History of the 69th New York

by Claire Morris



During the winter the veteran soldiers of the Union armies were entitled to go home as their enlistment periods had come to an end, so the Federal Government began a campaign to retain their valuable services.  Despite the horrors of the battles of the American Civil War that the Irish Brigade had fought in, large numbers of the 28th Massachusetts, 63rd New York, 69th New York and 88th New York re-enlisted.  The 116th Pennsylvania had only been formed in 1862, so they had no opportunity to re-enlist as their terms of service ran for much longer.  Most of the men who re-enlisted wanted to see the war through to its conclusion, but the large bounties and long furloughs which were offered also helped to persuade them to stay.

The 116th Pennsylvania recruited six new companies and St Clair Mulholland was re-commissioned Colonel. The 28th Massachusetts had enlisted the services of 326 new recruits by May 1864.  The 69th New York raised a further four companies, the 63rd New York three companies and the 88th New York three companies.  The new recruits to the Irish Brigade had a huge incentive to join the ranks of ‘Union Blue.’  Many of the bounties offered to the volunteers were in excess of $700, which equated to ten years wages back in Ireland.

On the 16th January 1864 the Irish Brigade’s New York officers held a huge banquet for their enlisted men in Irving City Hall in New York City.  General Meagher was at the celebration where he stated that, “History has no power to bestow upon me any higher distinction than that I have been the General in command of the Irish Brigade,” and toasts for that evening included, “Memory shall remain for life as green in our souls as the emerald flag…” and, “The Irish Brigade, what there is left of it,” (Bilby pg 96).

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In March of 1864 the Irish Brigade celebrated in usual fashion their St Patrick’s Day, with mass, steeplechase and sack races.  At this time Major General George Gordon Meade was still commander of the Army Of The Potomac, and the newly promoted, Lieutenant General Ulysses S Grant was now the new commander of all the Union forces.

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Of the Irish Brigade’s new strength approximately 80% were new recruits, untried and untested.  The new recruits were drilled extensively by the veteran soldiers throughout April.  During this period of recruitment Colonel Byrnes of the 28th Massachusetts was in command of the Irish Brigade, but between February and May he returned to Boston to recruit more soldiers for the 28th Massachusetts.  Temporary command of the Irish Brigade was given to the former commander of the 1st Delaware, Colonel Thomas Smyth.  Colonel Byrnes then returned in May to retake command of the Irish Brigade.  The new recruits who joined the 69th New York, and the other regiments of the Irish Brigade were much, much younger than the mature men who had volunteered in 1861 and early 1862 to help preserve the Union.  On the whole it was bounties, not patriotism was now inducing the young men of the North to enlist in the ranks of the Union army.  The average age of the new recruits into the Irish Brigade was 18-20 years old.

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By the end of April 1864 the Irish Brigade under the temporary command of Colonel Thomas Smyth, was still labelled as the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division, which was commanded by Brigadier Francis C Barlow, in the II Corps of the Army Of The Potomac.

On 3rd May they left camp at Stevensburg, Virginia and crossed at Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan River.  By the afternoon of the 4th May the Irish Brigade had arrived at the Chancellorsville battlefield of the previous year.  That evening the Brigade camped at the ruins of Chancellor House.  On 5th May the Irish Brigade moved along the Catharpin Road and Brock Road into the Wilderness towards Todd’s Tavern.

Map of the Wilderness

Major General Gouvenor K Warren’s V Corps met the Rebels first during the morning of the 5th of May.  The Rebel forces counterattacked well and also fought against parts of the VI Corps and the II Corps on the Union’s left flank.  The 1st Division II Corps arrived at the battle site around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, along Brock Road, where the Irish Brigade quickly constructed some fortifications to protect themselves.  Shortly after 5pm the Irish Brigade and Colonel N A Miles’ Brigade moved towards the fighting.  The Irish Brigade sent the 28th Massachusetts out as skirmishers, as the rest of the Irish Brigade and Miles’ troops formed line and marched approximately 300 yards into the woods from the Brock Road.  The Irish Brigade met the troops of Brigadier General Lane’s North Carolinians.  The 28th Massachusetts fell back and joined the Irish Brigade’s battle line.  The Irish Brigade and Miles’ troops advanced and routed the North Carolinians and pushed them back through the dense undergrowth where another Confederate Brigade was waiting. Miles’ Brigade and the Irish Brigade fought hard for several hours as the darkness came, where they were later relieved.  The Irish Brigade moved back to their original position at the breastworks and fortifications and remained there in reserve.

The following morning saw the rest of Hancock’s II Corps attack the Rebel line, which was eventually driven back by Lieutenant General Longstreet’s Corps.  The II Corps retreated back to Brock Road.  At 4pm on 6th May Lee’s Confederates attacked the II Corps with thirteen brigades of Rebels.  The II Corps fought hard to fight off this attack, the Irish Brigade included.  General Hancock recalled after the battle that, “The Irish Brigade…behaved with great steadiness and gallantry,” (Bilby pg 105).

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General Grant moved the Union forces to Spotsylvania Courthouse, south east of the Wilderness.  But by the time the Union army had arrived, the Confederates were already well fortified and dug in.  The Irish Brigade reached Todd’s Tavern at 11am on the 8th May, after being one of the last brigades to leave the Wilderness battlefield. At Todd’s Tavern the Irish Brigade encountered Rebel forces and skirmished with them for a number of days until they reached Spotsylvania.

On 11th May, late at night, the whole of the II Corps marched across the enemy’s rear from right to left.  Grant wanted Hancock’s II Corps to attack ‘the Muleshoe’ on the Confederate line.  Just before the dawn on the 12th May the II Corps marched uphill towards the Rebel line to attack their fortified position.  The Irish Brigade where in the second line of 1st Division II Corps, but they ran to the front when the 1st Division found the Rebel abatis.  The Irish Brigade pulled down the fortifications and attacked the Confederate defenders.  The II Corps ran all over the Rebels of Major General Edward ‘Allegheny’ Johnson’s division and captured most of the soldiers, including Johnson who was reported to have been captured by an Irish Brigade private in his tent.


Another Rebel force had formed and attacked the II Corps.  This heavy fighting continued all day and all through the night of the 12th May until the Rebels retreated to their lines of reserves.  The Irish Brigade had again suffered high casualties at Spotsylvania’s ‘Bloody Angle,’ thankfully though it was not as many that had fallen against the Rebels at Antietam and Fredericksburg.  Between the 13th May and the 17th May the Irish Brigade were constantly skirmishing with the Rebels.  Here Colonel Richard Byrnes of the 28th Massachusetts returned to take command of the Irish Brigade again.  Colonel Smyth was then transferred to another brigade.

In the morning of the 18th May the II Corps again charged the Rebel entrenchments. Some of the Irish Brigade were killed when they were entangled in the abatis.  The Irish Brigade made it to the first line of Rebel rifle pits, but whilst trying to entice the soldiers to attack the second line of rifle pits, Captain Blake was shot and killed. Lieutenant R P King who had fought at Bull Run was shot in the throat and was mortally wounded.  

During the night the Irish Brigade left the Rebel position and retreated to the rear leaving the 116th Pennsylvania on picket duty.  The Irish Brigade, along with the rest of the II Corps suffered heavy casualties.  The constant use of the II Corps in the form of ‘Shock Troops,’ was taking its toll. 

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The Irish Brigade left the area on the 20th May and marched to Guiney’s Station via Milford on the Mat River.  The Irish Brigade were then ordered to the rear to act as a rear guard, and supply and ammunition escort for the II Corps.  The Army Of The Potomac moved steadily south, and the Irish Brigade crossed the North Anna River on 24th May 1864.  The Irish Brigade then re-crossed the North Anna River during the morning of the 25th May and spent almost two days destroying the rails of the Richmond & Fredericksburg railroad.  The Irish then marched to the Pamunkey River and crossed to the other side on a pontoon bridge.  Their march continued, and on the 29th May the Irish Brigade found themselves at Hazelbone’s Tavern near Gaines Mill. They then marched towards Totopotomay Creek where they met up with the rest of the II Corps.  The Irish Brigade constructed breastworks and deployed pickets who skirmished with the Rebel forces.

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On 1st June the II Corps marched towards the rest of the Army Of The Potomac who had been concentrating around Cold Harbor, Virginia, they arrived on 2nd July 1864. The Irish Brigade were positioned facing the Rebels with its right in the apple orchard, where the Irish Brigade received fire from Rebel snipers.  The following day the 3rd July, the II Corps was ordered to attack the Rebel lines with the VI and XVIII Corps.  The II Corps attacked to the left of the Rebel position, and the Irish Brigade were again in the second rank of the 1st Division’s battle line.  The battle went well at first with the 1st Division capturing a number of Rebel artillery pieces.  But then Colonel Byrnes was severely wounded in the attack, and he would die nine days later in the Armoury Square Hospital in Washington DC.  Despite not having the leadership of their commander, the Irish Brigade held the Rebel position until dark when they had to redeploy back to their original position.  The Irish Brigade had yet again lost a large number of men, killed and wounded.  Some veteran soldiers had cracked under the strain of their years of hard fighting, and a couple of them were given surgeon’s certificates to be discharged for sickness or disability.

Cold Harbor

The Irish Brigade had lost so many men again, they were a shadow of their former self.  The campaign of the preceding thirty days had taken its toll on the men, the constant fighting and marching, poor rations and lack of sleep was aggravating their situation.  In the battles and skirmishes of the Wilderness, Spotslyvania, North Anna, Pamunkey, Totopotomoy, and Cold Harbor, the Irish Brigade had lost nine hundred and seventy four men. 

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Since Colonel Byrnes had been mortally wounded, Colonel Patrick Kelly, of the 88th New York, who had been in command of the Irish Brigade as they marched towards Gettysburg, once again took command.  The Irish Brigade where encamped at Cold Harbour to the 12th June where they dug entrenchments around Cold Harbor, and skirmished with the Rebels whilst they were on picket duty.  During the night of the 12th June they marched away from Cold Harbor towards Petersburg.  The Irish Brigade crossed over the Chickahominy River on the 13th June, and then on to Wilcox’s Landing on the James River, where they built breastworks for protection.  A day later they crossed the James River at Windmill Point where the Irish Brigade camped on the south bank.  On the 15th they marched on to Petersburg and arrived there at midnight.  The Irish Brigade had out-marched their supplies and food, so they would have gone hungry except for the generosity of the coloured soldiers of Brigadier General Hink’s brigade who shared their rations with the Irish.

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On the 16th June the Irish Brigade attacked during the evening.  They attacked and captured a number of earthwork forts around Petersburg and held them until 9pm when they were relieved.  The Irish Brigade incurred yet more heavy casualties, and the Brigade’s commanding officer Colonel Patrick Kelly was killed in the fighting. He was a well liked man, “Strong old veteran soldiers wept like children, and wrung their hands in frenzy,” (Bilby pg 114).  Here Major Richard Moroney of the 69th New York took command of the Irish Brigade.  The Irish remained at Petersburg where they continued digging fortifications and skirmishing with the Rebels.

Col Patrick Kelly
Col Patrick Kelly

The Union army decided to extend their lines towards the Confederate right flank, where there were important rail and road communications.  The II Corps was to lead the manoeuvres.  On the 22nd June the rebels attacked the II Corps left flank along the Jerusalem Plank Road near to Johnston’s Farm.  The Irish Brigade suffered heavy losses once more.

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Due to the huge number of losses incurred over the last two or three months the Irish Brigade was broken up at the end of June, to consolidate brigade strengths within the II Corps.  The 69th, 63rd and 88th New York regiments remained together under the command of Major Moroney, with his second in command Major John W Byron. They were placed with six other 1st Division II Corps regiments from New York, under the label of “Consolidated Brigade”.  The 28th Massachusetts were sent to the 1st Brigade 2nd Division II Corps and the 116th Pennsylvania were sent to the 4th Brigade 2nd Division II Corps.  Both the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania were very sorry to leave their comrades of the Irish Brigade behind.

On the 26th July the new Consolidated Brigade crossed the James River and marched towards Richmond as a discretionary measure, as the rest of the Army Of The Potomac were about to blow the mine at Petersburg.  The Consolidated Brigade marched to Deep Bottom and arrived there at 4am on the 27th July.  A day later they supported the 1st Brigade 1st Division attack on the enemy lines.  The Consolidated Brigade left Deep Bottom on the 29th July heading towards Petersburg, where they arrived on the 30th July.  The Consolidated Brigade stayed at Petersburg until the 12th August, when for three days they marched to City Point Virginia, and by troop transports they were transported to Deep Bottom; after skirmishing with the Confederates they returned back to Petersburg.

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On the 22nd August 1864 the Consolidated Brigade marched with the rest of the II Corps to advance on the Rebel lines.  They marched down the Weldon Railroad, past Ream’s Station near Petersburg, destroying the railroad as they advanced.  When the Rebels moved to attack the Union troops, the II Corps retreated back to Ream’s Station where they entrenched themselves.  Moroney’s Consolidated Brigade lined up against the railroad, where they were under heavy enfilade fire from the Rebels.  The Consolidated Brigade held against a number of Rebel advances with the Irish taking several prisoners.  Sadly the rest of the Union line did not hold, and the Rebels eventually over ran the Irish lines.  A number of Irish troops were captured by the Rebels including Major Byron and Captain Maurice Wall of the 69th New York.  The 69th New York lost 6 officers and men wounded and 45 missing, most of whom were taken prisoner.  The whole II Corps suffered greatly, as they lost over 2000 men who the Rebels took prisoner.

During the following weeks after the battle of Ream’s Station, many of the wounded men returned to the ranks of the 69th, 63rd and 88th New York, they also received some new replacements.

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On the 4th September 1864 the 28th Massachusetts and General Meagher returned to visit the remnants of the Irish Brigade for the celebrations for the 4th anniversary of the formation of the Irish Brigade.  There was a high mass conducted by Father Ouellet and Father Corby.  The celebration then took place in Bowery hall, where many high ranking officers of the Army Of The Potomac attended, including General Meade and General Hancock.

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Replacements continued to arrive from New York and General Miles on the 22nd October 1864 asked for the Consolidated Brigade to be disbanded and the New York regiments returned to their original brigades.  On the 1st November the 69th, 63rd and 88th New York once more became the Irish Brigade, the 2nd Brigade 1st Division II Corps, with 856 enlisted men.  The 28th Massachusetts returned to the Irish Brigade’s folds a week later.  Colonel Robert Nugent of the 69th New York became the new commander of the Irish Brigade.  Colonel Nugent, when he took control of the Brigade stated that, “Never has a regimental colour of that organisation {The Irish Brigade} graced the halls of its enemies.  Let the spirit that animates the officers and men of the present be that which shall strive to emulate the deeds of the Old Brigade,” (Bilby pg 119).

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In the last three or four months of 1864 the Irish Brigade lost its veterans that had not re-enlisted, but they received new recruits from New York in the shape of volunteers, draftees and substitutes.  These new recruits had not received any training, and some of these new Irish Brigade soldiers were of very poor quality indeed.  In the last week of October 1864 the Irish Brigade were stationed on the trench lines around Petersburg.  On the 29th October the 88th New York raided the Rebel trenches.  The following night, the 30th October, the Rebels attacked the Irish Brigade line where the 69th New York where picketed.  Acting as picket relief, the Confederates infiltrated the 69th’s lines, which were manned by two officers, three sergeants who were acting Lieutenants and 230 men.  Of the 230 men in the regiment, 190 were new recruits from New York.  The 111th New York were directly next to the 69th New York.  The Rebels attacked the 69th and over-ran them, and the 111th New York.  The Confederate infiltrators took 246 men prisoner from the 111th New York, and 168 men from the 69th New York, including a Lieutenant and the three acting Lieutenants.

Lieutenant Murtha Murphy, a veteran, on the right wing ordered his men to fire which dispersed the Rebels.  A number of veterans from the 69th were captured in the shambles.  Quite a few of the new recruits from New York who deserted to the enemy revealed the positions of Union troops.  “General Miles, who had a good deal of respect for the Irish Brigade’s military skills, opined that, “The deserters from the Sixty Ninth New York were Rebels…” Some deserters were caught and suffered the ultimate punishment.  Among these was the 69th New York’s Private John Nicholas, a Canadian farmer who enlisted as a substitute for a New York draftee and joined the regiment in September 1864.  Recaptured following his desertion Nicholas was executed on March 10th, 1865,” (Bilby pg 121).

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The 7th New York Heavy Artillery, a very large regiment joined the Irish Brigade early in December 1864, and helped swell its ranks.  On the 7th December the Irish Brigade marched to Hatcher’s Run.  As the Union attacked the Rebel lines of communication, the Irish Brigade were sent out in support of the main forces.  After the attack the Irish Brigade returned to Petersburg and remained there in the trenches around the town for seven weeks.


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