Mutiny in the 69th
Mutiny is uncommon in the history of the U.S. armed forces. Yet there is one unit, among the most decorated of National Guard regiments, that has experienced mutiny, and not once, but twice, New York’s 69th Infantry – the “Fighting 69th.”
In both instances, mutiny was a direct consequence of the regiment’s Irish-American heritage.
The first “mutiny” occurred in 1860. In that year, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), paid a visit to Canada, and was invited to tour the United States as well. As a concession to American sensibilities, the prince traveled using one of his subsidiary titles, Count Renfrew. Since New York City was on the young man’s itinerary, the governor ordered the State Militia to serve as military escort to the Count. Most of the militia dutifully turned out. But the order was too much for Col. Michael Corcoran, Commander of the 69th Regiment. On October 11, 1860, Corcoran refused in writing to participate with his regiment. The governor charged Corcoran with insubordination, placed him under technical arrest, a court martial was threatened, and there were demands that the regiment be disbanded. This embroglio was still brewing when Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12, 1861, whereupon all was suddenly forgiven, and Corcoran and the 69th both marched off to war to the cheers of those who had so lately been on their case.
The second “mutiny” took place during World War I. Upon mobilization, the 69th, which was designated the 165th Infantry in Federal service, formed part of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division. The regiment arrived in France late in 1917. Since like most American units it went overseas only partially equipped, upon reaching its training area, at La Fauche, the troops were issued additional equipment and new uniforms. Now it chanced that Uncle Sam did not have enough of his standard issue blouse. To remedy the shortfall, the Army had bought a stock of blouses from the British. As soon as the men of the 69th saw the crown bedecked buttons on the new blouses, they refused to wear them. Although a great deal of pressure was brought to bear, everyone took part in the “strike.” Rather than apply judicial remedies, the Army finally relented, and issued the men new buttons, with eagles on them, which they avidly sewed on to their new blouses, while most certainly getting an extra measure of satisfaction in tossing the Brit buttons into the trash.
FootNote: In addition to its two mutinies, and many other unusual distinctions, the 69th is the only active unit in the National Guard to bear the same designation in Federal service as it did in the state militia. Although redesignated the 165th Infantry during World War I, shortly after World War II it was officially renamed the 69th Infantry, there never having been a regiment so designated in the Army list.
"Have some Caviar!"
Like many a royal scion, the Tsarevich Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov (1868-1918) – later Tsar Nicholas II – did his bit in uniform. In 1888, at the age of 18, he joined the Hussars of the Guard as a junior officer.
By all accounts, Nicholas, although not a diligent soldier, performed his duties properly, and seemed to have actually enjoyed soldiering as opposed to the formalities and complexities of court life. Like all junior officers, Nicholas got into trouble from time to time.
One night, apparently in 1893, Nicholas and a party of fellow-officers, accompanied by their lady friends (among them Nikky’s mistress, the Polish ballerina Mlle Krzesinska), descended upon the Restaurant Cubat, a fashionable St. Petersburg eatery. Settling in to a private dining room, the group partied heartily and long. Indeed, apparently too heartily and too long, for when closing time came, they refused to leave. The proprietor, who seems not to have known that the Tsarevich was present, pleaded with the young officers, pointing out that the legal closing time had already past.
Unable to get any cooperation, the proprietor summoned a police officer. But when the policeman arrived, he could make no headway either. So he called the City Prefect, Major General Count Viktor Vilgelmovich von Wahl (1840-1915).
The Prefect realized that the Tsarevich was among the troublemakers (he’d been keeping tabs on the lad, since he seems to have enjoyed gossip about the heir to the throne), and decided he’d better show up in person, lest things really get out of hand. So von Wahl quickly made his way to the Cubat. As the Prefect entered the place, Nikky spotted him. Apparently drunk, and aware that von Wahl was the source of much gossip that was being circulated about his activities, the Tsarevich promptly snatched up a large jar of caviar from a table and hurled it into the Prefect’s face.
That pretty much ended the disorders. The matter was smoothed over, and the incident did not even affect von Wahl’s future; in 1895 Nikky, now Tsar, promoted him to lieutenant general and made him governor of Ninji-Novgorod, and later promoted him to general of cavalry and governor of Finland.