The following is an excerpt from 'Lincoln and The Irish' by Niall O'Dowd, founder of IrishCentral.
On this anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg, we recall the incredible role of the Pennsylvania Fighting 69th, all Irish immigrants in stopping Pickett’s charge, General Lee’s last desperate attempt to break through the Union line on July 3rd, 1863 in the most important battle ever fought on American soil.
There is a phrase in the Irish National Anthem, which is usually sung in Irish, that reads “Bearna Baol.” The closest translation of “Bearna Baol” would be the “Gap of Danger,” or the most dangerous part of the battlefield.
In Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, of all the one-hundred seventy-five thousand or so men who had fought in the battle, it was the Pennsylvania Irish 69th, who would face the fire of Pickett's Charge at its height.
In that battle, the climactic clash occurred as Pickett’s Charge met the Union Blue front lines right at the center of the Union defensive line. There stood the men of the 69th Pennsylvania Brigade, immovable as other regiments ran.
They had no warning when they woke up that day of what would be their fate. The first two bloody days had been inconclusive, and both sides knew, given the massive loss of life and injuries suffered (around fifty thousand casualties between dead, wounded, and missing) that both armies were close to exhaustion.
On Wednesday, July 1, with the temperature a mild seventy-six degrees, the Rebels had the Union boys on the run even as both armies were still arriving. But the Union staved off disaster by retreating as far as the high ground on Cemetery Hill, a gently sloping ridge that gave the Union army the precious ability to look down on their opponents.
On July 2, with the temperature at eighty-one degrees, Lee flung his army at both flanks, but the Union held despite massive casualties. Now it was July 3 and a sweltering eighty-seven degrees. The soldiers in their heavy cotton military uniforms were close to heat exhaustion by midday.
It came down to this final test of strength. It is not fantasizing to say the fate of the Republic and what we now know as modern democracy, as well as the future of slavery, was at stake.
Lincoln stated it bluntly in his Gettysburg Address. The battle was critical in dictating whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
With a Confederate victory, the election of 1864 that put Lincoln back in office would have meant nothing. Challenged by armed might, the United States would have split in twain with likely a military dictatorship in one or both jurisdictions. The popular vote would be overturned and useless.
The French had invaded Mexico and removed an elected leader, putting Emperor Maximilian in his place. The tide of anti-democracy was surging. The French were secretly helping the Confederates, sending thousands of weapons across the border.
If Lee had won at Gettysburg, a country founded on the back of slavery would have been created. The likelihood of British and French recognition of the new state would have almost definitely forced negotiation and peace on Confederate terms. Slavery as an institution would have been allowed to grow and expand.
Lincoln himself knew the stakes were at their highest. He told General Dan Sickles, who was injured badly and was a deeply controversial figure, that he knew Gettysburg was the turning point. The following quote is from the book Intimate Memories of Lincoln:
“When Lee crossed the Potomac and entered Pennsylvania, followed by our army, I felt that the great crisis had come. I knew that defeat in a great battle on Northern soil involved the loss of Washington, to be followed perhaps by the intervention of England and France in favor of the Confederacy. I went to my room and got down on my knees in prayer.”
If the Union lost, what did that mean for millions of black slaves? The massacre of black soldiers slashed and stabbed to death after they had surrendered to Confederate leader Nathan Bedford Forrest and his men at Fort Pillow in April 1864 showed what was in store for the black man in a Confederate state if Civil War generals ruled. “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered,” Forrest, who was one of the founders of the KKK, boasted.
Future events, such as the vital American intervention in two world wars, might likely have never happened if America had split in two. Europe might conceivably be under a Nazi dictatorship.
At Gettysburg, the Rebels reached the furthest point of their journey to force the North to offer terms and form their own country. Pickett's Charge was their last desperate lunge. It would be the high water mark of the Confederacy.
An astute observer would certainly have bet on Lee, the magician who conjured victories against far greater numbers out of thin air and defeated the leaden-footed Union army again and again. However, he had lost his right-hand man Stonewall Jackson to friendly fire at Fredericksburg.
On the other side was an Irish American general who was commanding a major army for the first time. He had been notified only three days earlier that he was commanding general of the army of the Potomac, as Lincoln cast desperately around for a fighting general. How could such an inexperienced leader take on the tactical genius who led the Confederates?
General George Meade was suddenly center stage in the most important battle of the Civil War. His great-grandfather Robert Meade changed the family name from O’Meagh when he arrived from Ireland and settled in Philadelphia, where he became a strong supporter of the church and helped build St. Joseph’s church there. His daughter, Catherine, married an Irishman, Thomas Fitzsimons one of two Catholic delegates who helped to frame the American constitution. Two of General George Meade’s relatives were among the founders of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Philadelphia.
General Meade, the unlikely hero of Gettysburg, was born in Cadiz on December 31, 1815, and baptized in the parish of Nuestra Señora del Rosario. The family eventually moved back to the United States and Meade graduated from West Point, fought in the Mexican War, became an army surveyor, and eventually took a commission of brigadier general when the Civil War blew up. His bold actions at Antietam and Chancellorsville marked him as a general who could fight even where the overall battle was lost. While others dithered, Lincoln rolled the dice with him.
So, on June 28, 1863, just days before the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), after the forced resignation of ever-cautious General Joe Hooker, Meade was put in charge, much to his surprise. Meade said he didn't know whether the messenger from Washington had come to arrest him or promote him, so treacherous were Union army politics at the top.
It was an extraordinary rise, given his Irish Catholic background and the deep animosity radical Republicans and Know-Nothings held towards him. One of those radicals, Thaddeus Stevens, suspected Meade held Copperhead views, a faction of Democrats who wanted to sue for peace with the South on any terms.
His enemies, led by former army officer Dan Sickles who fled from Gettysburg, tried to prove Meade had mishandled the battle, a strange accusation given his side won. They even held joint committee hearings on Meade's handling of the war.
On day three, Lee made up his mind where his army would attack. Right at the center of the Union line was a copse of trees. That, Lee told his officers, was the target. In front of the copse was the 69th Pennsylvania Brigade, Irish to a man.
Amazingly, General Meade had outthought Lee on the vital matter of where he would strike. At eight that morning, he had sent a dispatch, saying it seemed to be the enemy's intention ”to make the attempt to pierce our enter.”
Journalist Whitelaw Reid described Meade as “calm” and ”lit up with the glow of the occasion.”
The battle started with a massive cannonade from the Rebels. According to a veteran of the Pennsylvania 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 cannons 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.”
The gunners were aiming much of their fire too high, however, and most of the balls passed over the Union line heads. The Union army artillery experts had prepared well. They had forty-one pieces of artillery, hidden by a small rise in the ground, which would prove vital.
Then came Pickett’s march—thirteen thousand soldiers in serried file, marching their way across the open field to the Union lines about three-quarters of a mile away. They were cut down and enfiladed in massive numbers by the Union cannons and soldiers, but still marched straight towards the center of the Union line. It would take them fifteen to twenty minutes to cross the field. They were in plain sight as the cannon smoke disappeared.
The grim Union gunners eyed them well. There were shouts of “Fredericksburg” from the Union side, revenge for the death charge there in which the Irish Brigade, among thousands of others, had been cut to ribbons. Now, victory at Gettysburg would be their response.
Why did Lee order it? The most obvious answer is overconfidence after so many victories over superior numbers on the Union side. He believed his men were invincible. He learned the truth in a town eighty-five miles from Washington, a battle fought partly on the land of a freed slave.
Pickett's Charge was soon in sight of the Union defensive wall. They wheeled east and marched towards the copse of woods and the nearby gap that would forever be known as “The Angle.”
Suddenly, a huge hole appeared in the Union line. The 59th New York had turned and bolted at the sight of thousands of Confederates bearing down. The Rebels pressed on. Next, the 71st Pennsylvania did the same. Remaining in the gap of danger were the Pennsylvania Irish 69th.
In the 69th, Colonel Dennis O'Kane called his men together and put steel in their soul. He warned his men not to fire until they "could distinguish the whites of their eyes," and above all he reminded them that they stood defending the very state they loved so much and a Union that had given a million Irish a new chance at life.
O’Kane told them that if any man should flinch in his duties, "he asked that the man nearest him would kill him on the spot." O’Kane, born in Derry, married and had two kids there before setting out for America, but he bled Union blue.
"These addresses were not necessary," wrote Private Anthony McDermott, "as I do not believe that there was a soldier in the Regt. that did not feet that he had more courage to meet the enemy at Gettysburg, than upon any field of battle in which we had as yet been engaged, stimulus being, the fact that we were upon the soil of our own State.”
The 69th was the only regiment not to withdraw from defending the stone wall in front of the copse of trees during Pickett's Charge. Over the two days they fought at Gettysburg, they lost 143 men out of 258 who marched onto the battlefield on the second day.
O’Kane kept his men down behind the wall, controlling their instinct to fire at long range at their enemies. When the thousands of Confederates reached the Angle, they were convinced they could breach the Union defense and split the Union army in two. When they were only a few dozen yards from the wall, O’Kane ordered his men to jump up and open fire. Pickett’s men were “staggered” and thrown into “disorder.”
The Irish had armed themselves well, taking the rifles of dead soldiers and continuously firing as a result, not needing to reload.
The Confederates finally breached the wall led by one of their heroes, General Lewis Armistead. Now it was firing at point-blank range, ferocious fighting over control of the cannons, and finally, desperate hand-to-hand fighting and using their weapons as clubs. The Irish gave as good as they got. The heroic O’Kane was wounded and died later, but his men fought on until, at last, help arrived.
Two other Pennsylvania regiments now rushed to the defense of the Irish and one of their members shot Armistead dead as he tried to rally his men. Without their famed leader, the Rebels were whipped and disorganized. The Union center would not be breached.
Armistead, who had been present at the Hancock house in Los Angeles when “Kathleen Mavourneen” was sung as a tragic farewell, died only a short distance away from where his oldest friend Winfield Scott Hancock was playing a hero’s role in leading the resistance against the Confederate onslaught.
Doctor Earl Hess, a leading historian of Pickett’s Charge, writes that a turning point in the battle was the repulsion of Armistead and his thousands because “the 69th refused to give way. . . . 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.”
General Meade savored the victory as well he should have and wrote to his wife: “It was a grand battle and is in my judgment a most decided victory.”
However, the strain might almost have been too much for him. He also mentioned that their son, also George, an aide to him, was fine but as for himself, “I feared I should be laid up with mental excitement.”
For Robert E. Lee, it was a crushing defeat. It hardly helped that his principal subordinate General James Longstreet had warned him the morning of July 3 that “It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position,” and he pointed to Cemetery Hill.
As for President Lincoln, he had double reason to celebrate after news that General Grant had taken Vicksburg, which gave the Union control of the vital Mississippi River.
Shortly after, Lincoln attended a prayer ceremony in Washington where a local Methodist bishop, who had been imprisoned in the notorious Libby prison in Richmond, told him that when news of Meade’s victory had reached them, the whole prison erupted in wild celebration. Then, every prisoner sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in unison.
A choir at the prayer event then broke into the song, and Lincoln, deeply affected, asked them to sing it again. The Republic had been saved from dissolution at Gettysburg, led by an Irish American general and featuring extraordinary courage by Irish immigrants.
Niall O'Dowd, founder of IrishCentral, is the author of 'Lincoln and The Irish: The Untold Story of how the Irish Helped Save the Union' which is available on Amazon.
*Originally published July 2018. Updated July 2022.
Love Irish history? Share your favorite stories with other history buffs in the IrishCentral History Facebook group.