On July 3, 1863, as the Confederates of George Pickett’s Division closed on the stone wall near the top of Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, they saw a green flag rising up from behind it surrounded by 200 men in blue springing to their feet to open fire on the charging Confederates. The green battle flag was emblazoned with the number “69” but this was not New York’s Fighting 69th, it was the 69th Pennsylvania. 1
Philadelphia had been the scene of some of the worst Know Nothing attacks on the Irish in the years leading up to the Civil War. Antagonisms between the immigrants and the native born led some Irish to join militia companies to defend their community. The regiment that was to later be designated the 69th Pennsylvania was organized around one such Irish militia unit in the months after the attack on Fort Sumter. The regiment would draw most of its men from Philadelphia’s Irish ghettos, but it also included native-born Quakers and immigrant Jews in its ranks. The new regiment would incongruously be part of the California Brigade. The western state had agreed to financially support the brigade if it took the unusual name. The brigade would soon discard that designation and its four regiments would be called the Philadelphia Brigade. 2
The Philadelphia Brigade’s Irish unit adopted the name the 69th Pennsylvania in solidarity with the 69th New York. The Pennsylvania Irish may have felt closer to their New York cousins than they did to the native born in their own city’s other regiments. Filled with soldiers the city’s nativists did not consider fit for citizenship, the regiment got a different send off from the honorable parades organized for the other Philadelphia units. 3
When the 69th marched to the train station to head for Washington, a mob formed around the “Paddies in uniform.” One member of the regiment recalled that: “Hisses, derisive cries, and shouts of contempt were bestowed on us and on more than one occasion…bricks and stones fell thick and fast…as [we] marched through…the city of brotherly love.” 4
Over the next two years, the 69th developed a reputation as a fighting regiment. It became perhaps the toughest regiment in its brigade, but the brigade itself was sometimes the scene of conflict. In the seventy days before Gettysburg, an officer of the 69th was killed by an officer from another regiment and the brigade’s commanding general was replaced for discipline problems. 5
On the day before Pickett’s Charge, the 69th Pennsylvania was only just arriving at Gettysburg. The Union forces had suffered a serious defeat on July 1, but had fallen back to a fishhook-shaped line of hills and ridges south of town that formed a penetrable defensive wall. The 69th was sent to the very center of this wall. 6
On July 2, the Confederates attacked both flanks of the Union line, nearly capturing Little Round Top and occupying parts of Culp’s Hill. The 69th saw dangerous action at the end of the day, but after nightfall the men were able to shelter behind a low stone wall in front of a copse of trees on the ominously named Cemetery Ridge. 7
On the morning of July 3, the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee was preparing a massive frontal assault on the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Three large Confederate divisions were hidden in woods opposite the copse of trees where the 69th lay. 8
One Confederate division under General Isaac Trimble was made up almost entirely of North Carolinians. Alabamans, North Carolinians, and Mississippians filled James Pettigrew’s division. The Virginia division , under General George Pickett, was the largest of the three and it was aimed at the position of the 69th. Pickett’s 6,000 men were soon to spearhead the attack on a sector of the Union line with only 2,000 defenders, including the 69th. 9
While Pickett’s Charge would later be seen as a heroic but doomed attack, to the men in blue who were about to receive it the strike force looked like an army of death on the march. Because the low farmer’s wall the 69th was behind angled around the copse of trees and towards the Confederates, the 69th was actually in front of the main Union line. It would be here that the Confederate breakthrough would come.10
The Angle, the Copse of Trees, and the Stone Wall would be immortalized in coming years as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. The 69th was to be at the very epicenter of the Confederate flood.11
High Water Mark of the Confederacy marker under the Copse of Trees at Gettysburg.
At 1:07 PM two artillery pieces fired in rapid succession. This was the signal for the largest bombardment of the war by Confederate artillery to begin. One hundred and thirty five cannons opened fire, half on the area near the 69th. Hundreds of explosions could be heard every minute. Tree branches crashed down on the men as shells sailed into the copse of trees. The sound of firing was so loud that it was heard in cities many miles away. According to historian Earl Hess the “area around the angle saw the worst destruction caused bythe Rebel barrage.” .12
According to a veteran of the 69th, “The air [was] filling with the whirring, shrieking, hissing sounds of the solid shot and the bursting shell. [The men threw] themselves flat on the ground behind the low stone wall.“ The firing from so many cannon sounded like a continuous roar, deafening and terrifying. The soldier recalled that artillery shot and shell “flew through the air high above us or [struck] the ground in front ricocheting over us…[or smashed into] the wall, scattering the stones around.” 13
When the mass of Confederate troops finally began moving towards the 69th, the men felt relieved, said their regimental historian, because it signaled the end of the hour-long artillery barrage and ended the men’s “dread of being plowed into shreds or torn into fragments.” 14
As the Confederate troops emerged from the woods onto the sloping field they were to cross, they must have recognized that theirs was a deadly assignment. While some Confederates saw the attack as foolhardy, these men had triumphed over the Northerners in spectacular victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. They had come to feel contempt for their Union foe. One Confederate soldier reflected on the disaster that was soon to befall Pickett’s men and wrote that at Gettysburg “from the commanding general down to the shakiest private…the Confederate army suffered from too much overconfidence.”15
A soldier of the 69th watching the Confederates said they moved forward towards the wall “with the cool steady marching of veterans.” The commander of the 69th, Colonel Dennis O’Kane, told his men they should not open fire on the Confederates until they saw “the whites of their eyes.” He wanted the men to save their ammunition for the close-in fighting he knew would soon be their lot. O’Kane reminded the immigrant soldiers that they were not just defending their flag, but they were now defending their adopted state. He ended with the exhortation that the men must fight in the next hour until they won a victory or were killed..16
O’Kane kept his men down behind the wall, controlling their instinct to fire at long range at their enemies. The artillery of Alonzo Cushing rolled into the 69th’s line to begin breaking up Pickett’s advancing force. When the Confederates, still numbering in the thousands, were only a few dozen yards from the wall, O’Kane ordered his men to jump up and open fire. The Confederates were “staggered”, according to one witness, and their ranks were thrown into “disorder.” 17
The firepower of the Irishmen was multiplied because with foresight they had collected the rifles of the dead, loaded them, and now they picked them up one after another and fired four or five shots each before reloading. Vermont Unionists moved past the wall and turned right to fire into Pickett’s men from the side and Union artillery now concentrated their fire on this furthest advanced element of the Confederate charge. Half of the Confederate battle flags fell in this brief span of minutes. Union infantry began to rush towards the 69th, but until they arrived, the 69th was in the most precarious place on the battlefield. 18
Peter Rothermel’s “The Battle of Gettysburg” shows the fighting at the low stone wall. In this view from the north of the Copse of Trees, Union troops are on the left and Confederates are on the right.
The position of the 69th was made even more desperate at that moment when the unit to their right, the only real support they had at the angle, suddenly began running to the rear. The commander of the 71st Pennsylvania had incredibly told his men that they were to retreat when the Confederates got near to striking them. One sergeant of the 71st later admitted that the move was “rather cowardly.” He and a half-dozen others were the only men of the 71st who still remained on the firing line. For a few crucial moments, just as the Confederates crashed over the wall, the 69th seemed alone at the angle. 19
This map shows The Angle at the moment of contact between Pickett’s Division and the 69th Pa (1). The 71st Pa. has already left the wall (2) and the 59th New York (3) will soon retreat as well, leaving the 69th Pa. virtually alone for a short period. Vermont Units supported the 69th by firing into the flank of Pickett’s Division (4) and the 72nd Pa. and 71st Pa. (5) soon moved forward to support the 69th as Armistead’s Confederates penetrated the wall.Attribution: Base Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com
The Confederates, dying by the dozens with every Union volley, breached the wall. A member of the 69th saw General Lewis Armistead lead the foremost of the Confederate brigades over the wall when he “pushed towards the crest of the ridge…followed by his men.”20
Armistead and a hundred of his men fought hand to hand with the 200 men of the 69th while hundreds of Confederates on the far side of the stone wall fired into the Irishmen. At such close range, the immigrants turned their guns into clubs and bludgeoned their enemies with the butts of their rifles. One Irish corporal cleared out several of Armistead’s soldiers this way until he himself had his own “skull crushed”, according to one witness. 21
This diorama from the Gettysburg Visitor’s Center shows the Copse of Trees (1), the 69th Pennsylvania (2) fighting Armistead’s Brigade (3). The area to the right of the 69th has been vacated by the 71st Pa.(4) and the 59th New York is begining to retreat from the wall (5).
The 71st and 72nd Pennsylvania regiments now came to the aid of the 69th, firing into the Confederates and mortally wounding Armistead. “With the fall of this leader,” a 69th soldier wrote, “the fighting ended and the enemy surrendered.”22
Colonel O’Kane, who held his men back from firing until the moment of maximum effectiveness, was badly wounded and would die just hours after the famous charge ended. Of the 258 men of the 69th who arrived in Gettysburg on July 2, only 107 survived being killed or seriously wounded by the night of July 3. 23
Earl Hess, a leading historian of Pickett’s Charge, writes that the turning point in repulsing Armistead’s penetration of “The Angle” was when “the 69th refused to give way.” Hess concludes that “this regiment put up a magnificent fight that saved the angle and killed any chance that Pickett’s division might push the Federals off Cemetery Ridge.” 24
The Monument of the 69th Pennsylvania at the Angle in front of the Copse of Trees at Gettysburg. The reverse side of the monument has this memorial for the dead: In memoriam of our deceased comrades, who gave up their lives in defence of a perpetual Union. On this spot fell our commander, Col. Dennis O’Kane, his true glory was victory or death, at the moment of achieving the former, he fell victim to the latter. While rallying the right to repulse Armistead, the Lieut. Col. Martin Tschudy was killed. He was also wounded on the previous day, but nobly refused to leave the field. The Major and Adjutant were also wounded. Out of an aggregate strength of 258 the regiment suffered a loss of 137 Erected By the surviving members and their friends and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Video: Overview of the Battle of Gettysburg
The National Part Service staff at Gettysburg have a great blog on the park and its history.
Sources: [Note: Only partial sources are supplied. Final sources will be posted by September 1]
1.Stopping Pickett: The History of the Philadephia Brigade by Bradley M. Gottfried published by White Mane Books (1999) pp.13-14
2. A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers by Anthony McDermott (1889).p. 5; Stopping Pickett: The History of the Philadephia Brigade by Bradley M. Gottfried published by White Mane Books (1999) pp. 13-15
3.Stopping Pickett: The History of the Philadephia Brigade by Bradley M. Gottfried published by White Mane Books (1999) pp. 13-64
4.Stopping Pickett: The History of the Philadephia Brigade by Bradley M. Gottfried published by White Mane Books (1999) pp. 17
5.Stopping Pickett: The History of the Philadephia Brigade by Bradley M. Gottfried published by White Mane Books (1999) pp. 148
6.Stopping Pickett: The History of the Philadephia Brigade by Bradley M. Gottfried published by White Mane Books (1999) pp.148
7.Stopping Pickett: The History of the Philadephia Brigade by Bradley M. Gottfried published by White Mane Books (1999) pp. 144-145
8. Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2001) pp. 36-81
9. Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2001) p. 36-75
10. Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2001) pp. 82-95
11. Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2001) pp. 82-95
12. Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2001) pp. 125, 151
13.A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers by Anthony McDermott (1889).pp. 29-30
14.A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers by Anthony McDermott (1889).pp. 29-30
15. Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2001) p. 160-168
16. A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers by Anthony McDermott (1889).p. 30-31
17.Brigades of Gettysburg by Bradley M. Gottfried published by DeCapo Press (2002) p.149
18.Brigades of Gettysburg by Bradley M. Gottfried published by DeCapo Press (2002) p.149
19. Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2001) p. 245-246.
20. A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers by Anthony McDermott (1889).p. 31
21. A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers by Anthony McDermott (1889).p. 32
22. A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers by Anthony McDermott (1889).p. 32.
23. A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers by Anthony McDermott (1889).p. 32-33. Scott Hartwig of the National Park Service, has written an interesting paper CASUALTIES OF WAR:
The Effects of the Battle of Gettysburg Upon the Men and Families of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment that describes the effect of wounds received at Gettysburg on the lives of the men of the 69th Pa. who survived the battle.
24.Hess 262. Scott Hartwig has a thoughtful piece examining the role of the 69th in Pickett’s Charge that helps explain why it does not get the attention it deserves. In IT STRUCK HORROR TO US ALL Hartwig says:
Following the cessation of fighting, many Federal soldiers made their way to the stone wall for no purpose other than to look upon the slaughter or seek trophies. A captain of the 19th Massachusetts recalled that “the men who went down there [to the angle) afterward seemed to be prompted more by a sense of curiosity than through any need of their presence there.” …John Buckley of Co. K wrote that “the slaughter was terrible, to which fact the ground [was) literally covered with the enemy’s dead.” Anthony McDermott remembered that as he advanced back to the stone wall he found the ground “covered with the dead and wounded of both sides.” A member of the 13th Vermont, who looked upon this area, deemed it “the great slaughter pen on the field of Gettysburg ……” Five hundred and twenty- two dead Confederates would be buried in a mass grave in the field that extended from the angle area to the Emmitsburg Road; a ghastly and tragic confirmation to the Vermont soldier’s statements.
In the moments following the end of the fighting, the 69th was overwhelmed by the hundreds of prisoners they were suddenly confronted with and by their own heavy casualties. The prisoners were ordered to the rear, without escort, their capture to be claimed by other commands. The able-bodied survivors then turned their attention to seeking out dead and wounded comrades. The assault had cost the regiment 32 killed, 71 wounded, a number of whom were wounded mortally, and 18 captured. Most of these losses had been incurred in probably less than 10 minutes-from the moment the regiment loosed their first volley to the collapse of Confederate resistance.
It is interesting to note that the 69th secured no trophies of war-no flags were “captured” by any members of the regiment and no Medals of Honor were earned. Considering the regiment was engulfed in the battle, this would seem curious. A number of fallen flags lay along the stone wall or within the angle after the fight ceased. “They were there for anyone who chose to gather them up after the fireing had ceased,” wrote Anthony McDermott. Then why did men not pick them up as trophies of their victory? Part of the reason was the regiment’s survivors were busy passing prisoners to the rear when many of the flags were picked up. McDermott recalled that while he was ordering Confederates to the rear, he saw a man with a 42 on his cap run past him and seize a large Confederate flag resting against the wall where McDermott’s company had been in line. “I spoke to him at the time making some remark belittling his act,” wrote McDermott; “I saw the figure 42 on his cap. I could have had that flag without any trouble and if I thought acts like that would have brought a medal, its more than likely I would have preferred the flag to the gathering up of prisoners.” But the larger reason for the fact that the regiment secured no trophies, when they were readily available, was the casualties they had taken. Everyone knew someone who had been shot, and the able-bodied were searching for fallen comrades, not for battle trophies. McDermott stated that his overriding concern when he made his way back to the stone wall was “that one of my tent-mates had fallen and we were looking him up.” The same was probably true throughout the regiment. The casualties of nearly 50 percent had overwhelmed the command.
In doing their duty, securing prisoners, and in doing the humane thing, caring for their wounded and mourning their dead comrades, the men of the 69th passed up cheap glory.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites