Irish-Born Colonel Thomas Cass
Proved That He and His Fellow Irish
Would Fight, Die To Protect the Union
In American military annals, "the Fighting Sixty-Ninth" Regiment is steeped in legend. The New York unit, comprised largely of Irish Americans, deserves its hard-won status, but the same can be said of the Ninth Massachusetts Regiment - "the Fighting Irish Ninthth." The gallant organizer and first commander of the Union Army regiment was Colonel Thomas Cass.
Born in Farmly, Ireland, in 1821, Cass came 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 Ã¢â‚¬Ëœ30s, 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, those 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, marrying and raising a family.
Cass established himself in the following years as a savvy and successful businessman, as well as a member of the school committee, and enlisted with numerous other local Irishmen in the Columbian Artillery of the Massachusetts volunteer militia. He rose to the rank of captain, eager to prove that he and his fellow Irishmen were as patriotic and willing to fight for their new country as any Yankee. In 1861, that chance came several months after Confederate cannon opened up on Fort Sumter in April.
Thomas Cass began to recruit Irishmen throughout April and May in hopes of raising a regiment, and the unit's primary funding came from Boston Irish entrepreneur Patrick Donahoe, the publisher of the Pilot. As local Irishmen flocked to sign the muster rolls of the evolving regiment, six companies of men from Boston and one each from Salem, Marlborough, Milford, and Stoughton were organized as the Ninth 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 Ninth began to drill, the commander looked every inch a man born to lead troops in battle. Handsome with an athletic frame and a bristling mustache, his eyes taking his men's measure beneath his brimmed blue Federal officer's cap, Cass, like so many other officers across the Union, knew that they would be tested by the gathering Rebel forces.
Cass was informed that the Ninth was to depart for Washington, D.C., on June 25, 1861, and join the Army of the Potomac. First, however, the city of Boston intended to give the "Irish Ninth" a rousing send-off.
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, where transports waited to covey the troops south to battle. At the State House, Cass accepted its regimental colors - a green Irish banner that was 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.
He and his Irish companies debarked along the Potomac River a few days later and were welcomed by President Lincoln. They set up camp in the environs of nearby Arlington, Virginia, as part of the capital's defense forces, drilling each day and helping to build a small bastion they dubbed "Fort Cass." For the Ninth, the real fighting came in 1862.
The regiment broke winter camp on March 10, headed south, and reached Fort Monroe, Virginia, on March 23, as part of the Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George B. McClellan for the Peninsula Campaign. The Union army's goal was to drive to Richmond, the Confederate capital, and crush the rebellion. The trial by fire for the Irish companies of Boston, Milford, Marlborough, and Salem lay ahead. In the soldiers' parlance of the day, Cass and his regiment were about to "see the elephant" - battle.
Part 2 of First Man of the Fighting Ninth will run in the May BIR. For further reading, we strongly suggest Commanding Boston's Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, by Christian Samito.