The Mystery of the 69th Pennsylvania's Irish Flags

On the afternoon of July 3, 1863 Pickett's Virginians charged the Bloody Angle at the Gettysburg battlefield. This was the main confederate attack to crack  the Union line. Defending the left side of the Bloody Angle was the 69th Pennsylvania, a volunteer Irish regiment from Philadelphia, dubbed the "Gallant 69th" by General  Joseph Hooker for the regiment's work on the Virginia peninsula in 1862.

Captain Cowan was ordered to bring his New York artillery battery into the Bloody Angle. As Cowan and his men were gearing up, Cowan heard an Irish private named Billy Smith, nicknamed "the Wild Irishman"  exclaim as Smith lifted himself up in his stirrups, waving his whip with wild excitement, shouting "Hurrah for the 'ould flag." Smith had spotted the green Irish  flag  of the 69th Pennsylvania in the middle of the Blood Angle. 

Today on the 69th's monument (below-right),  the highest motif is a large Maid of Ireland (left). Was this the 'ould flag and what did the flag look like? 

Turning to Mc'Dermott's book he described the flag "painted with the Coat of Arms of Pennsylvania on the reverse side with three Irish symbols: the wolf, round tower and sunburst, on the obverse side" That settled that or did it? I could not ignore the large Maid of Ireland flag as the highest symbol on the monument. More research was on my plate.

Then another complication the 69th was a three year regiment and would surrender its flags before reorganizing as the 69th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. So there would be two sets of flags. Major Davis surrendered the first set of flags to Philadelphia about April 18-20,1864 .  There would be a second set of flags issued for the Veteran Volunteer regiment. Later a salient item appeared: Major, later Colonel Davis was an ardent Fenian, holding a Lt. Colonel's commission in the Fenian Brotherhood. Then it clicked----the sunburst on the flag! The sunburst was the universal symbol of Fenianism. Perhaps Davis used his influence to have the Sunburst placed on the second flag. McDermott was Davis' protégé and  McDermott was and a Fenian,too. If my theory were true, I would have to track down some description of the first flag.

In the Irish-American  of March 1, 1862, "Arangements are being made by the ladies of this city (Philly) to present the 69th Pennsylvania Regiment,Colonel Owen commanding, with a stand of Irish colors. The regiment has now been nearly in service and in all that time has carried their own National flag."

Irish-American newspaper April 22, 1862, "Their friends in this city (Philly) , being some of them our leading Irish-Americans , are about presenting them with a beautiful green flag trimmed in gold the old Irish Harp  representing upon one side 'Presented to the 69th Pennsylvania Regiment by their friends :"upon the reverse is the Coat of  Arms of the State."

In early May near Fortress Monroe, Virginia the flag was taken to the regiment and accepted by Colonel Owen with great ceremony.

Sadly to say, the regiment's Irish flags were stolen from Liberty Hall before 1870. However the first Irish flag waves over the battlefield at Gettysburg---no longer in silk----but in granite---on the 69th Pennsylvania's monument.

Top: Painting by Don Troiani (HistoricalArtPrints.com)

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Tags: American Civil War

Comment by Gerry Regan on April 25, 2014 at 10:44am

Mike, sorry, so what have you concluded -- the 69th's regimental bore a harp, as described in The Irish American, or sunburst, wolf and round tower? and if McDermott got that wrong, how credible is the rest of his book? What is the title of McDermott's work, BTW?

Comment by Michael H.J. Kane on April 25, 2014 at 12:01pm

I think McDermott just described the second flag. Remember he and Colonel Davis were both hopped up  Fenians in 1864. There were few Fenians in 1861 and the women in Philadelphia would think the Maid of Erin was more important. By the way Davis got McDermott his promotion to sergeant major and adjutant,


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Comment by Joe Gannon on April 25, 2014 at 5:53pm

Gerry, McDermott was a member of the regiment and wrote a brief history of it, apparently for the rededication of their Gettysburg monument in September 1889. You can read the full text of it here: https://archive.org/stream/briefhistoryof00mcde#page/n87/mode/2up

Comment by Michael H.J. Kane on April 25, 2014 at 10:13pm

Gerry, thanks for adding the photos. Technically I'm back in the smoke signal era.

Comment by Gerry Regan on April 26, 2014 at 12:54pm

Speaking of Bill Rose, fellows, can one of you invite Bill to join The Wild Geese, and The Blue, Gray and Green Group?

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