Dennis O’Kane and the Philadelphia Brigade of the Pennsylvania 69th

 

Excerpts from James Francis Smith’s The Civil War’s Valiant Irish

The Begining

The Derry native nodded to his brigadier commander, Joshua Owen. Not expecting nor receiving a return greeting, he didn’t bother to salute. O’Kane crossed to the most distant campfire, where Duffy and Devereux joined him. His first question was a repeat of one he asked every night.

“Is that bastid Welshman drunk or sober?”

Tonight, Duffy responded. “He’s well on his way, but not there yet.”

Memories of that day, almost seven months past, came flooding back. O’Kane wondered why he didn’t kill the Welshman after being called “an Irish SOB,” then to add insult to injury, Owen made a pass at Mary Ann, his wife, asking her to to join ’im in his tent. To bad he’s got a hard head or my pullin’ ‘im off his horse and bouncin’ his skull on the ground surely would’ve killed any other. The beating I gave him was satisfyin’, but the court-martial that followed was the most humiliating period of me life.  Thank the Lord, General Hancock ruled in my favor.  The very next day he found that bastid, Owen, guilty, but here he remains, as do I.

The regimental quartermaster, Martin Tschudy, came over and sat beside his good friend Lieutenant Colonel O’Kane. “What do you t’ink of the bloke?”

“I rather the 69th be led by Conroy, but Cadwalder didn’t approve. Don’t know why. So we’ve got Joshua Owen as our colonel, a Welshman and a Philadelphia lawyer, in charge of a bunch of Irishman. We’ll just have to see how it plays out. At least Conroy got us named after that New York unit.”

“Maybe the New Yorkers’s spunk, they showed at Bull Run, will rub off on our lads.”

“Let’s hope so.”

“Some other good news, they renamed us “The Philadelphia Brigade”, I suggested they include Irish in our title since we’re mostly Irish, but they turned me down. As least we get to display a green flag.”

“They couldn’t call us Irish because we have a couple of Jews and a few Quakers in addition to those Germans. Anyway, it’s better than being called the California Brigade, wherever that name came from.”

“Well Martin, it’s time to kiss the wife and kids goodbye, we’re in this for the duration or three years whichever comes first. The Missis can stand a break from me being in the way around the house.”

“We may have lost at Bull Run, but it won’t take near three years to finish those Johnny Rebs off.”

The two laughed as they parted.

Fair Oaks (Seven Pines), Virginia, May 31 – June 1, 1862

Dennis looked up to see Tschudy enter. “Well where have you been, did ya get lost?”

“I’d’ve been here days ago if you blokes hadn’t kept moving so much.”

“It’s been crazy. We win a battle, fend the Johnny’s off, and then we, not them, retreat. Not them, us! Makes no sense. Did ya have any luck?”

Reaching into his saddle bag Martin took out a jug of whiskey. “Have a sip while I tell you the news.”

Both shared a wee drop before Martin continued. “Thank God, I brought those three lads along for protection, particularly Pat Moran.”

“The big fellow with the jagged scar running down the side of his face? He’d scare the devil in hell.”

“The very one, and he did. In Washington, no one was interested in providing shoes for our men. We did secure a draft payable to the old shoey in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. So we set off for the City of Brotherly Love. But before arriving, Moran had the lads put bayonets on their guns and said, ‘I promised the men of the Philadelphia Brigade that we’d return with shoes, and I mean to keep my word. He kept his word.’

“I rode ahead, Moran’ll be here tomorrow with the shoes.”

This called for a further celebration.

Savage Station, June 29th, 1862

            With his insides still quivering from the incident where the bridge, crossing the wild torrent of the Chickahominy, collapsed just after his men cleared it, O’Kane formed them into a battle line along with General Sumner’s other troops. There they came upon a wounded Confederate General Pettigrew and a number of his men, whom they quickly captured.

A feint attack on their front disguised the main one coming at their left, intended to hit their marching line. An attack Sumner anticipated and had his rear guard in position to prevent his troops from being isolated.

The 69th’s bivouac in White Oak Swamp was all to short. Sumner announced they were needed by General Hooker. “He wanted a brigade, instead I offered him one of the best regiments in my corps, and told him to place them anywhere he wished, for it was his fight. Wait until you see the whites of their eyes, then aim low.”

After giving three rousing cheers for Sumner, the 69th permitted Hooker’s retreating men to pass through their ranks before opening up on the Confederates who had captured a piece of artillery. The fire was so intense, the cannon never got turned on the Yanks. The Philadelphia Irish, instead of staying put, with bayonets flashing charged the oncoming Rebels, forcing them to turn and flee from the swamp.

Hooker complimented the regiment for having made, “the first successful bayonet charge of the war, and saved the Army of the Potomac from probable disaster.”

Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 1862

Since Webb was promoted to general and given command of the brigade, O’Kane, recently promoted to the rank of colonel, descended from Stafford Heights and led his men across the newly erected pontoon bridge spanning the Rappahannock. Artillery shells poured down and bullets from sharpshooters riddled their ranks. Those by Sykes regulars.

Looking across at the few fires, indicating the dwindling number of the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers still effective, considerably less than a quarter of those who had first joined, O’Kane questioned how God could’ve let that Welshman, Owen, survive and yet allow so many dacent Irish go to their graves.

As though he harbored the very same thought, Devereux commented. “Was it worth it?  Will those Protestant bigots in the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ accept us as their equal, or will the hatred still be there when we get home?”

Receiving only shoulder shrugs, using his fingers to count, O’Kane slowly recited the battles that cost so many Irish of the Philadelphia Brigade their lives:

“Seven Pines, Glendale, Antietam, and mostly Fredericksburg.”

He then thanked the Lord they were given guard duty and spared from participating in the disaster at Chancellorsville. “We needed and deserved a break.”

Duffy followed up with stories of their commanding generals. “I liked old man Sumner.  Remember at Malvern Hill, when he bravely came to our colors, took off his hat, and waved for us to get back. Saved us all that day.”

Coming out of his melancholy, O’Kane joined in. “Divil a bit of good it did, the buggers were at our rear, delivering an awful volley of musket, we’re lucky we made it away.” Taking out his pipe, O’Kane asked of no one in particular, “Hooker’s in total command now. Will this be the battle to end this war? He’s done his bit to whip the army into shape all the marchin’ and drillin’. I’ll never forget the day we tossed snowballs and sent the inspectors running with their tails between their legs.”

Duffy laughed then got serious. “It’s been said that he’s quite the ladies’ man, claimed they nicknamed prostitutes, ‘hookers’ after him.”

O’Kane laughed. “Just a tale. Ladies of the night got their fame decades ago, after ‘The Hook,’ a neighborhood in New York City.”

No one debated the claim from the Derry man. Then Devereux passed out some tobacco, his men obtained by trading the Confederates for coffee, and the three enjoyed smoking their pipes in the silence of their thoughts.

Serving under Hancock

The Derry Irishman, who had admired Sumner as having been their best general to-date, was still delighted to hear that Hancock was placed in charge of the corps, and that Joshua Owen was no longer in command of their brigade. I bless the day and the man who had him arrested and relieved of this command.”

O’Kane was more than pleased with General Webb. For it took guts to risk his reputation, when he halted the charge into that terrible nightmare at Fredericksburg. An order which saved O’Kane’s regiment. “He did the right thing, making us lay down. I’ll give him that.”

A bottle magically appeared, and the men around O’Kane each took a sip to toast their good fortune.

Now that the sweltering June weather arrived, they were on the march once again. Knowing that Hooker will take the blame for the defeat at Chancellorsville, O’Kane assumed they were moving closer to Washington. Bones of unburied dead from prior battles made him wonder about his own mortality, and the prayers of the rosary often passed his lips. It was only when they halted at Frederick, Maryland that word reached the ranks. ‘They were in pursuit of Lee who had already passed through Maryland and was somewhere in Pennsylvania.’

Hancock’s corps took the lead, and he insisted they march double quick, making the trek through the lush countryside all the more disagreeable.

Gettysburg

After marching through the night, the 69th arrived after dawn at their destination, just south of Gettysburg. Here they were placed by Hancock in a favorable location, just below the crest of a ridge, named after the nearby cemetery. With a clump of trees at their rear, O’Kane had his men dig in behind a three foot stone wall. The wall turned at an angle about 50-yards to their right and an opening to their left allowed the farmer to take his cows to the field below, a field full of enemy pickets. O’Kane sent out some of his own pickets but warned them not to cross the Emmettsburg Pike. The regiment’s fitful rest was disturbed by the firing between the opposing pickets.

Four O’Clock

General Hancock, who was all over the battlefield, ordered the 1st Minnesota forward. “Do you see those colors? Take them.”

After marching in torrid heat, sucking up dust for days, and digesting little to nothing to calm their hunger pangs, the 69th stood impotent behind the three foot stone wall as Brown’s Rhode islanders tried to extract their artillery from Wright’s oncoming Georgia Brigade. Once again, the firing of the 69th and that of the 106th Pennsylvania had to cease as Colonel Colville’s Minnesota lads charged forward to engage the foe. Even under direct bombardment, the portion of Brown’s battery, which had cleared the wall, maintained a continual fire of bullet-filled shells with four second fuses. Counting in his head, O’Kane sensed the fuses were being cut to three seconds, then two, and finally one. Next came the deadliest shot of all, a double canister. But all to no avail.

The brave Minnesota lads falling by the dozens were followed a shout. “Limber to the rear.”

Amid cries from the infantry to “Get out, or you will all be killed.” The artillery men added their own chorus, “Save the guns.”

A narrow gap, the only opening in the stone wall, enabling the farmer to drive his cows to the next field, became clogged as guns and horses were being shoved through one at a time, but not all.

As if to defy the Irishmen watching in horror, a Confederate officer mounted the Napoleon, Brown’s men had to abandon. O’Kane couldn’t believe what Captain Michael Duffy did next. With his Irish blood boiling, Duffy jumped on the wall, pointing to the arrogant Rebel, yelled, “Knock that damn bastid off of that gun.”

Duffy’s men responded and the officer gave up his life for that show of insolence, but so did Duffy.  Before O’Kane could react, a minnié ball to the head killed his lifelong friend. A curse damning Webb to Hell for putting the 69th in so forward a position left O’Kane lips for most of the brigade was safe on the far side of the crest. He hurried to Duffy’s side as the last breath of life departed his body. But now was not the time to mourn, O’Kane and his men looked on helplessly as the 1st Rhode Island battery, situated on a knoll about a hundred rods in front and to the left of his position, seemed doomed to be captured. Finally a clear separation developed as the Butternuts swarmed over the two horseless guns left behind in the panic retreat. Before they could turn the captured artillery on the 69th, the victorious Georgians reached rifle range. O’Kane screamed at the top of his lungs, “Let them have it Lads.” The Derry native had his regiment fire point-blank at the charging Rebels.

Perceiving that not all the artillery would be saved, O’Kane ordered his men to fix bayonets and led the charge of the gallant 69th down the slope. The sight of the screaming Irishmen put the fear of God into Wright’s Georgia Brigade, who after an hour of hand-to-hand combat were routed and the guns secured.

Twenty-eight of the already undermanned 69th with 11 of those killed, further diminished the regiment’s ability to withstand a full fledged assault against their position.

When a semblance of peace came, O’Kane ordered his weary survivors to go over the wall once more and collect all the usable muskets left behind by the fleeing Confederates. By nightfall, every member of the 69th had a number of loaded Enfields at the ready. The captured guns were repacked with 12 buckshot to a load and placed against the wall for the morrow’s charge that all knew was coming.

O’Kane made certain each of his unit would stand their ground, which because of Duffy’s demise, all considered to be holy.

No sooner had his men been organized than artillery opened on both sides. All hunched down, each with his own thoughts, some lost in prayer, when suddenly General Hancock with Webb in tow arrived. Facing O’Rourke, Hancock said, “I came to congratulate your steadiness which prevented Johnny Reb from capturing those guns.”

O’Kane’s obvious brogue seemed to intrigue the General. Who asked. “I don’t suppose you know the words to “Kathleen Mavoureen?”

“Unfortunately, I can’t carry a tune. But I’m certain some of my lads can. If you don’t mind my asking, why that particular song?”

“I believe that tomorrow, Johnny Reb is going to test our resolve to hold this ridge. One of those leading the charge will most likely be my very best friend, Lew Armistead. The last time we were together, we sang Kathleen Mavoureen.”

O’Kane looked around, “Meehan, front and center.”

“This lad’s from Sligo and can shatter glass with the power of his voice.”

The men of the 69th grew quiet as Meehan erupted in song. The voice of the tenor floated across the vale. Union gunners halted their deadly fire to listen, swiftly followed by those of their opponents.

When Meehan came to the verse;

“Oh, has thou forgotten how soon we must sever? Oh, hast thou forgotten how soon we must part? It may be for years, and it may be forever, Oh, why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart? It may be for years, and it may be forever, then why art thou silent, Kathleen Mavoureen?”

O’Kane could have sworn he saw tears running down Hancock’s face. When the song ended, the general and his cluster turned on their heel and departed without as much as a thank you. Looking at their backs, Duffy asked, “Do you t’ink Johnny Reb heard Meehan?”

This make O’Kane consider just how far the Sligo man’s voice carried. But then he shrugged off the thought, “The Butternuts must have wondered why we stopped firing and waited for our next move.”

July 3, 11 AM

When the artillery on the left flank ceased, and his men finished their first meal in days, O’Kane knew the remnants of his regiment were nearing total exhaustion, owing to their overnight march to get here and yesterday’s ferocious engagement against Wright’s Georgians, let alone baking all day in the sweltering Pennsylvania sun. But he knew, they hadn’t collected and loaded those Confederate rifles for nothing. Today, their lives and reputations will be put to the test. Looking at the 258 officers and men of the 69th lying on their stomachs, gazing sluggishly at the mile-wide empty farmland extending from the crest of ridge, O’Kane had little choice but to rouse them from their lethargy. “That pile of loose stones won’t stop a canister. Get busy with your shovels, hands, or whatever you got, else you’ll be lying under the dirt because Hancock believes Lee’ll test the center this time around.”

Major Jim Duffy, a former Philadelphia hotel owner, shook his head, pointing to the elevation on their left. “I’d t’ink Lee’d try that flank again. If he ever occupies Little Round Top our goose’d be cooked.”

“Even if he did, he’d still send shot in our direction, if only to keep us pinned down. That copse of trees behind us makes a likely target. The more dirt between us and incoming shells, the better off we’ll be.”

Duffy, joining the fatigued men, picked up one of the few available entrenching tools and lacklusterly added to the puny pile of dirt. “Is it Webb’s doing to have us here at the crest while the 72nd, his strongest regiment, is on the far side, forty yards behind us?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s had it in for us since the beginning. Now that there’s only a quarter of the lads remaining from the bunch we started with, I guess this time he wants to finish us off.  He claims the 72nd can fire over our heads. I’d feel better if they were here on the line beside us.”

“I agree with you. Having one man every three feet isn’t much of a deterrent if the Rebels arrive in force. At least Webb gave us a couple of companies from the 71st to extend our line, or we’d really be stretched thin.”

“It’ll be the strength of our prayers and not our weapons that’ll save us this time. We were lucky yesterday. The Rebels were content to chase Brown’s battery from that knoll below us. That’s why Brown lost several dozen horses.”

“I wonder why they had him down there instead here on the line with us?”

“It’s that idiot Sickles’ fault. He had his corps too far forward. Brown’s guns were moved to cover his right flank. They were too little and too late. But at least they saved some of Sickles’ men, or else they would all be lying down below.”

Both men offered a silent prayer for the dead of Sickles’ divisions.

Three PM

Blessing himself and saying a quick prayer to the Almighty, O’Kane thanked his Savior, because the hours-long artillery barrage from the Confederates could have been devastating. Although the coppice of trees directly behind his position seemed to be the target, most of the shells had gone long, clearing the crest. He also thanked the Lord for their holding the high ground, making their own artillery far more accurate than that of the Butternuts firing up.

The one bit of excitement breaking up the morning doldrums came when a shell hit Cushing’s number two limber, with an explosion so powerful it took out limbers One and Three as well. Hastily-hobbled nearby horses, broke free and bolted, easily clearing the stone wall, galloping down the slope, heading for the Confederate line. As if cheering a steeplechase, the Irishmen yelled their encouragement to the stampeding horses. The dense black smoke covering the valley soon enveloped the fleeing mounts, leaving many of the 69th wishing that they, too, could’ve escaped the concussion of the oncoming shells.

The men, no longer able to see the large incoming rounds, could only hug the earth. Each wishing he’d been more diligent in piling dirt and rock to protect his front. Rosaries, held in many hands, with fingers substituted for any lacking beads, sent their ascending prayers to the Blessed Virgin in quantities far outnumbering the whistling, screaming, sputtering munitions sailing overhead.

Running to the rear made little sense. Why run? You’ll only die there instead of here. The men of the 69th remained at their post, letting their imaginations work overtime, picturing the bodies of their fellow Philadelphians being blown apart on the far side of the crest. To add to their fear and discomfort, odors from the rotting corpses of horses and men, disintegrating in the 90-degree heat, sapped every ounce of energy from the perspiring Irish.

If any had bothered to gaze skyward, or had been able to see through the smoke, they would’ve seen O’Kane raise their pride—the regimental banner with its green flag displaying an Irish wolfhound, a sunburst, and round tower on the one side with the Pennsylvania coat of arms on the other. All knew the 69th was the only Pennsylvania regiment authorized to display symbols of their native land.

Fortunately, other than the eardrum splitting noise, the shelling did little harm to O’Kane’s men.  Even at that, he knew his veteran regiment prayed for the shelling to end. They’d rather face a screaming rebel with a musket at the ready than a barbaric missile heading in their direction.

The Rhode Island artillery, having expanded all their ammunition, were withdrawn during the shelling and replaced by Cowan’s 1st NY Independent Battery. This should have made little difference to the 69th, for they were still Confederate targets situated as they were between two batteries of artillery. Unfortunately, to be more effective, the inexperienced Cowan’s men aimed low—barely clearing the heads of the 69th‘s G and K companies as well as  those of the flanking 59th New Yorkers, making many wish for the return of the Rhode Island gunners.

Suddenly, the Confederate guns stopped. Then came dead silence and the dreadful wait. Wool uniforms were shed as blistering heat prevailed, but little could be done about the stench of yesterday’s dead rising from the battlefield.

O’Kane knew the Rebel infantry would soon follow the barrage and based on his position being the target of the artillery, his regiment would likely bear the brunt of the attack. With a heavy heart, reflecting on the loss of Michael Duffy, words of encouragement were all he could offer. In order to be heard, he stopped every couple of yards, repeating the same message:

“When they come, and they will come, let them know we’re fighting to defend the soil of our state and the pride of our race.”

He gave his men a knowing look, “If any among you should flinch from that duty, I would ask the man next to him to kill him on the spot.” O’Kane saw a horrified look on some, so he added, “A mercy shot would spare the world of learning of our shame.”

Laughter

Unsheathing his sword, all laughter vanished.  He and his men were entering a killing mode. Waving the blade above his head, he cried out: “Let your work this day be for victory or death.”

For a time, a deafening silence replaced the artillery barrage, with O’Kane, and General Webb, walking behind their prone warriors doing their best to insert spine and grit. Today, none fell on deaf ears. For the moment they were in the eye of the storm, the lull before the charge, and naught but stillness prevailed. Not a blade of grass moved, nor a breath of air brought relief from the boiling sun. If they weren’t terrified of what was to come, the men of the 69th could’ve enjoyed a summer’s nap. The stillness, however, felt like a vacuum before a thunderstorm.

Then they came.

From the shelter of the woods, a line of Rebels a mile or more in length, the finest the South had to offer, began to march in parade fashion, with guns at trail arms, a second line following the first and a third following the second.

O’Kane couldn’t help but marvel at how the Confederates held their formation as they slowly moved toward Emmitsburg Road, separating only to climb and in some cases knock down the plank fence bordering the thoroughfare. The only words that came to him were ones spoken at Bunker Hill, words he repeated to the Irishmen over and over: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.”

Union artillery opened up once again, ripping holes into the advancing rebels but the gaps were swiftly filled by those moving up from behind. In full force, a gut wrenching sadness returned to O’Kane as the sacrifice of the charging Rebels mingled with memories of his own men who paid that same price charging uphill at Fredericksburg.

Once more back in the present, O’Kane watched the parade march swiftly turn into double-quick as the rebels swarmed the hill. Sporadic musket fire opened up from the left of the 69th, but most withheld their lead. Cushing pushed two guns forward but the lack of ammunition only allowed for a couple rounds of fire. Rebels approaching from the left wheeled and came directly at the 69th. Union troops from Vermont firing at a 45-degree angle drove added numbers to those heading toward O’Kane and his men. Then came his final order of the day. “Down on one knee, take cover behind the breastworks—FIRE.”

The guns of the 69th, with each man discharging, dropping his rifle, seizing a preloaded piece, and firing again, over and over, brought the charge to a halt—momentarily. A slaughter the like of which O’Kane had never witnessed.

But the still charging Johnny Rebs climbed over the torsos and limbs of their dead and dying to get at the Yankees behind the low stone wall. On they came.

Men on O’Kane’s left were dropped by Cowan’s friendly fire, forcing others to move back away from the wall as the New Yorkers lowered their projection. Proudly O’Kane realized, thought they might have moved, they had not, by God, shown their backs. His men were holding their ground. Along with righteous anger, he leveled curses at the two companies of the 71st Pennsylvania for deserting his right flank and running to the rear. His men were now vulnerable—likely to be surrounded.

The Confederates, led by a general waving his hat on his sword as a battle flag, stepped over the wall at the hole once occupied by the 71st and by Cushing’s now silent artillery.

Having no other choice, O’Kane ordered Companies I, A, and F to face the rear and fire into the exposed sides of the passing Confederates. Watching to see that order was carried out, O’Kane gasped as Company F’s Captain Thompson’s throat exploded. The man died in a moment’s time, before having an opportunity to relay O’Kane’s directive. As a result, two squadrons of F remained at the wall leaving a gap between them and A Company. A gap the enemy took advantage of. Those of F Company still at the wall either surrendered or died where they stood. D Company, to their credit, crossed the wall, checking the oncoming Rebels, thereby, saving the surviving 69th from annihilation. From his rear, O’Kane could hear Webb shouting for the 72nd Pennsylvania to move forward and plug the gap, could hear the man shout again and again. But the commands were in vain. The 72nd refused to move, preferring to fire from a safe distance.

As a over hundred Confederates crossed the wall, their orderly charge had turned into a melee, with soldiers from both sides using their rifles as clubs in the bitterest hand-to-hand fighting O’Kane had ever seen. Units from other regiments sent by Hancock added their manpower and firepower to that of the 69th, dooming the Confederates on O’Kane’s side of the wall.

Before a fated bullet took down the native of Derry, he watched as the daring Confederate general, with his hand on one of Cushing’s guns, the other still clutching his sword, succumbed to Yankee slugs, following which the Butternuts begin to surrender their weapons.

Denied the right to countercharge by General Webb, the 69th watched as the surviving Butternuts streamed down the slope and crossed the valley to the safety of Seminary Ridge. The Battle of Gettysburg ended on Cemetery Ridge at the very spot where the 69th stood their ground.

With tears freely flowing and anger in their hearts, the men of the 69th buried their Colonel.

O’Kane went to his heavenly reward in the early morning hours of July 5th, 1863 without knowing that others, who had not been at the wall, rushed forward to secure Confederate flags and the glory. Those who knew of the bitter dispute between General Owen and O’Kane knew that not a word of praise for their leader, or Duffy and Kelly would died along with him, would filter into the official report. Not a medal, let alone the Medal of Honor, will ever be awarded to O’Kane and his 69th, the regiment that terminated Pickett’s charge.

 

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