Gettysburg: America’s preeminent battlefield shrine and the museum of the civil war


They were about one mile apart, out of musket fire range but well within artillery range.  Lee, ever aggressive and confident of victory, attacked again, hitting both Union flanks.  But the Union forces occupied strong defensive positions on high ground and the Confederate forces had to attack upward into blazing Union guns. The Confederates made some gains, but lost many men.

As the day wore on, Confederate General James Longstreet drove into the Union left flank at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard.  The battleground was in farm fields of wheat and corn. The town of Gettysburg was mostly left unscathed, except for a few buildings struck and slightly damaged by errant artillery rounds.

Helping to defend the Union line was the Irish Brigade, which fought with distinction at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield and Stony Hill on the battlefield’s southern end. Commanded by Galway-born Colonel Patrick Kelly, the Irish Brigade consisted of about 240 volunteers of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Regiments, and a couple hundred additional volunteers of the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania Regiments. Together, they marched into combat under a green flag containing an Irish harp. Before they were ordered forward into combat, they were granted general absolution by Father William Corby, a Roman Catholic chaplain of the 88th New York.

Colonel Kelly commanded his troops from his war horse named “Faugh a Ballagh,” an Irish phrase meaning “Clear the Way” which also was the Irish Brigade’s battle cry. In sentiment the phrase is similar to a Marine Corps axiom: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” Colonel Kelly, then 42, of Castlehacket near the city of Galway, was born in 1821 and came to America in 1850, after the famine, settling in New York. He enlisted as a private in the 69th Regiment at the start of the war and rose swiftly through the ranks. He was later killed in action at Petersburg and his body taken back home to Ireland for burial.

Each year, New York City’s bond with the Fighting 69th Regiment is renewed when its members, accompanied by their mascots – four Irish wolfhounds – lead the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue after attending Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

What did Confederates think of the Union army before this epic confrontation? Confederate Colonel Edward P. Alexander had written: “His cavalry is numerous but can’t ride and his infantry, except the Irish, can’t fight.”

Near the Wheatfield and Stony Hill stands a tall stone monument commemorating the valor of the Irish Brigade. A Confederate soldier who had fought at Gettysburg against the Irish Brigade sculpted it decades after the Civil War.  He was Irish-born William O’Donovan, who had enlisted at age 17 at the war’s start in 1861, fought in the war and survived. He cut a large Celtic cross out of dark green malachite with a bronze front.  The New York Coat of Arms and the Sunburst of Ireland are depicted along with an Irish harp guarded by two American eagles. An Irish wolfhound lies crouched at the base of the cross.

At the Wheatfield and at Stony Hill, between 4 p.m. and dusk on July 2, the Irish Brigade fought and fell.  About 530 men went into battle, and more than 200 were killed, wounded or listed as missing in action – almost one of every three men. They retreated back to Cemetery Ridge, bound their wounds and waited for the next Confederate attack.

It came in the afternoon of the next day, July 3, beginning with a thunderous, two-hour-long artillery barrage fired from more than 200 Confederate guns a mile away on Seminary Ridge. Union gun batteries returned fire. The battlefield became obscured by smoke. 

About 3 p.m., at the command of General Lee, Confederate forces 12,000 strong, including General Pickett’s Virginia Division, surged forward toward the center of the Union battle line. They were slaughtered. Irish Brigade Major St. Clair Mulholland, 116th Pennsylvania, later wrote: “All the Union batteries opened and played upon them as they advanced over the fields. They were seen to fall by hundreds and thousands.”

The charge faltered, broke and failed.  About 200 Confederate troops breeched the center of the Union line at a place called the Bloody Angle, but they were cut down or captured.  More than 5,000 soldiers became casualties in one hour.  General Lee waited for the cover of night and led his troops in a retreat to Virginia. Meade did not pursue. The South’s invasion of the North was over.  The rest of the war would be fought in Confederate territory.

On Friday evening, after a full day of shopping in Gettysburg, I visited the Irish Brigade Gift Shop at 504 Baltimore Street next to our hotel. The sales clerk wrote out explicit directions to the Irish Brigade monument near Stony Hill. I also bought a copy of a pamphlet written by T.L. Murphy, “Kelly’s Heroes: The Irish Brigade at Gettysburg.” Murphy works as a licensed battlefield guide.  He can be reached at P.O. Box 3542, Gettysburg, PA 17325.  The information in this article about the Irish Brigade comes from his pamphlet.  Also on sale at the shop are souvenirs, videotapes, maps and other mementos.