On 3 July 1863, as the Confederates of George Pickett’s Division closed on the stone wall near the top of Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, they saw a green flag rising up from behind it surrounded by 200 men in blue springing to their feet to open fire on the charging Confederates. The green battle flag was emblazoned with the number “69” but this was not New York’s Fighting 69th, it was the 69th Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia had been the scene of some of the worst Know Nothing attacks on the Irish in the years leading up to the Civil War. Antagonisms between the immigrants and the native born led some Irish to join militia companies to defend their community. The regiment that was to later be designated the 69th Pennsylvania was organised around one such Irish militia unit in the months after the attack on Fort Sumter. The regiment would draw most of its men from Philadelphia’s Irish ghettos, but it also included native-born Quakers and immigrant Jews in its ranks. The new regiment would incongruously be part of the California Brigade. The western state had agreed to financially support the brigade if it took the unusual name. The brigade would soon discard that designation and its four regiments would be called the Philadelphia Brigade.
The Philadelphia Brigade’s Irish unit adopted the name the 69th Pennsylvania in solidarity with the 69th New York. The Pennsylvania Irish may have felt closer to their New York cousins than they did to the native born in their own city’s other regiments. Filled with soldiers the city’s nativists did not consider fit for citizenship, the regiment got a different send off from the honorable parades organized for the other Philadelphia units.
When the 69th marched to the train station to head for Washington, a mob formed around the “Paddies in uniform.” One member of the regiment recalled that: “Hisses, derisive cries, and shouts of contempt were bestowed on us and on more than one occasion…bricks and stones fell thick and fast…as [we] marched through…the city of brotherly love.”
Over the next two years, the 69th developed a reputation as a fighting regiment. It became perhaps the toughest regiment in its brigade, but the brigade itself was sometimes the scene of conflict. In the seventy days before Gettysburg, an officer of the 69th was killed by an officer from another regiment and the brigade’s commanding general was replaced for discipline problems.
On the day before Pickett’s Charge, the 69th Pennsylvania was only just arriving at Gettysburg. The Union forces had suffered a serious defeat on July 1, but had fallen back to a fishhook-shaped line of hills and ridges south of town that formed a penetrable defensive wall. The 69th was sent to the very center of this wall.
On July 2, the Confederates attacked both flanks of the Union line, nearly capturing Little Round Top and occupying parts of Culp’s Hill. The 69th saw dangerous action at the end of the day, but after nightfall the men were able to shelter behind a low stone wall in front of a copse of trees on the ominously named Cemetery Ridge.
On the morning of July 3, the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee was preparing a massive frontal assault on the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Three large Confederate divisions were hidden in woods opposite the copse of trees where the 69th lay.
One Confederate division under General Isaac Trimble was made up almost entirely of North Carolinians. Alabamans, North Carolinians, and Mississippians filled James Pettigrew’s division. The Virginia division , under General George Pickett, was the largest of the three and it was aimed at the position of the 69th. Pickett’s 6,000 men were soon to spearhead the attack on a sector of the Union line with only 2,000 defenders, including the 69th.
While Pickett’s Charge would later be seen as a heroic but doomed attack, to the men in blue who were about to receive it the strike force looked like an army of death on the march. Because the low farmer’s wall the 69th was behind angled around the copse of trees and towards the Confederates, the 69th was actually in front of the main Union line. It would be here that the Confederate breakthrough would come.
The Angle, the Copse of Trees, and the Stone Wall would be immortalised in coming years as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. The 69th was to be at the very epicenter of the Confederate flood.