as a clearing house and meeting place after the 9/11 attacks. An alert 69th veteran noticed a sword on Ebay belonging to Col. Thomas Meagher, a Colonel of the regiment during the Civil War. Meagher was an Irish nationalist who had been sentenced to hang by the British but had his sentence commuted to transportation to Australia. He made his way to the US and the 69th Regiment by the start of the Civil War. The sword was purchased then donated to the Regiment, an indication about the esteem with which veterans hold their old unit. Restoration efforts are underway on old battle flags, the murals, and other gems in the armory.

The tour ended in the Officers Club. It was one of five bars in the armory at one time. Hey, this was an Irish regiment after all. They are down to two now, an officers and an enlisted man's club. The club was another wonderful room with memorabilia from visiting units from around the world and done in the same dark wood paneling as other rooms in the building. It was not open at this early hour but I look forward to returning to have the traditional regimental cocktail of Irish whiskey mixed with champagne.

There is another great regimental tradition that I have half a mind to participate in. Since the 1850's the Regiment has led the St Patricks Day parade, complete with their Irish Wolfhound mascots. Tradition has the Regiment march from the armory to the doors of St Patricks Cathedral on 5th Ave. The battalion commander's knock on the door is answered by the Archbishop of New York and mass is said. Then the parade begins. There may even be a bit of Bushmills with a Guinness chaser or two involved in the days festivities.

We thanked all of the folks at the armory for the tour and then adjourned to another historic site, Pete's Tavern with MsE, broBen, and Cptn's B and M. Petes pulled their first pint in 1864 and has been open continuously since. Prohibition you say? They kept right on serving while camouflaged as a flower shop and protected by Tammany Hall. CaptO joined us after work and we behaved about as well as can be expected given the situation. If a tour of the 69th Regiment armory can be wangled its well worth the stop and nicely off the traditional beaten Manhattan tourist path. My scheme is to head back with the VOR, another history buff, and try to do the in depth tour when the O Club is open. Right around the 17th of March if we play our cards right.


Erik said...

Mmmm... whiskey and champagne...

DaveO said...

It actually sounds pretty good. I may have to do some testing since I have a small 'nip' bottle of champagne. And plenty of Bushmills, of course.

Ian said...

It is quite good!