Immigrant Col. Thomas Cass and his fellow Boston Irishmen proved they would readily fight and die to protect the union
BY PETER F. STEVENS
In American military annals, “the Fighting 69th” New York Regiment is steeped in legend. Comprised largely of Irish Americans, the unit deserves its hard-won status. The same can be said of the 9th Massachusetts Regiment – “the Fighting Irish 9th.” The gallant organizer and first commander of that Union Army regiment was the North End’s Col. Thomas Cass.
Born in Farmly, Ireland, in 1821, Cass emigrated to Boston as a boy with his family. As with most Irish immigrants to the city in the pre-Famine era of the 1820s and 1830s, the family lived in ramshackle North End “rookeries,” or tenements, that clotted Ann and Water Streets, among others. Thomas attended public schools for a few years in classrooms not always welcoming to boys and girls with a Celtic lilt in their speech.
He eventually was apprenticed as a currier (a tanner) and went into business with his father in the North End before marrying and raising a family.
In the following years, Cass became a successful businessman and was elected to the city’s school committee. He enlisted with numerous other local Irishmen in the Columbian Artillery of the Massachusetts volunteer militia and rose to the rank of captain, convinced that local Irishmen were as patriotic and willing to fight for their new country as any Yankee. In 1861, that chance came after Confederate cannon opened fire on Fort Sumter in April.
Cass began to recruit Irishmen throughout April and May to raise a regiment, with the effort’s primary funder Boston Irish entrepreneur Patrick Donahoe, the publisher of the Pilot. Six companies of Irishmen from Boston and one each from Salem, Marlborough, Milford, and Stoughton signed the muster rolls of the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Cass was named colonel and commander of the regiment, which set up an encampment at Faneuil Hall before being assigned to Camp Wightman, on Long Island in Boston Harbor. There, the regiment was officially mustered into the federal army on June 11, 1861.
As the 9th began to drill, their commander looked every inch a man born to lead troops in battle. With an athletic frame, a bristling mustache, and penetrating eyes, Cass took his men’s measure beneath his brimmed blue federal officer’s cap. He liked what he saw in the 9th.
The regiment was ordered to depart for Washington on June 25, 1861, and join the Army of the Potomac. Throngs of people – Irish and Yankee, Catholic and Protestant alike – turned out to cheer the regiment as it marched in neat array, brass buttons glinting on blue tunics, muskets shouldered, through Boston’s streets to an official ceremony at the State House and then to the waterfront to waiting transports headed south. At the State House, Cass accepted the regimental colors -- a green banner emblazoned with the gilded words, “Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.” To thunderous cheers, Cass led his men off to war, the bold green flag nodding in the June breeze.
A few days later, the 9th was welcomed along the Potomac by President Lincoln and then set up camp in near Arlington, Virginia, drilling each day and helping to build a small bastion they dubbed “Fort Cass.
The regiment broke winter camp on March 10, 1862, and headed south to Fort Monroe, Virginia, on March 23 as part of the Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George B. McClellan. His goal was to drive to Richmond, the Confederate capital, and crush the rebellion. In the soldiers’ parlance of the day, the 9th was about to “see the elephant” – that is, battle.
In June 1862, the 9th Massachusetts earned the praise of its fellow regiments and that of their Confederate foe at the battles of Mechanicsville and Gaines Mill. As Cass and his regiment tore apart the Rebels again and again, the Boston Irishmen’s valor came at a high price: by the end of the battle of Malvern Hill, on July 1, 1862, nearly 50 percent of the members of the 9th had been killed or wounded.
Their commander was among that number. Hit in the face and mouth, the grievously wounded Cass was transported home to Boston and died on July 12. He was buried with full military honors at Mount Auburn Cemetery. His regiment fought valorously until 1864, when it was officially mustered out of service, and its remnants returned to Boston to a stirring public welcome.
Today, a statue of the Colonel Cass stands in the Boston Public Garden, the sculpture is a fitting testimonial to a man who proved that he and his fellow Irish
would fight and die to protect the Union.
For further reading, see “Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry,” by Christian Samito.