My posts have been less frequent than normal of late due to a range of book and conference commitments, so apologies to readers for the longer than normal gap! I will shortly be heading to the United States for the first time in a couple of years, taking in some locations relating to the Irish experience in New York and Pennsylvania, as well as some of those associated with the Revolutionary War. The highlight though will be my first visit to the Gettysburg battlefield. As a result, I have been reviewing some of my writing on the Irish and Gettysburg over the years, with a view to connecting some of these stories to place when I am at the site.
When we think about the Irish at Gettysburg, we tend to concentrate on the Irish Brigade and their experiences in the Wheatfield. However, the much-reduced brigade represented just a tiny proportion of the Irish on the field. I am looking forward to seeing the sites related not only to them, but to the Irish who fought and died serving in multiple units across the three-day battle. Any accounts one reads of Gettysburg demonstrates the large numbers of Irish sprinkled throughout the units on both sides (which I have written about here). I will be thinking of men like Private Patrick Maloney of the 2nd Wisconsin, who captured Brigadier-General James J. Archer on the first day’s fighting– the first Army of Northern Virginia General captured since Lee had taken command– only to die himself later in the day. I will be thinking of the experiences of other Irishmen who wrote about their time at Gettysburg– men like James Sullivan of the 6th Wisconsin, and Thomas Galwey of the 8th Ohio. I will be thinking particularly of those whom I have uncovered in the pension files, and whose letters I transcribed. These are men like Hugh McGraw from Co. Down, a Lieutenant in the 140th New York Infantry, who wrote his last letter home to his mother in May 1863:
[I] was rather grieved and disappointed…to find that your health was rather poor, but I hope ere this reaches you that you will have recovered your former strength, and that God in his infinite mercy will be around you and bring you safe through your sickness… Knowing that I am necessarily absent and that there is none of the other members of the family near enough to pay any attention to you but I trust you will be able to get along…till I can again seek shelter under the old roof. If God in his divine Providence has so willed it that I again return to my home.
Hugh fell mortally wounded as the 140th played a vital role in securing Little Round Top on the second day, together with his regimental Colonel, Paddy O’Rorke from Co. Cavan.
Although the Irish Brigade receive the most attention, arguably it was the 69th Pennsylvania who provided the most vital service to the cause of Union of any of the ethnic Irish units at Gettysburg. I have explored the stories of many of them who fell defending the stone wall in the face of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble assault on the third day’s fighting. The letters of some of those who died have provided me with an insight into the personalities of some who breathed their last in that savage struggle. One was Patrick Carney, of Fintona, Co. Tyrone. A little over a year earlier he had seen the aftermath of battle for the first time at Fair Oaks:
Dear mother we were in that battle of Saturday and Sunday last, we were in the reserve and we were not in action we are under arms every minute in the day and night. I never saw in my life time the sight I saw. Our Company was sent out yesterday afternoon to bury the dead and we were out 2 hours and we buried 46 Rebels. We are encamped on the battle ground.
After Pickett’s Charge, Patrick was among those who now relied on others to bury them as he had once done himself. Another to die beside Patrick Carney with the 69th was Thomas Diver. A year earlier, he had written to his mother, with a request that, in light of his fate, is filled with extreme poignancy, as the self-conscious youth sought to look his best:
I would like you to send a couple of grey flannel overshirts and if you can afford a pair of strong legged boots, not expensive ones, also two bottle of the Balm of a Thousand Flowers for to take off the pimples on my face. It is only 15 cents a bottle at Petersons Book Store. Dear Mother I wish you would get your daugerrotype taken for me, the one I got is broke in my knapsack and I have only got the glass that it was taken on without the case, a 25 cent one will do.
Another of the 69th Pennsylvania was officer Charles McAnally from Derry, who wrote to the wife of his friend, Louth native James Hand, who also died facing Pickett’s Charge at the stone wall on 3rd July:
It is a painfull task for me to communicate the sad fate of your husband (my own comrade)…he received a ball through the breast & one through the heart & never spoke after. I was in command of the skirmishers about one mile to the front & every inch of the ground was well contested untill I reached our Regt. The Rebels made the attack in 3 lines of Battle, as soon as I reached our line I met James he ran & met me with a canteen of watter. I was near palayed [played] he said I was foolish [I] dident let them come at once that the ‘ol 69th was waiting for them. I threw off my coat & in 2 minuets we were at it hand to hand. They charged on us twice & we repulsed them they then tryed the Regt on our right & drove them, which caused us to swing back our right, then we charged them on their left flank & in the charge James fell, may the Lord have mercy on his soul. He never flinched from his post & was loved by all who knew him.
Another aspect of Gettysburg I have spent time on is in exploring the impact of the death of loved ones on dozens of Irish families. The letters written to some, informing them of the terrible news, still survive. One relates to John and Mary Clark, who were married in Co. Westmeath in 1848. John was in the 65th New York Infantry at Gettysburg on 3rd July. In the letter informing Mary that John had been mortally wounded, she was spared no detail:
It is with regret I announce to you that your husband was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg the 3rd of July at about 11 O’clock. He lingered for about 4 hours when death put an end to his sufferings. He was universally beloved in the regiment, but more particularly in our company where he was better known. By his death the regiment loses the services of one whose place it will be difficult to fill. In passing this tribute to his memory I but re-echo the sentiments of the entire command. I sincerely sympathize with you in the irreparable loss you have sustained, whereby you have lost a kind husband, and your children an affectionate father. May his soul rest in peace…Your husband was laying on his back calmly talking of the “Union” when a fragment of a shell struck him nearly taking both legs off.
Mary McKenna’s husband John was in the 70th New York Infantry, Excelsior Brigade on 2nd July. When his comrades buried him, they placed a photograph of Mary in the grave with him:
…it pains me to write you these few lines but brace yourself for the worst your Husband was killed on the battle feild of Gettyisburgh on the second day of July he died a brave man and was nobly fighting for his country and its rights you must bear up with his loss as well as you can for there is many left in the same way may God guard and protect you and your little ones through this world of battles as I am in command of this company I had to open seven letters so as to see where to direct this letter to you..Your likeness was buried with him your husband had nothing with him of any value no money or any such thing and soon as we get into camp I will see that his effects are made out and the papers sent on to you your husband was buried on the battle feild…
Gettysburg also became the final resting place of many Irish step-migrants, who had travelled to the United States following extended stays in other countries, such as England. Among them are men like Irishman Timothy Kearns, who married Maria Pelham at St. Anthony’s in Liverpool in 1854 and was killed in action with the 71st New York Infantry on 2nd July, and John Curran, whose Irish parents had married in Liverpool in 1841, before the family emigrated after his father’s death in 1855. John served in 73rd New York Infantry, and was mortally wounded on 2nd July.
Then there are the men who only weeks before Gettysburg had donated funds to help the poor back in Ireland, despite the perils they themselves faced. Of those who have identified who contributed, many breathed their last in Pennsylvania that July. Men like Thomas Banon, Daniel Barrett, William Byrne, Michael Cuddy, James Cullen, Thomas Curly, William Flinn, Thomas James, Hugh Murphy, Daniel O’Shea, John Smith, Christopher Stone, Peter West, all of the 42nd New York, Denis Brady and Charles Neeson of the 15th Independent New York Light Battery, Patrick Kenny, Patrick McGeehan, John O’Brien and Michael Sheehan of the 63rd New York, John Ferry, J. McBride and John Small of the 88th New York, James Hatton of the 28th Massachusetts, William McKendry of the 94th Pennsylvania, James Rattigan of the 94th New York. Many more were wounded or captured.
Of course, many of the Irish who fought for the Union at Gettysburg would later receive the Medal of Honor for their actions there. The variance in their units once again demonstrates that the Irish experience spreads far beyond ethnic Irish units; Hugh Carey of the 82nd Pennsylvania, Christopher Flynn of the 14th Connecticut, Thomas Horan of the 72nd New York, John Lonergan of the 13th Vermont, Bernard McCarren of the 1st Delaware, John Robinson of the 19th Massachusetts.
Though the fast majority of the Irish at Gettysburg fought in Union blue, there were nonetheless many in Confederate gray. Undoubtedly the most famous was Willie Mitchel, the son of Irish nationalist John Mitchel, who died with many others from the 1st Virginia while participating in Pickett’s Charge. Another with him was John Dooley, the son of a Limerick family, who was wounded in that assault and subsequently wrote of his experiences.
The Irish also played a big role in memory at the battle, which I am interested in exploring. The 69th Pennsylvania veterans were there for the dedication of their brigade monument in 1887, where they shook hands with former Confederate foe at the stone wall in which they fought. The Irish Brigade are also remembered with a fine monument to their service, together with another of Father Corby, who famously provided conditional absolution to the unit before they went into action. I am looking forward as well to explore how Gettysburg became the key home of memorials for Army of Potomac units during the Civil War. Another I will visit will be that to the 9th Massachusetts Infantry, an Irish regiment that has long fascinated me. The 9th were barely engaged at Gettysburg; it was at Gaines’ Mill in 1862 and The Wilderness in 1864 that they laid all at the feet Union- yet their memorial is not on those fields, it is at Gettysburg.
Perhaps most of all, as I try to do at all the Civil War sites I get the opportunity to visit, I will spend some time in the National Cemetery, looking at the many graves of those Irish-born and of Irish-descent who rest there. I hope to share some of the images of their headstones with you on the site in due course, and perhaps explore some of their stories.