Monday, November 19, 2007

The fighting Irish in America's Civil War

In keeping with my recent focus on the Civil War here at Small-leaved Shamrock, and in light of the fact that there is very little written about the role that William & Thomas Cowhey's regiment played in the Civil War, I thought I would share with you another Civil War story. It focuses on a brave and dedicated Union regiment made up of Irishmen who fought to defend their new nation with the fervor that they gained from the land of their birth.

The men of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry were mostly from Philadelphia (a few of the members were actually from Schuylkill County). All were "solidly Irish", according to John Sears, author of the book Gettysburg. "...so much," writes Sears, "that next to the National Colors was displayed the emerald flag of Ireland rather than the usual regimental flag. Colonel Dennis O'Kane had sternly reminded his men that they were defending the soil of their native state and should any man flinch in his duty, he expected, 'that the man next to him would kill him on the spot.'"

Strong words. But these were strong men. Many of these men of the 69th had been born in Ireland during the period surrounding one of the most trying times in Ireland's history: the Great Famine. They were not strangers to tough times, back in Erin or in their new homeland. According to a summary of Don Ernsberger's book At the Wall, these men were "at the bottom of the social strata". Their occupations included day laborer, dock worker, canal digger, etc. But all were in the category of "'last-hired; first-fired".

It was no different when, in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, these men volunteered to serve their country in time of need. According to Ernsberger, "their services were not always welcomed" at the beginning of the war. But they volunteered anyway. Although some were fairly new arrivals here in the United States of America, they fought as patriotic citizens. And they fought throughout the entire war. By the time the war was over, the men of the 69th had fought in every major battle of the Civil War, many of them, to their deaths. One-thousand-and-seven men left Philadelphia in September 1861 with the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry. By the time the regiment arrived at the Appomattox Courthouse, only 56 remained. Some had been killed or died of disease. Some had been wounded and/or discharged. Some had been taken prisoner or deserted. From the start of the war in 1861 to it's final culmination in 1865, the men of the 69th had played their part.

It was at Gettysburg, however, where they made an impact that would be most remembered in the history books. The Irish 69th Infantry succeeded in holding back the center of the Union wall and pushing back the Virginian soldiers as Pickett's division attacked.

On this, the 144th anniversary of Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, we remember and honor all the soldiers that he spoke of when he referred to the "brave men...who have struggled here". Included among them were these Irish soldiers of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry, new to the United States but not new to patriotism and bravery.

Here in their honor, we remember Lincoln's incredibly brief yet famously eloquent words. We rise to his challenge to "be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought [there] have thus far so nobly advanced." That at Lincoln's suggestion, "we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion...that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

November 19, 1863

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

"But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."


The image of the 69th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg is a detail from Don Troiani's Rock of Erin and is courtesy of Historical Art Prints.

See Small-leaved Shamrock's Related Reading sidebar for links to the books mentioned above.

3 comments:

Janice said...

Lisa,

You did a wonderful job with this article. My own great-grandfather was Irish-born and a Civil War veteran, and so I read your article with great interest. He served in a Vermont company.

Janice

Apple said...

A very interesting article. I hadn't thought about immigrants serving in the Civil War.

Yelena said...

Keep up the good work.

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