One of my favorite Union regiments from July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg is the 69th Pennsylvania. They were Irish immigrants and some had only been in the United States for a matter of months before they joined the Union army. The regiment did not start out as the “69th,” but was re-designated to reflect the Irish Brigade’s famous 69th New York regiment.
Back in the 1800’s, immigrants were looked down on and feared. With all the Germans and Irish coming in, how was an honest “old family” American to get a job? Does this sound familiar? Some things never change. The men of the 69th, like their fellow immigrants, were trying to work hard for their families and now were fighting hard–for their new home country. If they could prove themselves on the field, maybe they would be accepted in society.
On July 3rd, the 69th found themselves bearing the brunt of Gen. George Pickett’s charging Confederates. As Confederates swarmed over the stone wall at the Angle, the 69th stood alone, refusing to budge from their section of wall. On their right, there was nothing but gray uniforms. On their left, there was only an artillery battery, firing as best it could–but kicking stones into the backs of the men of the 69th.
As the men of the 69th fired as fast as they could, their brigade commander, Gen. Alexander Webb, joined them. One of his regiments had retreated and another stood on the crest, firing but refusing to advance. So he joined the plucky Irishmen of the 69th. What I find ironic is that up until then, he had despised the Irishmen. I wonder if he changed his opinion of them after the battle!
Even with their right flank bent back into an L-shape by the pressing Confederates, the 69th held their position. In time, reinforcements arrived and pushed the Confederates back over the wall. The battle of Gettysburg was a Union victory, thanks in part to the Irishmen of the 69th Pennsylvania, who stood firm beneath the flags of their past and their future–the green of Ireland with its sunburst and keep, and the Union Stars & Stripes.