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A History of the 69th Pennsylvania "Irish Volunteers"
by Don Ernsberger
2004, Xlibris Corp.

Reviewed by Dave Walter

Scott Hartwig, the chief historian at Gettysburg NMP, calls this two volume work the most comprehensive regimental history he's ever seen.

The author, Don Ernsberger, a former high school and college instructor (whom, you might remember, spoke to the Brandywine Roundtable several years ago regarding the Great Charge at Gettysburg), has brought forth a five year labor of love for the lads of his favorite regiment. (Ernsberger is regimental historian for the 69th PA re-enactors.)

The 69th PA, fighting beneath their green flag with the gold harp, should be one of the most storied regiments in the Army of the Potomac. They were, of course, the regiment behind the wall at the copse of trees that stood up to Pickett's Division and prevented a major breakthrough of the Union lines. You've seen their monument and the chains marking their company positions. But you don't know them. Had they a publicist as motivated as Col. Joshua Chamberlain and Michael Shaara, they - and not the 20th Maine - might be remembered as the "saviors of Gettysburg."

Ernsberger has combed the National Archive's pension records and found information on at least 800 of the 3,000+ soldiers who served some time with the regiment. Perhaps they could have been more tightly edited for the books read as if every one of these letters is reproduced! But, by reproducing this many, the reader gets the full flavor of what it was like to be in a regiment under McClellan, Meade, and the other generals who came and went from the AOP. One sees how rumors spread through a whole army (e.g. that the Rebs have two regiments of Negroes in front of Yorktown that kill any Yankees who fall into their hands - this causes the lads to vow to kill all the blacks in Philadelphia when they return after the war), how they relaxed, and how they prepared their loved ones at home for the next action.

Raised from the Irish militia community, principally in Philadelphia but also from upstate and surrounding counties, the original 69th had its genesis in the 24th PA, a three month regiment that served under Gen. Patterson in the lower Shenandoah leading up to and through First Bull Run. From those mustered out, and newcomers, Joshua Owen, a Welsh lawyer and prominent Democrat, put together a regiment for the California Brigade of friend Sen. Edmund Baker of Oregon. {Whole story in and of itself.}

Their baptism of fire occurs, not from the Rebels, but from Phila. anti-Irish bigots who pelt them with trash and stones as they march down Broad St. to take the train to the front! This anti-Irish prejudice accompanies them for years, as the regiment gets accused of cowardice in actions where their conduct was exemplary. Col. Owen adopts the derisive "Paddy" Owen as a moniker of pride.

Held in reserve at Ball's Bluff, the 69th PA spends the winter guarding various fords on the Potomac downstream from Leesburg. Their letters home tell of pleasant exchanges with Reb pickets on the other shore. Several deserters from a Mississippi regiment come in, and turn out to be part of a contingent of pre-war Philadelphians who have been pressed into Confederate service.

The morale builds under McClellan, and it is off to Richmond to put short work to the rebellion. We all know how that turns out. The 69th fights at Fair Oaks, Savage Station, and blunts a drive by Gen. Lee that threatens to cut the Union retreat in half at Glendale.

On through Antietam and Fredericksburg the regiment fights. For every soldier killed or wounded in battle, several desert or die of disease. Skirmishes no one every heard of (until now) and simple duty on the picket line, carry off more soldiers than one would dream. From the pension records, Ernsberger has gleaned information on how and when each was wounded. It is surprising how many seemingly harmless wounds turn out to be mortal and how many serious wounds are survived.

Gettysburg and the fights on July 2nd and 3rd take their toll. The Mine Run campaign, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg all add to the 69th's butcher's bill. From Glendale to Appomattox, the 69th earns a sterling record on the battlefield. Of the original 1,000+ that marched off to war in 1861, only 56 answer the roll at Appomattox Courthouse.

The 69th was just like every other long-serving regiment, and yet it wasn't. It had a unique fighting spirit, perhaps driven by a desire to prove their largely Irish ranks were as good, if not better, than other soldiers. The famous New York "Irish Brigade" of Gen. Meagher got more attention, but the 69th PA was the heart, soul and muscle of Hancock's Second Corps "Philadelphia Brigade." With this book, the 69th PA Irish Volunteers should take their rightful place among the best and most important regiments of the Union Army.