Endurance and pluck

Sat, Jul 23, 2011, 01:00

HISTORY:This recently restored painting depicts an Irish regiment that fought in the American Civil War and features, on horseback, Thomas Francis Meagher, who gave us the Irish tricolour. LARA MARLOWEon a remarkable piece of Irish-American history that is once again seeing the light of day

HIS IS A PICTURE worth a thousand words, an accumulation of vignettes mingling the joy of homecoming with the bitterness of defeat and the spectacle of city life in 19th-century Manhattan. Some 150 years later, Louis Lang’s monumental, seven-foot high, 11.5-foot wide panorama The Return of the 69th Irish Regiment conveys the excitement and emotion of July 27th, 1861. It is both a work of art and a feat of reportage unprecedented in its day, as memorable as any news photograph or television image.

Lang’s homage to the Irishmen who fought at the First Battle of Bull Run has been hidden from view since the late 1940s. He’d given the painting to the New York Historical Society (NYHS), the city’s oldest museum, in 1886. But after the second World War, it fell victim to the infatuation with modern art and was consigned to the benign neglect of a warehouse in New Jersey, where it dried up and fell into pieces.

Now, after five years of planning and restoration, thanks to the tireless efforts of Linda Ferber, vice president and senior art historian at the NYHS, the painting will return as the centre piece of the Historical Society’s re-opening on November 11th, Veterans’ Day. The NYHS is trying to find descendants of those in the painting for the occasion.

The event immortalised in Lang’s painting took place on Pier One of the Hudson River, now Battersea Park, six days after the Battle of Bull Run. The officers were educated men, Irish nationalists who fled the wrath of the British. The rank and file were labourers driven out by the Famine.

Bull Run was the first significant land battle of the Civil War and an intimation of the terrible slaughter to come. Washingtonians travelled out in horse-drawn carriages packed with picnic hampers, thinking they would watch the Northern soldiers march all the way to the Southern capital of Richmond. The South, which mobilised 40,000 men to the North’s 25,000, lost the illusion that they could quickly beat the men they’d mocked as “shopkeepers”.

The battle ended in a chaotic rout for the North. The 69th had fought the Confederates up a steep incline, until Southern reinforcements arrived to overwhelm them. Col Michael Corcoran, the commander of the 69th, organised a square formation around the Union commander, safely extracting him from the battle. Corcoran was wounded and imprisoned for a year in Richmond. The South offered to free him if he promised not to fight again, but he refused.

Although he missed the glorious homecoming, Corcoran appears in Lang’s canvas, as a portrait on a broadside, held by a boy in the lower right-hand corner of the painting. “Corcoran’s father was a policeman in Ireland, who got him a post in the constabulary,” says Sarah Snook, a researcher at the NYHS. “But Corcoran didn’t like having to oppress his fellow Irish, so he emigrated.” When the Civil War started, Corcoran was in the process of being court martialed for refusing to parade his troops before the prince of Wales in New York the previous October. But the Union was desperate for volunteers, and forgave his “crime”.

Cpt Thomas Francis Meagher is the central character of Lang’s painting, rising above the crowd on the back of his bay horse, waving his cap to the Irish-American grandees on the balcony of the Washington Hotel. After a trip to Paris to congratulate France on its 1848 revolution, it was Meagher who brought back the tricolour that would become the flag of independent Ireland.

Richard O’Gorman, who like Meagher was a member of the Young Ireland movement and a leader of the 1848 rebellion, is among the dignitaries saluting the return of the 69th. A lawyer, O’Gorman defended Corcoran in his court martial, and later became a New York judge.

Two months after Bull Run, Meagher founded the Irish Brigade, which would fight heroically at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. He later became governor of Montana and drowned in a river crossing while leading an expedition to rescue white settlers from Native Americans.

The Irish immigrants who gathered at the southern tip of Manhattan that July day idolised Meagher. “Long life to Captain Meagher, that Irish blood of fame/Who wore the Harp and Shamrock upon the Battle plain/Who said unto his warlike men: Remember Fontenoy!” runs a stanza in Battle of Bull Run, a poem handed out as a broadside ballad on the day.

“Then we did retreat, but were not beat at the Battle of Bull Run!” the same poem concludes.

The Irish poet Paul Muldoon, a professor at Princeton University and the poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine, has followed the restoration of The Return of the 69th with interest, and is composing a poem about its resurrection. “There’s something wonderful about the sweep of this painting,” he says, “something quite thrilling. It’s the tension in it that I respond to, between the glory of its purported subject and the slightly gory and very ragged aspect of many of the people depicted here.”

The painting is “touching and troubling,” Muldoon says. “The Irish willingly gave themselves to fight so many wars in Europe. When you look at the number of Irishmen who joined the cavalry in the west, at Custer’s last stand . . . They were out there for better or worse – often for worse, as [the American poet] Louis Simpson wrote, ‘And grave by grave we civilise the ground’.”

The 69th changed chaplains just before Bull Run. In April, Fr Thomas Mooney had travelled with the volunteers from New York, accompanied them by boat to Annapolis, to their encampment in Georgetown and then, in late May, to Arlington Heights, across the Potomac. There, recounts Sarah Snook of the NYHS, 1,200 Irishmen built Fort Corcoran, 650 feet by 450 feet with walls 14 feet high, in just one week. When their first artillery piece arrived on July 13th, Col Corcoran asked Father Mooney to bless it.

Fr Mooney took it upon himself to “baptise” the canon with holy water. “He made a little speech, saying ‘Parents look forward to the first words of their children. I look forward to the first roar from the mouth of this babe,’ ” Snook says. John Hughes, the first archbishop of New York, was so furious when he heard of the “baptism” that he replaced Mooney with Fr Bernard O’Reilly. It is O’Reilly who appears to the left centre of Lang’s painting, attempting to comfort a grief-stricken woman holding a child, doubtless a widow of one of the 41 men from the 69th who were killed at Bull Run.

When it was shown in a solo exhibition at Goupil’s Gallery on Broadway in October 1862, “The Return of the 69th received somewhat tepid critical reviews,” says Linda Ferber, the force behind the painting’s resurrection. “But it was always a popular success.” Paintings of contemporary history were relatively new, and to exhibit a monumental canvas portraying an event only 15 months after it occurred was incredible, Ferber adds. The painting was shown twice more, once in Philadelphia to raise funds for Union troops, before languishing for 22 years in Lang’s studio.

Barbara Gallanti is the guest curator of Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy, the exhibition at the NYHS where Lang’s painting will be the star attraction in November. “Why had this painting gone to rack and ruin? Why has it not been seen?” she asks.

Gallanti answers her own question: The Return was too big for anyone to hang in their living room. Its optimism proved premature. And the German-born Lang was perhaps too European. “It doesn’t comply with basic American aesthetics of that time,” she explains. “The wealth of factual information somehow overwhelms the viewer. I don’t know of any other American painting that brings together so many people and tries to re-create an actual event.”

When the Irish returned from Bull Run, they were praised for endurance, pluck and heroism. “Well may our adopted citizens be proud of a regiment that has nobly sustained the glory and heroism of their native land, while defending the flag of their adoption,” said the pamphlet at Goupil’s Gallery in 1862.

But in 1863, two years after Bull Run, the warm feelings towards the “sons of Erin” dissipated. The Union imposed conscription, but any man rich enough to pay $300 could buy his way out. Irish labourers in New York revolted in four days of draft riots that left at least 120 civilians dead. Many buildings were destroyed, including an orphanage for black children.

Some of those targeted were also Irish, among them police superintendent John A Kennedy and assistant provost-marshal-general Robert Nugent. The mob invaded Nugent’s upper east side home and threw his furniture out the windows. Nugent had fought at Bull Run with the 69th. He stands just to the right of the drummer boys in Lang’s painting, his wounded arm in a sling.

The Irish were not the only ones who rioted, but they were blamed for it. The insurrection fanned anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant prejudice, and helps to explain why such a great painting was ignored for so long.