One of the most famous fighting units of the Civil War, the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment (69th PVI) was mustered into service in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 18, 1861, and fought in nearly every major engagement of the war.
Most of the officers and men of the 69th PVI were working class Irish immigrants who had recently arrived in the United States. Just a decade before the Civil War, the Irish in Philadelphia had been savagely attacked by an anti-immigrant mob, leaving many dead and several Catholic Churches burned.
Although they often faced discrimination and hostility from other Americans, these Irish immigrants were eager to fight for their new country.
The men of the 69th PVI earned the honor of being called “The Rock of Erin” because of their Irish heritage and because of their steadfastness and heroism in repulsing Pickett’s Charge at the “Bloody Angle” in the Battle of Gettysburg.
But while the 69th PVI was predominantly — and proudly — Irish, it was not exclusively so. According to a history of the 69th PVI published by its surviving veterans in 1889, in addition to the Irish volunteers, there were also many who “represented other nationalities, including what are called straight-out Americans.” In fact, the 69th was composed of native-born men and immigrants from all over the world who joined together as Americans to fight to save the Union.
The California Brigade, the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, and the Death of Col. Edwin Baker
Even though the regiment was recruited in Philadelphia, it was initially designated the 2nd California in an effort to increase the psychological and financial investment of California and the Western states in the war.
On September 17, 1861, the regiment left Philadelphia for Washington, D.C., to defend the Capitol as part of the “California Brigade” led by Colonel Edwin Dickinson Baker, a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln, who had been a lawyer in San Francisco and was then the U.S. Senator from the new state of Oregon.
The unit first saw major action against the enemy on October 21, 1861, in the disastrous Battle of Balls Bluff in Loudoun County, Virginia, in which Colonel Baker was killed, and which was memorialized in a poem by Moby Dick author Herman Melville (“Life throbbed so strong,/How should they dream that Death in rosy clime/ Would come to thin their shining throng?”).
The leader of the regiment was Colonel Joshua Thomas Owen, a 40 year-old lawyer and professor who had been born in Wales and served in the Pennsylvania legislature.
The second-in-command was Lieutenant Colonel Dennis O’Kane, a forty-five year-old Philadelphia tavern owner who had immigrated to the United States as an adult from County Londonderry, Ireland.
Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn Iann — “Who Never Retreated from the Clash of Spears”
The officers and men of the regiment wanted to join with the Irish immigrants of the 69th New York Infantry to form a single Irish Brigade, but the governor of Pennsylvania opposed the idea; instead, the regiment’s designation was changed from the 68th to the 69th Pennsylvania in solidarity with the Irish of the 69th New York.
Like the 69th New York, the 69th PVI carried a green “Irish” flag into battle. The flag, which was given to the regiment by the Irish citizens of Philadelphia, featured a golden harp topped by white clouds and a yellow sunburst, a field of light green shamrocks, and the Irish motto Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn Iann — “Who Never Retreated from the Clash of Spears.”
The 69th PVI was the only Pennsylvania regiment to carry the green flag into battle.
“So Gallant a Regiment”: The Peninsula Campaign, the Bayonet Charge at Glendale, and the Battles of Chantilly, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville
In March through June of 1862, the 69th PVI served in the Army of the Potomac’s Peninsula Campaign in Southwestern Virginia. During the Battle of Glendale on June 30, 1862, one of the most ferocious engagements of the Seven Days Battle, the regiment distinguished itself by charging uphill with bayonets to take a Confederate battery in close quarter, hand-to-hand combat.
For his gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Glendale, the 69th PVI’s regimental commander, Col. Joshua Owen, was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. Major Gen. Joseph Hooker praised the regiment for making “the first successful bayonet charge of the war” and for having “saved the Army of the Potomac from probable disaster.”
General Hooker noted that as the enemy gave way ‘the Sixty-ninth Pennsylvania Regiment, heroically led by Owen, advanced in the open field on their flank with almost reckless daring.” Hooker’s gratitude for the actions of the 69th is made clear in his after action report, in which he thanked Colonel Owen by expressing a ‘high appreciation of his services, and my acknowledgements to his chief for having tendered me so gallant a regiment.”
The regiment next saw major action on September 1 in the Battle of Chantilly, and then on September 16-17, 1862, in the Battle of Antietam, taking part in the heavy fighting around Dunker Church. As part of the 2nd Brigade, II Corps, the Regiment advanced to the Dunker Church, before being hit from the left flank by Confederate troops from the West Woods.
“We still kept on,” reported a veteran, “until within a few paces of the advanced line. The fire from his batteries was here so destructive that we were ordered to lie down. This fire was kept up on us for nearly half an hour, when General Sumner, accompanied by a single aid, came up in our front, waving his hand for us to fall back. It being impossible to hear what he was trying to say, the men rose to their feet, and fixed bayonets, thinking that he wanted them to charge the batteries on our left front, and it was not until this brave old man got in front of our colors, when he took off his hat and waived it for us to get back, that his order was understood. But it was now too late, as the enemy was pouring down upon us from the rear, delivering a terrible fire of musketry. The fire was coming from our rear, left, and front, and we were obliged to retire to the right.”
The 69th PVI’s losses at Antietam were severe. Nineteen men and three officers — Captain Francis V. Bierwirth and Lieutenants Joseph McHugh and James Dunn — were killed, and fifty-four men and three officers were wounded.
After Antietam, the regiment was again sent into Virginia and took heavy losses in the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, as the Union army made a series of futile assaults against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights above the city.
The regiment then took part in the abortive “Mud March,” as General Burnside attempted a Winter offensive that was stopped when heavy rains caused the Union army’s troops, wagons, and artillery to become stuck in knee-deep mud.
Over the next several months, the unit again saw action at Falmouth, Virginia, (April 1863) and at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 to May 6, 1863).
Gettysburg and the Bloody Angle
The regiment arrived as part of General Alexander S. Webb’s Philadelphia Brigade at Gettysburg on the evening of July 1, 1863, to the sound of heavy artillery. They had a grueling march from Virgina — including marching across the battlefield at Bull Run “where the bones of the dead in many place were exposed above the ground” — under alternating boiling sun and torrential rain. The 69th PVI now consisted of only 258 men — disease and battle casualties had cut their initial strength of 1,048 down to this comparative handful of veterans. They were commanded by Irish immigrant and former tavern-owner Dennis O’Kane, now a battle-hardened colonel.
Early in the morning of July 2, the regiment was ordered to take a position on Cemetery Ridge, a little below the crest on the decline facing the enemy, behind a low stone wall that took an 80-yard right-angle turn, about thirty paces south of a clump of trees. This was the area that would forever after be called the “Bloody Angle.”
At about 6:30 p.m., Confederate General Ambrose Wright’s Georgia Brigade made a furious assault on the regiment’s position on Cemetery Ridge. The 69th PVI, together with other Pennsylvania regiments, played a crucial role in defeating the rebel attack and driving the Confederates from the field.
As a contemporary observer noted, the Confederate assault would have succeeded, but “the gallant Sixty-ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers, under the command of Dennis O’Kane (Second Corps), receive[d] the advancing foe — Wright’s Brigade — with a defiant shout, as they shake out the folds of their green flag and pour a withering fire at short-range into the faces of their adversaries, then back-ward propelled by another volley, the men in gray and butternut uniforms in confusion are driven down the slope and across the ground over which they had charged.” Attacking with a combined strength of 4,100 men, the rebels lost about 40 percent of their men, more than 1,565 troops.
The following day, July 3, was eerily quiet until 1:00 p.m., when an artillery barrage suddenly broke the silence.
Here is how a veteran of the 69th described what happened next:
“. . . the men start, all gaze towards the Confederate positions, at the same time moving quickly to their posts. Again the air is disturbed by a sound, or rather many sounds almost in one, as a volley of artillery pours out its deafening roar. The air is filling with the whirring, shrieking, hissing sounds of the solid shot and the bursting shell; all throw themselves flat upon the ground, behind the low stone wall; nearly one hundred and fifty guns belch forth messengers of destruction, sometimes in volleys, again in irregular but continuous sounds, traveling through the air, high above us, or 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. The fire of all those batteries seems to be concentrated on Cemetery Ridge, part of which was held by this regiment. Our batteries reply. . . caissons exploding, battery wagons, forges, etc., swept away, shattered into splinters, horses disemboweled, their flesh and entrails scattered, men beheaded, limbs torn, and bodies most horribly mangled into shapeless and unrecognizable masses of human flesh.”
“At last, after between one and two hours, the fire slackens, almost ceases. The Confederate infantry appear upon the scene, emerging from the woods opposite, nearly a mile distant, in two lines, followed by a battery of artillery, which took up its position close to the woods and immediately opened fire, the infantry advancing over the intermediate plain. The appearance of these troops was a feeling of relief from the dread of being plowed into shreds or torn to fragments by the solid shot or bursting shell that had so thickly filled the
air a few moments before.”
The regiment now faced an assault from the combined forces of Confederate General Garnett’s and General Armistead’s brigades, or 2,500 to 3,000 men — against those who now remained from the 258 men that the 69th had brought to Gettysburg.
This was the brunt of Pickett’s Charge, its thrust concentrated at the Bloody Angle and the 69th PVI.
The attack began in perfect order and discipline. As a veteran of the 69th recounted, “no holiday display seemed more imposing, nor troops on parade more regular, than this division of Pickett’s Rebels, as they came steadily, arms at a trail.” The Confederate lines held even as the Union artillery exploded among them, killing dozens.
In the face of this disciplined onslaught, Col. O’Kane instructed the 69th not to fire until they “could distinguish the whites of their eyes,” drawing from the immortal command to New England militiamen at Breed’s Hill. He reminded the men that they were defending the soil of their native state and that they were as brave as the attacking enemy. If any man should flinch in his duties, he asked that the man nearest him would kill him on the spot. Following his speech O’Kane passed along each of his companies, speaking words of encouragement and reassuring his men by his presence.
Several other Union regiments broke and fled in the face of the Confederate attack, but the 69th held firm.
The 69th did not shoot until the enemy was within about 20 or 30 paces of the wall. Then they received the command to fire, “and a destructive fire was poured into the ranks of the foe, which staggered him and threw his ranks into disorder.”
The Confederates pushed on toward the wall, but the 69th resisted fiercely in a melee of rifle fire, bayonets, and fists.The green flag of the 69th was only yards from the red flags of the Virginians. The losses on the rebel side were staggering: both General Garnett and General Armistead were killed, Armistead while famously attempting to urge his men forward with his cap on the tip of his sword.
The Confederate attack, which had begun in remarkable order, had ended in chaos. More than half of the Confederate force were killed or wounded, and when their officers fell, the rebel line disintegrated and ran.
The 69th PVI had held the line at Bloody Angle, depriving the rebels of what historians consider to be the Confederacy’s best chance of achieving victory in the war.
But it was a very costly victory for the 69th. It’s commander, Colonel Dennis O’Kane, was mortally wounded and died the next day. The second-in-command, Lt. Colonel Martin Tschudy, was killed, and the next ranking officer, Major James Duffy, was seriously wounded. In all, the assault had cost the regiment 32 killed, and 71 wounded, some mortally.
The 69th’s casualties over the last two days of the battle were enormous, losing 143 men out of 258, including its colonel, lieutenant colonel, two captains, and a lieutenant. The regiment finished the campaign under the command of a captain.
The Pursuit of Lee into Virginia and the Battle of Mine Run
Following the Battle of Gettysburg, the 69th PVI joined in the pursuit of Lee’s retreating Confederate army into Virginia. At the Battle of Mine Run in Orange County, Virginia, on November 27 through December 2, 1863, the regiment was told that it had been selected to lead the attack against the heavily fortified Confederate position.
A veteran later recalled that “The men being anxious, peered over the brow of the hill and saw that the ground across which we were to charge was a very level, open field, of at least 500 yards in width, swept by the guns of several forts connected by breastworks, and which could be brought to bear on any portion of the field. The men were intelligent enough to take in the situation; they knew that when the next roll would be called there would be few to answer. Each one, however, with a grim cheerfulness, determined to make this charge a success or surrender his life. Few there were in the brigade line that morning who felt they had even a chance of returning in safety from the attack. Watches and trinkets, to be sent to the loved ones at home, were given to the chaplains, surgeons and the other non-combatants always attached to regiments. Most of the officers and men wrote their names on paper and pinned them to their coat collars or vests, that they could be identified in the event of their death.”
In the morning, however, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren decided that the charge would not succeed and the sacrifice would be too great. Disobeying General Meade’s orders, Warren directed that the Union forces withdraw. The 69th had been spared.
Reenlistment and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
In early 1864, the regiment returned to Philadelphia for leave. It then participated in Grant’s Wilderness Campaign and the Battle of Spotsylvania.
At the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Lieutenant (later Captain) Charles McAnally was later awarded the Medal of Honor. A veteran of the 69th recalled the fight: “There was, perhaps, no more desperate struggle for a position during the War than was the efforts of the enemy
to retake his lost works [at Spotsylvania]. He made five or six attempts to drive us out, and, in his desperation, some of their men actually succeeded in planting the colors of their regiments on their lost ramparts, but they were in the end forced to give up. In one of these charges Capt. Charles McAnally, of Company E, of this regiment, fought a hand-to-hand struggle with a rebel color-bearer; while so struggling, the rebel color-guard rushed to the assistance of their standard-bearer, and would have undoubtedly killed McAnally and saved their colors but for the heroic action of Sergeant Hugh McKeever, who quickly dispatched one of the guard about to fire on his captain, thus saving his life and enabling the captain to strike down the standard-bearer and capture the flag, which he threw to the rear and continued his efforts to repel the enemy until the struggle was over. The flag was picked up by some one in the rear (who no doubt wears a medal), while no report of Capt. McAnally’ s struggle for its possession was ever noted — another instance of the heedlessness of the men of the Sixty-ninth to seek reward for special acts.”
The 69th’s loses at Spotsylvania were high. Among the dead was the regimental commander, Captain Thomas Kelly.
The Battle of Cold Harbor, the Siege of Petersburg, and Final Victory at Appomattox
The 69th fought with Grant’s army at the Battle of Cold Harbor from May 18 to June 12, 1864, in what is now remembered as one of the bloodiest, most lopsided battles of the Civil War, as thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded in a hopeless frontal assault against heavily fortified Confederate positions. The regiment again suffered many casualties, including the death of its adjunct William Whildey. Loses were so great in the Philadelphia Brigade that the 71st Pennsylvania was merged into the 69th in order to field a full regiment. General Grant later stated that he counted the assault at Cold Harbor as the decision he most regretted: “No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”
The regiment engaged the enemy in the long Siege of Petersburg from June 1864 to April 1865, including the battles of the Jerusalem Plank Road, Hatcher’s Run, Dabney’s Mills, and the Boydton Plank Road. When the Confederates finally abandoned Petersburg on April 3, 1965, the 69th were among the federal troops that gave chase, pushing on toward Appomattox. The regiment fought against the Confederate’s last, desperate attempts to turn the tide at Sayler’s Creek, the Battle of High Bridge, and the Battle of Farmville.
On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. The war at last over for the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The regiment had lost 12 officers and 166 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded in battle, and 3 officers and 107 enlisted men killed by disease.
A member of the 69th PVI remembered that “The news of the surrender was announced by Gen. Meade, who rode through the lines of the troops, who became hilariously wild. It would be impossible to attempt to give a description of the scenes following the announcement of the surrender, but that scene will live forever in the hearts of the men who participated in that event. Our work was done ; the Union was saved ; and the troops returned to their homes, to receive the joyous welcome of fond hearts, and the congratulations of their fellow-citizens.”
Organized and mustered into service at Philadelphia, August 18, 1861.
Left State for Washington, D.C., September 17.
Attached to Baker’s Brigade, Stone’s (Sedgwick’s) Division, Army Potomac, to March, 1862.
2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 2nd Army Corps, Army Potomac, to June, 1864.
3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, 2nd Army Corps, to June, 1865.
Duty in the Defenses of Washington, D. C., till October, 1861.
Affair at Vaderburg’s House, Munson’s Hill, September 29, 1861.
Moved to Poolesville, Md., and duty on the Upper Potomac till February, 1862.
At Harper’s Ferry, W. Va.. till March 24.
Moved to the Virginia Peninsula March 24-April 1.
Siege of Yorktown April 5-May 4.
Moved to West Point May 7.
Duty at Tyler’s Farm till May 31.
Battle of Fair Oaks, Seven Pines, May 31-June 1.
Duty at Fair Oaks till June 28.
Skirmish at Fair Oaks June 18.
Seven days before Richmond June 25-July 1.
Battles of Peach Orchard and Savage Station June 29.
Charles City Cross Roads and Glendale June 30.
Malvern Hill July 1.
At Harrison’s Landing till August 16.
Movement to Newport News, thence to Alexandria August 16-28, and
to Centreville and Chantilly August 29-30.
Cover Pope’s retreat August 31-September 1.
Chantilly September 1.
Maryland Campaign September 6-24.
Battle of Antietam September 16-17.
Moved to Harper’s Ferry September 22, and duty there till October 30.
Movement to Falmouth, Va., October 30-November 20.
Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., December 12-15.
Burnside’s 2nd Campaign, “Mud March,” January 20-24, 1863.
At Falmouth till April. Hartwood Church February 25.
Chancellorsville Campaign April 27-May 6. Banks’ Ford May 1 and 4.
Gettysburg (Pa.) Campaign June 13-July 24.
Battle of Gettysburg, Pa., July 2-4.
Pursuit of Lee July 5-24.
At Banks’ Ford and Culpeper till October.
Advance from the Rappahannock to the Rapidan September 13-17.
Bristoe Campaign October 9-22.
Advance to line of the Rappahannock November 7-8.
Mine Run Campaign November 26-December 2.
Robertson’s Tavern or Locust Grove November 27.
Duty on the Rapidan till May, 1864.
Demonstration on the Rapidan February 6-7.
Veterans on furlough March and April. Rapidan Campaign May 4-June 12.
Battles of the Wilderness May 5-7; Laurel Hill May 8; Spottsylvania May 8-12;
Po River May 10; Spottsylvania C. H. May 12-21.
Assault on the Salient May 12.
North Anna River May 23-26.
Line of the Pamunkey May 26-28.
Totopotomoy May 28-31.
Cold Harbor June 1-12.
Before Petersburg June 16-18.
Siege of Petersburg June 16, 1864, to April 2, 1865.
Jerusalem Plank Road June 22-23, 1864.
Demonstration north of the James at Deep Bottom July 27-29.
Mine Explosion, Petersburg, July 30 (Reserve).
Demonstration north of the James at Deep Bottom August 13-20.
Strawberry Plains, Deep Bottom, August 14-18.
Ream’s Station August 25.
Boydton Plank Road, Hatcher’s Run, October 27-28.
Dabney’s Mills, Hatcher’s Run, February 5-7, 1865.
Watkins’ House March 25.
Appomattox Campaign March 28-April 9.
Vaughan Road near Hatcher’s Run March 29.
Crow’s House March 31.
Fall of Petersburg April 2.
Sayler’s Creek April 6.
High Bridge and Farmville April 7.
Appomattox C. H. April 9.
Surrender of Lee and his army.
At Burkesville till May 2.
March to Washington, D.C., May 2-12.
Grand Review May 23.
At Ball’s Cross Roads till July.
Mustered out July 1, 1865.
Regiment lost during service:
12 officers and 166 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded in battle.
3 officers and 107 enlisted men killed by disease.
Note: This number only includes those who died while in the service. Many more died soon after their discharge on account of wounds received or disease contracted during the war.