‘We Thought We Were All Gone': The 69th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg

Shortly before 9pm on 2nd July 1887 a group of Confederate veterans disembarked from their train cars at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There to greet them were some of their former foe, nearly 500 men of the old Union Philadelphia Brigade. Illuminated under red and green lights, roman candles were fired into the night sky as the band played ‘Dixie’ and the Stars and Stripes were unfurled. The next day would see a series of addresses to the men of both sides- the Rebels who had taken part in what became known as ‘Pickett’s Charge’ and the Federals who had turned them back. Amongst the Union veterans present that day were a body of men from an Irish regiment who had played a key role in that repulse – the 69th Pennsylvania. (1)

Clump of Trees Gettysburg

The Clump of Trees at Gettysburg with the 69th Pennsylvania Monument at the Stone Wall in front (Brief History of the 69th)

24 years previously such a scene would have been unimaginable to the men of both sides. The 69th Pennsylvania and their comrades had arrived on the field at Gettysburg on the evening of the first days fighting, 1st July. Shortly after sunrise on the morning of the 2nd the 258 men of the regiment took position in the centre of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. They were placed ‘a little below the crest on the decline facing the enemy and behind a low stone wall, the right resting within about thirty paces of what is now designated as the “Bloody Angle,” the left extending about the same distance below, or south of a clump of trees of umbrella shape’. This clump of trees was soon to become perhaps the most famous natural landmark in the Civil War, as it became the objective point for ‘Pickett’s Charge’. That advance was a still a day away, however. The Irishmen’s position was attacked on the evening of 2nd July, when a Rebel brigade was driven back with great loss by the combined weight of infantry and artillery fire, though not without casualties among the Irishmen. (2)

Survivors of the 69th Pennsylvania at their old position in Gettysburg in 1887 (Brief History of the 69th)

Aside from picket firing, all was relatively quiet on the 69th’s front on the morning of 3rd July. Then, around 1pm, a single Confederate artillery piece discharged across the battlefield. Suddenly all hell broke loose as volley after volley of Rebel artillery arced between the lines, with over 150 guns concentrated on Cemetery Ridge. The Irishmen lay flat on the ground behind their stone wall to escape the blasts. The air filled with the ‘whirring, shrieking, hissing sounds of  the solid shot and the bursting shell… striking the ground in front and ricochetting over us, to be imbedded in some object to the rear; others strike the wall, scattering the stones around.’ After over an hour the barrage finally lifted, but now the men faced a new threat. Out in front, somewhere between 12-15,000 Confederates in divisions under the command of James Pettigrew, George Pickett and Isaac Trimble began their purposeful advance towards Union lines and the 69th Pennsylvania’s position. (3)

Picketts Charge Veterans

Confederate Veterans of Pickett’s Charge shake hands across the Stone Wall with Veterans of the 69th in 1887 (Brief History of the 69th)

The Rebels took heavy artillery fire as they advanced in two lines towards their objective. Colonel Dennis O’Kane was in command of the 69th that day, and he ordered his men to hold their fire until they could see the whites of their enemies eyes. He reminded them that they were fighting on Pennsylvania soil, telling the men ‘let your work this day be for victory or to the death’. By now the Confederates had crossed the Emmitsburg Pike in front, where they obliqued to the left, continuing to advance through a storm of fire. The 69th waited until the Rebels were only 30 paces from their position before firing a devastating volley into their ranks. Still the enemy came on. The Irishmen’s position was overlapped on their right, and men of Confederate Brigadier-General Lewis Armistead’s brigade sought to exploit this gap. Companies I, A and F of the 69th were ordered to change front to face this threat. The latter two companies executed the move, but the commander of Company F, Captain George Thompson, had fallen before the instruction could be given- his men stayed at the wall. This created a gap through which the Confederate’s poured, and which threatened the entire regiment. Company F was consumed by Rebel attackers, and almost all of their number were forced to surrender. (4)

Colonel Dennis O'Kane

Colonel Dennis O’Kane, 69th Pennsylvania, Mortally Wounded at Gettysburg, July 3rd 1863

Fighting became hand to hand as the desperate struggle intensified, with men used their weapons as clubs. Hugh Bradley of Company D went down, his skull crushed by a Rebel musket. Corporal McKeever of the 69th admitted that ‘we thought we were all gone’. Robert Whittick of Company C described how ‘a fellow was taken in with me and I knocked him over and took him prisoner, and took him in over the stone wall. We were fighting both sides on the front and rear of us at that time.’  For a moment it seemed the men would be forced to give up their position, but eventually the Confederates began to pull back. Armistead had fallen mortally wounded to the 69th’s right, and the entire Confederate advance had been enfiladed on both the left and right flanks, dooming it to failure. The Irishmen had held on. In time the charge would become legendary, and would retrospectively be termed the ‘High-water mark of the Confederacy’ in the war. (5)

Lieutenant-Colonel Tschudy

Lieutenant-Colonel Martin Tschudy, 69th Pennsylvania, killed at Gettysburg July 3rd 1863

The cost the 69th paid for participating in this historic struggle was severe. Colonel O’Kane fell mortally wounded, and Lieutenant-Colonel Martin Tschudy went down while rallying the right. Four line officers were killed, six wounded and two captured. 39 of the other ranks were killed, with 80 wounded and 16 made prisoners. (6)

69th veteran Anthony McDermott in A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers documents those of his comrades who fell at Gettysburg. They are:

Field and Staff: Colonel Dennis O’Kane (July 3), Lieutenant-Colonel Martin Tschudy (July 3)

Company A: Corporal William Donovan (July 3), Corporal F.J. McGovern (July 3), Private Frederick Beavenstead (of wounds received July 2), Private John Harvey Jr. (July 3), Private Robert Morrison (July 3), Private Patrick O’Brien (July 3), Private William O’Brien (of wounded received July 3)

Company B: Sergeant Jas. F. Shea (July 3), Private Timothy Gallagher (July 2), Private Andrew McGuckin (July 3), Private Jas. O’Neill (July 3)

Company C: Sergeant William Coogan (of wounds received July 3), Private Jas. McNulty (of wounds received July 2)

Company D: Sergeant James McCabe (July 3), Sergeant Jerry Gallagher (July 3), Sergeant James Hand (July 3), Corporal Patrick Kearney (July 3), Corporal James McCann (July 3), Private Hugh Bradley (July 3), Private Chas. Jenkins (July 3), Private John McWilliams (July 3)

Company F: Captain George C. Thompson (July 3), Corporal Thomas Henry (of wounds received July 3), Private Neal McCaffery (July 3), Corporal Henry Thomas (of wounds received July 3)

Company G: Second Lieutenant Michael Mullin (July 3), Sergeant Hugh Kelly (July 3), Sergeant John O’Connor (July 3), Corporal John Wogan (July 3), Private James Clay (July 3), Private James Coyle (July 3), Private Samuel Fike (July 3), Private James McIntire (July 3), Private Richard McErlane (July 3), Private James Rice (July 3)

Company H: Second Lieutenant Charles F. Kelly (July 3), Sergeant Jerry Boyle (July 3), Private John Cassidy (July 3), Private John Hurley (July 2), Private Daniel Miles (of wounds received July 3)

Company I: Captain Michael Duffy (July 2), Private John F. Boyle (July 3), Private Thomas C. Diver (July 3), Private Edward Head (July 3), Private Francis Kelly (of wounds received July 3), Private Michael Logan (July 3), Private Chris Rohlfing (July 3), Private Henry Souders (July 3)

Company K: Private Frank P. Gleason (of wounds received July 3), Private John Harrington (July 3), Private Patrick O’Conner (July 3), Private James H. Todd (July 2)

The 69th Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg as it appears today (Photo by Jen Goellnitz http://www.goellnitz.org)

(1) McDermott 1889: 53;  (2) McDermott 1889: 28, 29, 33; (3) McDermott 1889: 29, 30, Bicheno 2001: 167; (4) McDermott 1889: 31; (5) McDermott 1889: 32, Boyle 1996: 289; (6) McDermott 1889: 33;

References & Further Reading

Bicheno, Hugh 2001. Gettysburg

Boyle, Frank 1996. A Party of Mad Fellows: The Story of the Irish Regiments in the Army of the Potomac

Ernsberger, Don 2006. At the Wall: The 69th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg

McDermottAnthony W. 1889. A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers 

Civil War Trust Gettysburg Page

Gettysburg National Military Park

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Categories: 69th Pennsylvania, Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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9 Comments on “‘We Thought We Were All Gone': The 69th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg”

  1. June 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    The 69th Pennsylvania had a very interesting backstory as it marched to its position behind the stone wall and in front of the copse of trees at Gettysburg. The 69th Pa. had been held out of action at Chancellorsville to guard a bridgehead and lost no men–unlike the 71st,72nd, and 106th, the other three regiments in the brigade.
    Colonel Owen was a political soldier, recruited at the last minute to lead the regiment in 1861. The 2nd Regiment, Philadelphia militia, already had an Irishman penciled in as colonel but WASPish pressure had him replaced by Colonel Owen, a Welshman, by birth. The connection? The officers and men of the 69th Pa. were Jacksonian Democrats and Owen had served as a Democrat state legislature and member of the Philadelphia city council before the war. Rather ironic that the 69th Pa. which would provide the key stubborn bravery was not motivated by abolitionism or loyalty to President Lincoln. In 1864, when Lincoln was up for reelection, the 69th Pa. voted solidly for General McCelland.
    General Lee’s field glasses were not strong enough to see the defenses around the trees. Lee sent General Wright to probe the area. After contacting the Union army, Wright returned to blow his own trumpet, and assure Lee that a CSA attacking force would have little trouble. In fact the next day, the CSA forces were assured that they would be meeting local second rate militia from Adams county. Actually the best thing that happened on the 2nd was that General Alex Webb, the new brigade commander of the 69th was able to see the gallant 69th Pennsylvania in action. Webb was impressed and left the 59th as his anchor behind the stone wall.
    The 69th was commanded by Colonel Dennis O’Kane, a prewar major in the 2nd Regiment, Pennsylvania, which is a key to the 69th’s success at Gettysburg. Almost every officer and non-com in the 69th Pa. was a previous member of the 2nd Regiment, or the three month 24th Pa.–the activated 2nd Regiment. Every man behind the wall was a veteran and a volunteer. Most Union regiments were ad hoc mobs organized from pure civilians with no military training. An easy example of this difference was H company’s commander, Lt. Edward “Ned” Thompson, from Waterford. Before the war, Lt. Thompson was first sergeant of the Shield’s Guard and one of the best shots in the regiments. Later in the war the 2nd Corps would form a sharpshooter corps of enlisted men and several of these men were detatched from the 69th Pennsylvania. So Lee didn’t know his enemy. After the war the 69th Pennsylvania was designated one of the fighting 300 regiments in the Union army—quite an honor since there were roughly 3500 volunteer units to pick from

  2. July 1, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    “The [CSA]charge was made in lines of battle (three lines) and from all the information I can gather Garnett’s brigade was the first line, then Kemper’s, then Armistead’s. Pickett’s lines were too far to his right for the objective point or guide, which was the small clump of trees in the rear of the right of the Sixty-ninth, and where General Webb made his headquarters. To correct this Pickett’s lines were obliqued towards our right within a few yards of our lines when he resumed the direct march. The Sixty-ninth had not as yet fired a shot, their orders being to reserve their fire until we could distinguish the color of their eyes, the order being almost faithfully carried out, and when they did fire their first volley they disordered and confused the enemyand forced them to halt. General Garnett had been killed close to the pike, and no doubt General Armistead assumed command of Garnett’s as well as his own brigade. The former general when shot was close to the to the crest crest of the ridge , and near to Cushing’s guns. He made two or three faltering steps which brought him so near the second from the left gun of this battery so that when falling his he reached out his right hand and tried to grasp the muzzle, but failed. The writer was but a few paces from him when struck and saw him wince when struck and pass his left hand to his stomach or abdomen and letting his sword fall as he staggered forward to reach the battery.” (11 July 1887)

    The 69th at Gettysburg

    PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY TIMES –Adjutant A.W. McDermott Sixty-ninth Pa. Vols

  3. July 1, 2012 at 12:17 am #

    Adjutant McDermott started his career with the 69th Pa. by enlisting as a private in I company. Later, with Major Davis’ recommendation McDermott was promoted to sergeant-major and then commissioned as adjutant. Mcdermott was an Irish American, born in Philadelphia. his mother’s maiden name was Connolly.McDermott had a close relationship with Colonel Davis and both men were Fenians.

  4. July 1, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    The 69th at Gettysburg–Part II by Adj. A,W, McDermott

    The Sixty-ninth was the only regiment of the [Philadelphia] brigade that occupied but one position from its entry on the field of Gettysburg early on the morning of July 2 until July 5 , when the brigade took up the march in the pursuit of Lee. The position of the Sixty-ninth was along the stone wall with its right wing resting within a short distance of the angle of where the wall receded to the rear. The only change from this position was after Armistead crossed the stone wall. By so doing the right and rear of the Sixty-ninth was imperiled, and to save it it became necessaryto change a portion of the line to confront thim; the first three companies I, A, and F, received orders to break to the rear, and as close were Pickett’s men to us, and so overpowering in numbers were they, that while executing the above maneuver they succeeded in capturing almost every man of Company F with its two remaining officers and here is where the contest became a hand-to-hand one, and Company D, using their muskets as clubs to beat back the foe.
    Before Pickett’s lines had crossed the Emmittsburg road two pieces of Cushung’s Battery were run down to the stone wall to the first company “I” the men of which made opening in their ranks to allow these oieces to be used on the charging lines of the enemy. One of these pieces was discharged before the men of “I” company could move aside; the result was that two of its members had their heads blown off. These guns were worked by men of the Seventy-first and a few of the battery men. They discharged about three rounds after which they were silent, as were the other four pieces of this battery remaining yet remaining on the crest of the ridge. the names of the two men were of Company I who were killedas above stated were Christian Rohlfing and Edward Head……The whole of the Sixty-ninth was most desperately engaged from its right to the left , and the enemy made repeated effors to drive this regiment from the wall. On the left of the regiment some of their men were reckless enough to actually get over the wall, only to sink to the ground in death , but they felt confidence enough in their ability to conquer that they repeatedly called upon our men to surrender. It was while pressing toward the colors of the Sixty-ninth that General Kemper fell desperately wounded. (Important note: McDermott was not yet promoted and was a private in “I” company on the left side of the Sixty-ninth.

    Company positions, left to right facing CSA were G-K-B-E-C-H-D-F-A-I

  5. July 2, 2012 at 8:52 am #

    That is some super information on the 69th at Gettysburg Michael- as ever thanks for sharing it with us!

    Kind Regards,

    Damian.

  6. Joseph Maghe
    July 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    Thanks, Mike for this very detailed information.

  7. March 25, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    Very interesting and enjoyed the extra info. My G; Granddad fought with the 69th, was injured before Gettysburg. I know a lot about thiis outfit, and have paid a visit to Gettysburg, and Glendale to the site where the 69th fought. to date my GGdad is the only one that we have come accross that returned to Ireland after the war, my friend has a site that he has reserched all about the 69th,it is as follows if you have time to have a look. 69thpa.co.uk I have errected a grave stone to houner him.
    Thank You.
    J mullan

    • March 26, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

      Hi James,

      Many thanks for the comment! I am aware of the site it is fantastic- also what an incredible ancestor to have in your family. I have a huge interest in those who came back to Ireland, they are so few in number (at least from the army), it would be great to identify more of them and recognise them as you have done.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

      • March 26, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

        Thank You for your reply. Thier are not many that ever returned after the war as most would have found it hard to reajust after all the fighting they were involved in,
        one has only to look at the mess the moderen soldiers are in after thier tours of duty. All them years ago they had no help, only drink and it would have been hard to get on a boat and face another battle to get home as that jorney was hard.

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