History of the 69th New York

by Claire Morris




In January 1863 the Irish Brigade were re-supplied with new uniforms, and remained in their quarters at Falmouth Virginia.  General Burnside ordered the army to perform an out flanking manoeuvre on the Confederate forces, where the Union forces had to march along the banks of the Rappahannock.  The weather got much worse and the course the army was taking became a series of bogs, so Burnside’s ‘Mud march’ was called off, and the Irish Brigade, who were camped nearest to the Rebels, and so the last to move, were thankful they did not have to move from their winter quarters.

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Meagher asked for a twenty day leave on the 1st January 1863, for medical reasons.  He failed to report back on the 21st January; so on 3rd February he contacted the Adjutant General stating his health had not improved, but he would report to Washington on the 11th February.  Distraught that the Irish Brigade had been decimated after the hard fighting of Antietam and Fredericksburg, Meagher disregarded the chain of command and personally visited President Lincoln to request that the three New York regiments could return to New York for recruits.  On 19th February 1863, Meagher increased his efforts and contacted the Secretary of War making an official request for the Irish Brigade to be put on inactive duty.  General Hooker now commanding the Army of the Potomac refused to endorse Meagher’s requests despite the fact that of the three New York Regiments, there were only 340 men ready for duty, 132 men were on extra and special duties and 59 men were on sick parade.

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On St Patrick’s Day the Irish Brigade held a huge celebration, in which many high ranking officers of the Army Of The Potomac attended.  It was remembered by many members of the Army Of The Potomac as the most memorable non-combative day.   For several weeks preceding the revels, the men of the Irish Brigade made a rustic church, laid out the race course, and made a wooden grandstand for the judges and honoured guests.  Meagher warned the junior officers and enlisted men not to stand underneath the grandstand during the festivities, by waving his dog whip and saying, “If that thing should ever collapse, you’d be crushed under four tons of major generals,” (Jones pg 122).

There was a huge military mass performed by the Irish Brigade’s chaplains, a steeplechase, enlisted men’s competitions and races and general Irish merriment.  The enlisted men’s races and competitions included, a half mile foot race; throwing 10lb and 14lb weights to see who could throw it the furthest; running after a soaped pig and whoever caught the pig could keep him; a half mile hurdle race; a blindfold wheelbarrow race; a 500 yard sack race; and a jig and reel competition to see who could dance the best.  All the races had cash prizes of between $3 and $7 for the winner and runner-up.  After the races there were several hours of singing and poem recitals and theatrical productions for all of the brigade and their guests to enjoy.

In March 1863 the Army Of The Potomac received their new Corps badges to identify them more easily on the battlefield.  The 1st Division of the II Corps, to which the Irish Brigade belonged, received a red trefoil.  This resembled a shamrock to many of the Irish Brigade’s men, many of whom placed a smaller green shamrock in the centre of their trefoils to extenuate their ‘Irish-ness’.

2nd Corps Badge
2nd Corps Badge

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By the end of the April 1863 the Army Of The Potomac was on the move as General Hooker, who had replaced Burnside as commander of the Army Of The Potomac after the ‘mud march,’ tried to out-flank the Confederates, and have them move out of their position around Fredericksburg.  On the 27th April the Irish Brigade led the II Corps up the northern banks of the Rappahannock.  The 69th New York and the 116th Pennsylvania continued towards Chancellorsville, whilst the 88th and 63rd New York guarded Bank’s Ford, and the 28th Massachusetts secured the road which the Army Of The Potomac was travelling on.  On the 30th April the Irish Brigade, altogether again, was deployed near Chancellorsville.

The Army Of The Potomac outnumbered the Confederates two to one, but General Hooker was not able to gain any advantage from this.  By the 2nd May the Brigade was deployed at Scott’s Mills, except the 88th New York who was left to guard the II Corps ammunition train.  At 8am on Sunday the 3rd May the Irish Brigade was ordered to the front.  Corby had just said performed a Sunday service, and in his sermon he simply said, “God bless and protect my men!” (Jones pg 129).  The 69th New York manoeuvring through the woods near Chancellorsville lost 10 men in a skirmish with the Rebels.  Shortly after, the 116th Pennsylvania saved the guns of the 5th Maine battery by dragging them three miles by hand.  The battle was a rout for the Army Of The Potomac, but the Irish Brigade served their commanders well once again.  Again they covered the retreat of the Army of the Potomac after it had been comprehensively beaten on the field.  On 4th May they re-crossed the Rappahannock back to their original position.

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After Chancellorsville the II Corps lost their commander, General Darius Couch, and he was replaced by General Hancock the former commander of the 1st Division II Corps.  Brigadier General John Caldwell took over from Hancock as the new commander of the 1st Division II Corps.

Sadly on 19th May the Irish Brigade lost their commanding officer.  Brigadier General Meagher resigned his commission due to the many refusals of his requests to take the Irish Brigade back north to recruit new soldiers to its ranks.  The day Meagher left the  Irish Brigade, the men were drawn up in a square surrounding Meagher, and he as eloquent as ever, reminisced over the past glories of the Brigade.  If the Irish Brigade had at been at its full strength he would have been facing almost four thousand men, as it was, only four hundred men said goodbye.  In his closing comments Meagher said, “My life has been a varied one, and I have passed through many distracting scenes.  But never has the river that flowed beside my cradle, never have the mountains that overlooked the paths of my childhood, never have the old walls that claimed the curiosity and research of maturer days, been effaced from my memory.  As at first – as in nature – the beautiful and glorious picture is indelible.  Not less vivid, not less uneffaceable, will be the recollection of my companionship with the Irish Brigade in the service of the United States.  The graves of many hundreds of brave and devoted soldiers, who went down to death with all the radiance and enthusiasm of the noblest chivalry, are so many guarantees and pledges that, as long as there remains one officer or soldier of the Irish Brigade, so long shall there be found for him, for his family and little ones, if any there be a devoted friend in Thomas Francis Meagher,” (Paul pg 132 & 134).  After concluding his farewell speech, Meagher shook the hands of ever officer and enlisted man in the Irish Brigade, and took his leave. 

Things were now so difficult in the Brigade that Lieutenant Colonel Mulholland, the commanding officer of the 116th Pennsylvania had to take a reduction in rank to Major.  The 69th along with the 88th and 63rd New York were all reduced to two companies each.  Each of the regiments were allowed one field officer and six company grade officers, all other officer commissions were discharged.  Colonel Patrick Kelly of the 88th New York now commanded the Irish Brigade.  

For the following month the Irish Brigade was on picket duty on the banks of the Rappahannock.

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On 14th June the Irish Brigade, along with the rest of the Army Of The Potomac moved north to find the Rebels who were marching steadily north through Virginia and into Maryland.  On the 28th June the Army Of The Potomac’s commander General Hooker was replaced by Major General George Gordon Meade.

On the 30th June the Irish Brigade held pay parade which allowed the stragglers to catch up, those that had fallen behind in the long hard fast marches trying to catch up with the Confederate army who were invading the North.

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On the 1st July 1863 the Irish Brigade marched on to Taneytown.  Hearing about the beginning of the battle of Gettysburg, which had begun that same day, General Hancock ordered the II Corps to march on to Gettysburg, so he could assume command until General Meade arrived.  The II Corps marched through the night of the 1st July until they where about 3 miles from the town.  The Irish Brigade and the rest of the 1st Division II Corps assumed position along the Taneytown Road, with the 1st Division’s left flank near Big Round Top.

On the 2nd July the Irish Brigade marched along the Taneytown Road until dawn.  The II Corps was deployed on the left of the I and IX Corps up on Cemetery Ridge.  The ground to the front of the 1st Division sloped away towards the Plum Run stream. Major General Daniel Sickles tried to improve his III Corps position, late in the day. He moved two of his Divisions forward towards the Emmitsburg Road.  The Confederates easily attached the Union left flank, which was made much easier thanks to General Sickles change in position.  Sickles’ III Corps was in serious trouble so General Hancock ordered part of the II Corps to help them.  The 1st Division II Corps was ordered forward to assist.  As the Irish Brigade prepared for battle, Father Corby stood on a large rock and performed an absolution of the Brigade’s troops.  Corby said, “Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat, et ego, auctoritate ipsius, vos absolvo ab omni vinculo, excommunicationis interdicti, in quantum possum et vos indigetis deinde geo absolvo vos, a pecatis vestris, in nomini Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen,” (Corby, pg 183).

Father Corby gives absolution to the Brigade

Father Corby gives absolution to the Brigade
Painting by Paul Wood

The Irish Brigade followed Colonel Cross’s Brigade south down Cemetery Ridge towards Little Round Top.  The 1st Division was ordered into Rose’s Wheatfield to try and bolster the III Corps line.  The Irish formed line in the wheat field angling westwards, and they advanced towards Stony Hill with the 116th Pennsylvania on the right with the 28th Massachusetts, 63rd New York, 69th New York and 88th New York on the left.  The Irish Brigade was now so small they could only occupy 150 yards of front, and they had no reserves.

The Irish Brigade marched into the woods at the end of the wheat field and moved up the hill, and before long they were only 30 yards away from General Kershaw’s South Carolinians who were hiding in the woods.  The Irish were up for a fight after the hard and devastating battles of the previous year, where many a good Irish soldier had lost his life.  The 7th South Carolina were the nearest regiment.  They had as many in their regiment as there were in the whole of the Irish Brigade.  After a few volleys, the Irish marched over the South Carolinians and took many prisoners.  Soon after this Irish Brigade victory,  the flanks of the 1st Division II Corps were under threat from brigades of Mississippians, Georgians and South Carolinians.  Consequently the 1st Division had to retreat from their position.  As a result the Irish retreated down Stony Hill, having to leave their dead and wounded behind.  During the retreat the Irish Brigade were caught in a deadly crossfire with the rest of the 1st Division, they incurred further casualties.  Once back to Federal lines the Irish Brigade were placed in reserve on Cemetery Ridge, approximately 200 yards from the coppice of trees which would be attacked by ‘Pickett’s Charge’ the following day.

On 1st July 1863 the 69th New York went into Gettysburg with 6 officers and 69 enlisted men out of the 107 on the current regimental roster.  By the 3rd July, 25 men had been killed, wounded or captured; a quarter of the regiment had been lost.  The equivalent of only half a company remained.

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On the 9th July the Irish Brigade marched through Fredrick, Maryland, and Antietam on the 10th July.  Later that evening they found Confederate forces at Jones Crossroads where the two forces skirmished.  After Gettysburg there was very little fighting in the Eastern Theatre as more emphasis was placed in the West.  Both Confederate and Union armies marched and counter-marched each other up and down northern Virginia, achieving very little.  On one occasion the soldiers of the Irish Brigade marched 76 miles in just 56 hours.  Both sides were licking their wounds and counting the cost of the Gettysburg campaign.  They consolidated what ground they had, and prepared for their next offensives.  The Irish Brigade along with the II Corps moved around northern Virginia, but had very little contact with the enemy.

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On the 9th November General Meagher visited his old command, apparently a few days of wild merriment occurred.  He was appearing on the lecture circuit giving talks about the war to interested parties.

Late in November 1863 the Army of the Potomac marched over the Rapidan River, trying to outflank Lee’s Army Of Northern Virginia.  These outflanking manoeuvres resulted in a drawn battle at Mine Run, where the Irish Brigade were not committed to the attack.  Shortly after the battle General Meade’s army crossed back over the Rapidan and went into winter quarters.  There the Irish Brigade were encamped just three miles away from Brandy Station, Virginia, at Stevensburg.

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