History of the 69th New York
by Claire Morris
During the winter of 1861 & 1862 the Union army was reorganised into Corps and Divisions. The Irish Brigade was placed in the II Corps under General Sumner, and designated the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division under General Israel B Richardson.
ARMY OF THE POTOMAC
SKIRMISH AT WARRENTON JUNCTION
The siege of Yorktown Virginia enabled the Irish Brigade to get a degree of comfort on camp. Captain James B Turner stated that, ' "Many tents have between them ornaments and devices of various kinds, harps and shamrocks preponderating." Company streets were decorated on either side with arches woven from evergreens,' (Bilby pg 34). On 3rd May 1862 the Brigade left the camp to pursue the Rebels towards Richmond. The Irish Brigade arrived late at Williamsburg and missed the fight, so they sailed back to Yorktown where they boarded ships and sailed to West Point on the York River.
BATTLE OF FAIR OAKS STATION
On the 31st May 1862, Meagher had organised a Chickahominy Steeplechase to give the men of the Irish Brigade a boost in morale. After weeks and weeks of advancing at a snails pace towards Richmond, and weeks of back-breaking manual labour digging defences and trenches, and building corduroy roads, the good humour of the Irishmen was beginning to ebb away. The 31st was meant to be a day of fun for the men, with two horse races, sack races, football, and a mule race for the drummer boys. The first prize for the steeplechase was a tiger skin, which was won by Major Cavanaugh. The Irish Brigade had also built a large theatre to house a play in the evening. But the men’s party was curtailed as artillery was heard, causing the men to march towards the sound of the distant guns across the bridge over the other side of the Chickahominy.
The 69th and 88th were deployed on the flank of the II Corps along side General Philip Kearney's III Corps. General Sumner ordered the Irish Brigade and the 5th New Hampshire to assist Union soldiers that were being repulsed by the Rebels advancing troops. He called out to the advancing Irish, "Boys, I am your general. I know the Irish Brigade will not retreat. I stake my position on you," (Coyngham Chapter 6). The 69th moved along the Richmond Railway towards the woods where they were fired upon by the Rebels. They traded shots until the Rebels retreated. The Irish Brigade was beginning to getting a fighting reputation. Lt William McClelland of the 88th New York was attributed to saying, "General Sumner said that if an Irishman ran, he would run himself, and when General McClellan rode up he gave particular praise to the Irish Brigade," (Bilby pg 40).
The bayonet and clubbed musket were used quite freely during the battle, so much so that there were a lot of muskets left on the ground. General Sumner saw the stacks of muskets and was inclined to find fault with the Irishmen thinking that they had simply left them behind. He was soon put right as a Sergeant Granger from the Irish Brigade told the General that the Irish had broken their muskets on the heads and backs of the Rebels, “Thim rebels wint at our byes wid bowie knives, and the min wint for thim the way they knew best,” (Corby pg 362).
After the battle of Fair Oaks, Dr Laurence Reynolds, an Irish Brigade surgeon found himself treating a Rebel who had been wounded in the leg. The Rebel said, "You're an Irishman, doctor?" Reynolds said, "Yes," to which the Rebel soldier replied, "Well, you Irish fight like devils, but you are very kind when the battle is over," (Coyngham Chapter 7).
Shortly after the battle, as they remained encamped south of the Chickahominy River, here the Irish Brigade was reinforced by a new regiment, the 29th Massachusetts.
BATTLE OF GAINES MILL
BATTLE OF SAVAGE STATION
On the 29th June the Irish were ordered to Savage Station, east of Fair Oaks. At Savage Station the 69th maintained their picket line despite strong Rebel probes into the Union defences.
The priests and doctors of the Irish Brigade often fell into Rebel hands and were taken prisoner as they administered to the wounded and dying, "Fathers Scully and Oullet, who remained with the wounded, near Savage Station, until taken by the Rebels, returned to the army while here. They were treated with courtesy and consideration by their captors…Speaking of our Chaplains, I must state that the Catholic chaplain, and, in most cases, the doctors, never left the field while they had a duty to perform, but cheerfully allowed themselves to fall into the enemy's hands sooner than neglect the spiritual or temporal welfare of our brave soldiers," (Coyngham Chapter 10).
After the attacks some of the 69th were able to appropriate some crackers and rescue some whiskey, as the remainder of the Union supplies were set on fire as the Federals retreated towards the James River. As the Union army retreated the 69th New York became the rearguard for the whole of the Federal Army Of The Potomac.
BATTLE OF WHITE OAK SWAMP
BATTLE OF MALVERN HILL
At one point a Sergeant Driscoll from the Irish Brigade was ordered to shoot a Confederate officer, who leading his men, posed a significant threat to the advancing Irish Brigade regiments. Driscoll shot the officer and watched him fall. Once the Brigade had advanced to the position of the Rebels, Driscoll checked the body to ensure he was dead. As he rolled the body over, Driscoll saw that the Confederate officer whom he had mortally wounded was his son. Overcome with grief, Driscoll was killed in the next charge (Murphy pg 12).
Both the 69th and the 88th New York fixed bayonets and charged the Rebel line against the 10th Louisiana. According to reports some of the Irishmen went in with their bare hands, but still took many prisoners. As the sun went down, the 69th were out of ammunition and were forced to retire, leaving the 88th New York to hold the position. The 69th New York suffered quite heavy losses; 17 killed, 110 wounded and 28 men missing. Lieutenant Reynolds was killed and Captains Whitty and Leddy were wounded. Private Peter Rafferty was severely wounded but he refused to leave the field, he fought a while longer but was even more seriously wounded, and was carried from the line to the rear. Unfortunately the Union forces had to rapidly retire and Private Rafferty, along with a number of other wounded of the 69th and 88th New York were captured by the oncoming Rebel forces. On July 4th Rafferty and the other captives were incarcerated in Libby Prison in Richmond. After 65 days of captivity they were exchanged. For his actions on Malvern Hill, Private Rafferty was awarded the Medal of Honour.
Captain D P Conyngham described the battle in his book as, “The Eighty-eighth in a moment dashes in with the Sixty-ninth, under a fierce fire from the enemy, who are concealed in the woods and a neighbouring house; still, there is no faltering, but wild cheers, and on they press for the hill-top, where a hand-to-hand fight ensues. Men brain and bayonet each other. The enemy makes a bold stand to hold the hill, but in vain. They sullenly retire, but the darkness prevents our brave fellows from following them up. They send a parting good-night after them. Malvern Hill is fought. McClellan’s army is saved, but that hillside is covered with the dying and the dead of the Irish Brigade.”
“The battles of the Seven Days – Mechanicsville, Gaines’s Mills, Chickahominy, Peach Orchard, Savage’s Station, Frayser’s Farm, and Malvern Hills – were a series of epic struggles in which two great armies found themselves and tested their leaders. Never again could any man who went through that terrible week be anything but a battle-wise veteran,” (Jones pg 92).
As the Irish Brigade manoeuvred away from Malvern Hill, they marched through their old camp site which was well alight. The tents had been set on fire, along with their baggage and personal effects, they simply went up in smoke before their eyes. As the flames spread quickly nothing could be salvaged, even the Irish Brigade’s chapel tent went up in flames, along with Father Corby’s books, manuscripts and all the sermons he had ever written.
During the terrible battles of the Seven Days on the Peninsula, Father Oullett was particularly zealous in his care of soldiers during the battles. Soldiers who witnessed his acts during the Seven Days said that, “When the bullets came thick and fast he was there, and paid no attention to the danger, announcing that he was not only a soldier of McClellan’s army, but that he was also a soldier of Christ. An incident which occurred at the battle of Malvern Hill is related by Major Haverty. The soldiers were in the fierce conflict and were fighting and firing by the light of the Confederate guns and bursting shells. Father Oullet, with his stole on and a lantern in his hand, was out at the very front of the line of battle. To the wounded he would say; “Are you Catholic? And do you wish absolution?”
BATTLE OF 2ND BULL RUN (MANASSAS)
BATTLE OF ANTIETAM CREEK (SHARPSBURG)
The II Corps was placed in the centre of the Union line on the 15th September 1862. Both armies massed their troops just outside Sharpsburg on the 17th September, and after an artillery clash Major General Joseph Hooker’s I Corps attacked the Rebels. By 9.30am the Irish Brigade crossed Pry’s Ford along Antietam Creek. The 2nd Division of the II Corps went in first across Hagerstown Pike, and General French’s 3rd Division II Corps followed but moved slightly towards the Confederate centre. Both of these Union forces were struggling to keep a secure position, and the 1st Division II Corps were ordered in. The 69th New York, with 330 men, led the 1st Division at the double quick past General Richardson on to the fight. The 69th stopped the Division in a cornfield and removed their excess equipment, then wheeled into formation. The Irish Brigade was on the far right of the 1st Division’s battle line, a place of honour for the Irish Brigade, and the 69th New York took position on the right of the Irish Brigade as the senior regiment, with the 29th Massachusetts, 63rd New York and 88th New York to its left. The Irish brigade received their orders to double quick to the front, Father Corby galloped at full speed to the front of the column, and performed a hasty absolution, and told the men to make an Act of Contrition. Corby states that, “In twenty or thirty minutes after the absolution, 506 of these very men lay on the field, either dead or wounded,” (Corby pg 112).
The Irish Brigade marched on towards the Piper House three quarters of a mile away. From the cornfield the Brigade’s first position, there was a wooden fence 200 yards away, which the Irish had to march through to reach their destination. The wooden fence in front of them was steadily being blown apart by Rebel artillery shells. Rebel skirmishers moved out to battle the Irish Brigades advancing troops. The Brigade had to halt just before the wooden fence, whilst sections of the fence and bodies were moved out of the way. The rest of the soldiers of the Brigade laid down on the floor on Meagher’s orders to lower the target for the Rebels to shoot at. Once the debris had been cleared from their path, Meagher ordered the Brigade to advance again. With each artillery shot coming from the Rebels, a hole was blown in the ranks of the Irish Brigade, but each time the men just closed ranks and marched on. As men fell from artillery and rifle fire, Father Ouellet the 69th New York’s priest, and Father Corby his 88th New York counterpart, administered last rites to the dying soldiers, moving steadily forward following the Irish Brigade and continuing their work.
The Irish met Colonel Posey’s Mississippi Brigade. After a hard battle and the mauling of the 63rd New York’s left wing, the Irish Brigade routed the Mississippians. The Brigade continued on towards the famous ‘Sunken Road’. The Irish Brigade was now out in the open again, exposed on the high ground, whilst many of the Rebels were well protected under cover of the road. The Irish fought hard but could not break the Rebel line of fire. Meagher tried several times to rouse the Irish Brigade into a bayonet charge en-mass, unfortunately he was unsuccessful and those who did charge were immediate casualties. The colour bearers of the 69th New York also tried their best to rouse their comrades, eight colour bearers fell that day. Meagher shouted to his men, “Boy’s raise the colors, and follow me!”, Captain James McGee seized the fallen flag and cried, “I’ll follow you,” a bullet immediately snapped the shaft, and as he bent down to retrieve it a bullet cut a hole through his cap, he miraculously escaped injury as he waved the flag at the Rebels and cheered the 69th troops onwards. By the end of the fighting the 69th New York’s regimental flag had, had it’s shaft split in half from bullet holes. The 69th fought hard at the Sunken Road in front of the 4th and 30th North Carolina regiments, and many a good and brave Irishman of the 69th fell that day, along with Lieutenant Patrick Kelly, Lieutenant Charles Williams and Captain Felix Duffy. Lieutenant Colonel James Kelly was wounded in the fighting, as were Lieutenant Richard A Kelly, Lieutenant Garret Neagley, Captain Jasper R Whitty, and mortally so Captain T L Shanly.
The day before the battle approximately 120 new recruits had joined the Irish Brigade, and were assigned to provost duties, but knowing the severity of the battle, and what their comrades were having to endure, they requested to join the fight, in total 75 of those new recruits were wounded or killed.
General Richardson ordered General Caldwell’s brigade to assist and relieve the Irish Brigade. General Caldwell’s brigade moved in behind the Irish in a column formation, and whilst still under heavy fire the Irish Brigade retreated in a smart parade ground fashion, in column of fours, at right shoulder shift, displaying the arrogance of hard fighters. The 69th New York had lost 44 dead and 152 wounded, of whom 27 would later die of their wounds there at Antietam Creek.
James J Smith, who enlisted in the 69th New York on 8th November 1861 as a 1st Lieutenant, who had acted as the Adjutant, by 16th February 1865 he had been promoted to Lt Colonel of the 69th New York, was quoted in the history of the regiment as saying, “The Bloody Lane was the witness of the efficacy of the buck-and-ball at close quarters. We carried the way and the way beyond, leaving on the ground a lot of flags which we were too busy to pick up, for the capture of which Medals of Honor were freely bestowed on the men of another regiment, whose commander was an able performer on the trumpet of self-laudation,” (Pritchard, pg 65).
In official dispatches written by General Sumner after the battle of Antietam, the Irish Brigade were highly praised, “The brigade sustained its reputation for utter bravery in the face of heavy small arms and artillery fire.” In a war where medals were only presented to men whose deeds had been immense, nothing was more of an honour than to be mentioned in dispatches by a commanding general.
General McClelland’s official report after Antietam stated that, “The Irish Brigade sustained its well-earned reputation. After suffering terribly in officers and men, and strewing the ground with their enemies as they drove them back, their ammunition nearly expended, and their commander, General Meagher, disabled by a fall from his horse, shot under him, this Brigade was ordered to give place to General Caldwell’s brigade, which advanced to a short distance in its rear. The lines were passed by the Irish Brigade breaking by company to the front, as steady as on drill,” (Jones pg 107).
After burying their dead the Irish Brigade crossed the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia on the 23rd September and then camped at Bolivar Height’s just outside the town. There they bivouacked for some time and the Irish Brigade was refitted and re-clothed.
NEW REGIMENTS FOR THE IRISH BRIGADE
The 116th Pennsylvania joined what remained of the battered Irish Brigade on the 10th October 1862. The 116th Pennsylvania were not wholly Irish by any means, many were of Dutch origin, but they were well equipped and drilled, and were a welcome edition to the Irish Brigade. The Irish Brigade left Harper’s Ferry on 2nd November and marched towards Warrenton, with the rest of the Army Of The Potomac under the new leadership of General Ambrose Burnside. McClellan had been a favourite amongst the Irish Brigade, and many of the Irish officers tried to resign their commissions after he had been relieved of duty. Meagher refused them and reminded them of their duty to their adopted country. The Army Of The Potomac moved towards Falmouth, Virginia, and the 1st Division II Corps got a new commander in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, after Richardson had been killed in the Bloody Lane at Antietam. They also had a new Corps commander under Major General Darius Couch. The Brigade led the Army Of The Potomac’s Right Grand Division on to the banks of the Rappahannock River.
As the Irish Brigade moved towards Falmouth, Virginia to set up semi-permanent winter quarters, they neared a small hamlet called Hartwood Church, where a battery of Confederate cannon were found on the opposing bank of the Rappahannock river. General Sumner ordered elements of the Irish Brigade to charge the position. Instantly the men charged through the shallow water, fording the river and without allowing the Rebel battery to fire a shot, they captured both the cannon. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, was also present, witnessing the scene. He told Brigadier General Meagher, “General Meagher, I have never seen anything so splendid.” (Pritchard pg 65). All the men present that day, including a Brigadier General and two Major Generals, in Hancock and Sumner, saw that the Rappahannock River could easily have been forded at the present time. Sadly commanding general Burnside would not agree. As the men built their huts they could hear and see the Confederates digging-in in the town. Fortifying gun positions, and houses, digging concealed rifle pits, the Rebels significantly strengthened their position.
Whilst the Brigade waited by the banks of the Rappahannock they lost the services of the 29th Massachusetts who moved to the IX Corps. The Yankee 29th Massachusetts were sad to leave the Irish Brigade, as they believed their reputation had been advanced merely by being in the famous Irish Brigade with the hard fighting New York regiments. The 29th were ‘traded’ with the 28th Massachusetts, who were a largely Irish based regiment, and they were also veterans.
The Irish Brigade built winter quarters, log cabins with fireplaces and chimneys, they were settling in for the winter. Sergeant Peter Welsh describes his winter quarters in a letter to his wife on 7th January 1863, “…My dear wife just imagine me now I am sitting beside the fire on a cracker box a box in which the company books are caried placed on the end of our bed forms a desk to write on the cook is buisy cooking beef soup for diner the orderly sergeant is sitting on the cooks bed looking over some tactics of drill now imagine you see the inside of a long shanty with a big fireplace at one end some cracker boxes nailed against the wall for closets and shelves three rifles standing in one corner canteen belts and cartridge boxes hanging against the wall and you can form a good idea of the general apearence of the interior of our quarters it is however a luxury compared with living in a little shelter tent…” (Kohl pg 55). The men filled their time drilling, building large campfires to warm themselves, going on picket duty, and participating in games of euchre and chuck-a-luck.
On the 2nd December the 69th along with the 63rd and 88th New York regiments sent their flags back to New York to be replaced by new ones. They planned the new flags to be presented on 13th December at a formal ceremony, but sadly the 69th, 63rd and 88th New York would be otherwise engaged that day.
BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG
The II Corps was ordered to take Marye’s Heights, a well fortified position on high ground with a stonewall in front of the massed ranks of Rebel soldiers. The 3rd Division II Corps tried first, but scattered under very heavy fire from the Confederate position, so Hancock’s 1st Division followed. General Zook’s brigade led the way, trying to dislodge the Rebels at the stonewall, but they were overwhelmed by the four deep ranks of the defenders behind it. The Irish Brigade formed up to follow Zook’s Brigade. Two companies of the 69th New York, a total of 49 men formed up as skirmishers to cover the Brigade’s right flank. The Brigade formed up with the 69th New York in it’s usual place of honour on the right as the senior regiment, with the 88th New York, 28th Massachusetts, 63rd New York and 116th Pennsylvania to its left. The 28th Massachusetts was placed in the centre of the line because it was the only regiment in the Irish Brigade to have an emerald green flag. The 69th, 63rd and 88th New York’s new flags had not yet been presented to them.
The Brigade marched forward at right shoulder shift. Artillery fire blew holes into the Brigade’s ranks. They marched onwards and uphill to the stonewall, briefly pausing to climb over a wooden post fence, 50 yards from the wall. As the Irish Brigade climbed the wall the entire Confederate line opened fire, thousands of rifles and muskets went off. Colonel Nugent leading the battle line went down badly wounded, as did 1st Lieutenant Patrick Callaghan who was felled by four gunshot wounds, and 1st Lieutenant Bernard O’Neill was also seriously wounded. The Brigade continued to fire standing until Major James Cavanaugh was seriously wounded, then someone gave the order for the Brigade to lie down to shoot at the thousands of Rebels behind the stonewall. The 69th New York had also lost its colour bearer, who to prevent the Rebels from capturing the flag, wrapped it around his body under his jacket before he died, he was found the next day with the flag under his jacket and a bullet through his heart, and the silk of the flag. This is the story often told of the flag at the battle of Fredericksburg, but the writer Paul Jones has a different angle. Paul believes that a Sergeant in McMillian’s (previously Cobb’s) Georgian, mainly Irish brigade, a Sergeant Michael Sullivan returned the flag to Meagher, after the battle by crossing the picket lines.
“Around midnight on the 19th, there was a sound of heavy firing from the Rebel shore (of the Rappahannock), followed by the splash of a man diving into the river and swimming towards the Union lines.
The Irish managed to go far further than any of the other assaults on the stonewall, they got as far as five paces from the wall. One of the men who made it that close to the wall was very seriously injured and was carried by the Rebels into their lines, they asked him which regiment he belonged to and he replied, “Sixty Ninth New York, Meagher’s Brigade,” (Bilby pg 69).
In a letter home to his wife on 18th December 1862, Sgt Peter Welsh of the 116th Pennsylvania stated that, “…it was a fierce and bloody battle our brigade got teribly cut up it is so small now that it is not fit to go into any further action unless it is recruited up so you need not be uneasy now about me for the rest of the fighting will have to be done without our aid” (Kohl pg 40).
A truce was not called between the Rebels and the Federal forces until the 15th December, when both sides could recover their wounded. But sadly many had already died from their wounds or from exposure to the severe temperatures. The 69th New York lost all of its 16 commissioned officers, and 112 of the 173 soldiers from the men in the battle line, either killed or wounded. Only the right flank who went out as skirmishers had no casualties. After the battle the Irish Brigade could only muster 263 of its 1,200 men from only three days earlier. Coyngham believed that if the Irish Brigade had have been at full strength, or even two thirds strength, the Irish Brigade would have successfully stormed the wall.
After the battle an officer from the Irish Brigade wrote the following letter to try and describe the severity of the battle of Fredericksburg, “Never since the war began have the Union forces met with such a disaster as that we have just suffered. As far the Brigade, may the Lord pity and protect the widows and orphans of nearly all those belonging to it! It will be a sad, sad Christmas by many an Irish hearthstone in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts,” (Coyngham Chapter 16).
The party for the presentation of the new flags to the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York went ahead after the battle, and was held in a building in the town of Fredericksburg. Meagher sent the new flags home believing he did not have enough men to protect them. By Christmas of 1862, the 69th New York and the rest of the Irish Brigade were in winter quarters back in Falmouth, Virginia.
CLOSE OF THE YEAR
During 1862 the Army of the Potomac, including the Irish Brigade, had marched over one thousand four hundred miles, from the Seven Days battles on the Peninsula, to Antietam and Fredericksburg. On the battlefields across Virginia and Maryland, the Irish Brigade had lost its core, its heart. So many men were killed as the Brigade’s reputation preceded it. As commanding generals needed a brigade to be ‘rock,’ the Irish were thrust into the most heated combat situations, or they were used as rear-guards to the retreating army. Too many of the brave volunteers of 1861 were no more, and the Irish Brigade would never be as strong and effective again.