..sent "waves" across the grass field


by D. Scott Hartwig


D. Scott Hartwig is a 1978 graduate of the University of Wyoming. Hartwig studied Civil War history under E. B. "Pete" Long. He is a supervisory Park Ranger at Gettysburg NMP, where he has been employed since 1980. He has recently published a bibliography on the Maryland Campaign of 1862, and continues to work on a full study of that campaign.

Position of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry at "The Angle" July 3, 1863.

This is a study of the face of battle at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Its purpose is not to scrutinize generals or generalship, criticize strategy and tactics, or narrate the course of the battle on that day. Rather, the intent is to isolate one infantry regiment and examine its experience of battle on July 3, 1863, and thus learn something of the nature of the Battle of Gettysburg and how it was seen and felt by those who fought it.

The purpose in selecting an infantry regiment as the model of study is based upon the fact that infantry was the principal arm of mid-19th century armies; the clash of infantry was inevitably the decisive struggle in Civil War battles. I have selected to focus upon the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry principally because there is considerable documentary evidence concerning the regiment's experiences on July 3, and because the regiment was a typical line volunteer infantry regiment. I have not selected to study the 69th because I seek to champion their actions or to make a case that their courage alone turned the tide of battle. Neither do I intend to claim that their experience of battle was "typical" of all infantry battle at Gettysburg. I do claim, however, that many of their experiences (hunger, fatigue, fear, to name a few) were shared by all infantry combatants, whether Northern or Southern, throughout the three days of battle. Therefore, if we can gain some understanding of the nature of the battle, as experienced by the 69th Regiment, we can gain some insight into what it meant to face battle as an infantryman at Gettysburg.


When the first gray streaks of dawn touched the eastern sky on the morning of July 3, 1863, the 69th Pennsylvania counted 258 officers and men. Disease, desertions, detailed men, and battle casualties had trimmed their initial authorized strength of 1,048 down to this comparative handful of veterans.1 Their circumstances were not remarkable, for no veteran regiment in either army was kept up to strength due to the reasons stated, and because the Federal government, in particular, allowed its veteran regiments to decline in strength so that understrength regiments like the 69th were common in the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg.

These Pennsylvanians hailed principally from Philadelphia, and the roster was thick with Irish names. The regiment was drawn largely from the working class of that city-"hardy sons of toil; men who earned their bread by the sweat of their brows." This was true even of the officers. The regiment's colonel, Dennis O'Kane, was uneducated and employed in the restaurant and tavern business before the war. Capt. Patrick S. Tinen, a company commander in the regiment, was a machinist, paperhanger, and bartender in civilian life. Yet another company commander, Capt. George H. Thompson, was a coal-dealer before the war. The major, James Duffy, owned a hotel in Philadelphia. The lieutenant colonel, Martin Tschudy, a "prominant young lawer," may have been one of the few professional people in the regiment. Of the 19 other officers who stood with the regiment on July 3, we may safely presume that their background resembled Tinen's and Thompson's rather than Tschudy's. Eight of the 19 had been promoted from the ranks within the last month, a typical custom in volunteer regiments by this stage of the war. Because of this, and because there was little difference in the social backgrounds of the enlisted men and officers, the marked distinction between officers and enlisted men that would have been evident in a regular army unit probably did not exist in the 69th. The line officers, more often than not, were men who had proved their ability in the enlisted ranks on earlier battlefields and consequently would have exercised command through respect rather than rank. 2

Because of its largely Irish make-up, in the ethnically prejudiced Army of the Potomac, the regiment was often dubbed derisively "the Irish brigade," and was frequently the object of "hisses, derisive cries and shouts of contempt." When the regiment had marched off to war the men endured the humiliating experience of being treated to a shower of bricks and stones hurled by fellow Philadelphians as Irishmen marched through the "city of brotherly love." Such bigotry, at least in the Army of the Potomac, had been tempered by the courage and discipline these Irishmen had demonstrated upon the battlefield .3

The regiment was brigaded with three other Philadelphia regiments to form the Second Brigade, Second Division, 11 Corps. Its unofficial designation in the army was the "Philadelphia Brigade." The brigade commander was a 28 - year- old brigadier general named Alexander Webb, who had been assigned to command the brigade on June 30. He was without experience commanding troops in combat, having served on various staff s previous to his selection. Early on July 2, Webb had placed the 69th on the forward slope of Cemetery Ridge, nearly in the center of the hook-shaped front of the Army of the Potomac. The regiment's position remained unchanged when the dawn of the 3rd broke. The ten companies had assumed the cover of a low stone farm wall, which stood perhaps two feet tall. The left of the regiment rested upon a gap in the wall, left by the landowner to gain access to his fields. From this gap the regiment extended north along a front of perhaps 250 feet. Its right stopped approximately 40 paces from "the angle" in the stone wall, where the wall turned 90 degrees to the east for perhaps 50 yards. At this point the wall angled north again paralleling the crest of Cemetery Ridge.4

Several paces in the rear of the regiment's left center was a "cluster or rather several small clusters of trees," small oaks and brush. A second clump of trees mixed with some underbrush stood in rear of the right center of the regiment, about midway between the regiment's line of battle and crest of the ridge. Possibly because the trees in the larger clump crowded upon the center and left of the regiment, or because they obstructed the view of supporting artillery, details had cut down some of the growth. No effort was made to remove the cut trees and brush, and they were simply left where they were cut.5

In front of the regiment, the ground was in pasture and sloped gradually away to the Emmitsburg Road, some 250 yards distant. A small brush-covered knoll, approximately 100 yards opposite the left front of the 69th, offered one of the few topographical features in the landscape between the road and Cemetery Ridge. From this knoll a gentle ridge ran obliquely northeast towards the plateau where the right of the 69th rested. The right and left flanks of the regiment were supported by artillery. To the left rear, on the summit of the ridge, the remnants of Lt. T. Fred Brown's Battery B, 1st Rhode Island, were placed. Brown's battery had occupied the knoll in the 69th's front on July 2 where it supported. two 11 Corps regiments that had advanced to the Emmitsburg Road. The regiments had been overwhelmed by Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright's brigade of Georgians and Brown's guns had nearly been captured. Brown was wounded and lost 30 horses, but managed to extricate his guns with the help of the 69th and 71st Pennsylvania, whose rifle-muskets covered his retirement. Now, Lt. W. S. Perrin had command of the battery which mustered only four of its six Napoleons.6

In front of Perrin's guns and tying in with the 69th's left flank were four companies of the badly understrength 59th New York. It was the duty of the New Yorkers to defend the gap in the stone wall with the help of Perrin's Napoleons, and to cover the left flank of the 69th.7

On the morning of the 3rd, Webb advanced two companies of the 71st Pennsylvania to extend the right of the 69th to "the angle." One hundred and fifty feet to the rear of these two companies and the right companies of the 69th, the six three-inch rifles of Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing's Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, were positioned. To Cushing's right, Lt. William Arnold's Battery A, 1st Rhode Island, was stationed with the remaining eight companies of the 71st Pennsylvania. The 72nd Pennsylvania, Webb's strongest regiment, was held in reserve behind Cushing's guns, on the reverse slope of Cemetery Ridge.8

Despite their experience on other hard-fought fields the 69th expended scant energy upon improving their defenses. Some fence rails had been torn down and placed upon the stone wall when the regiment first took position on the morning of the 2nd, but nothing further had been attempted since. Even the difficult repulse of Wright's fierce attack on the evening of the 2nd, in which the regiment had lost 11 killed and 17 wounded, had failed to generate an effort to build upon the inadequate defenses, despite apparent instructions from brigade commander Webb to do so. No entrenching tools were available and this seems to have discouraged further efforts at improving defenses. However, this did not deter the men of Col. Norman J. Hall's brigade, on the 69th's left, which spent the night strengthening the position "as much as possible with rails, stones and earth thrown up with sticks and boards."9

The lack of effort devoted to improving the regiment's defenses, or to clear the cut brush and trees from the regiment's rear, was possibly attributable to the colonel. O'Kane either did not wish to press his already fatigued soldiers to work at the thin soil without entrenching tools or he adhered to a widely held belief that breastworks and entrenchments were uncourageous and made men cowardly. An officer in the 149th New York, which fought on Culp's Hill, related an example:

On arriving Gen. [John) Geary called a conference of his brigade commanders and, it was understood, submitted to them the question of building rifle-pits and expressed himself as adverse to the practice on the ground that it unfitted men for fighting without them. Gen. [George S.) Greene was credited with replying that the saving of life was of far more consequence to him than any theories as to breastworks, and so far as his men were concerned, they would have them if they had time to build them.10

Instead of improving defenses that might save lives on the 3rd, the regiment focused night time efforts upon securing additional firepower. Hundreds of discarded Confederate and Union rifle-muskets and smoothbore muskets, dropped by injured or captured combatants, were strewn about in the regiment's front. The regiment collected armfuls of these abandoned weapons and ammunition until, as Robert Whittick of Company E recalled, "each man had some six, or eight, or ten, or twelve, all laying aside of him." Much of the ammunition collected consisted of three buckshot and a ball, smoothbore ammunition, with a label indicating it had been manufactured in Birmingham, England. The men extracted the ball from the cartridges and reloaded the spare guns with 12 buckshot to a load.11

The regiment was deployed in a standard double line of battle, which would have covered a front of approximately 250 feet. The ten companies of the regiment were deployed from left to right, G, K, B, E, C (color company), H, D, F, A, and 1. Each company contained an average of two officers and 20 to 30 enlisted men. The company commanders, by the tactical manual, should have posted themselves in the extreme right front rank of their respective companies where they could look down their company front, direct its fire, and provide high-profile leadership. The manual, however, was not always adhered to and captains frequently positioned themselves in rear of their companies with their lieutenants and sergeants, who served as file closers. The duty of these men was to keep the firing line in proper order so the regiment delivered its maximum firepower. Lt. Charles Fuller of the 61st New York wrote that "in battle the tendency is almost universal for the men to work out of a good line into clumps. The men of natural daring will rather crowd to the front, and those cast in more timid or retiring molds will almost automatically edge back and slip in behind." The file closers were charged with preventing this by pushing men back to the firing line, moving men about to fill in gaps created by casualties, and by seeing to it that the men used their weapons effectively. Each man in a veteran regiment like the 69th could deliver a rate of two aimed rounds per minute, which meant the 69th would theoretically deliver approximately 500 rounds per minute into their front. But with their added firepower the regiment could have delivered a minimum of 700 rounds in a matter of seconds-many of which carried 12 buckshots-and nearly 1,000 rounds in a minute. And all of this massive firepower would be delivered into a front of no more than 250 feet, guaranteeing devastating casualties upon an enemy formation advancing over the open ground in the regiment's front.12

In addition to the company officers and file closers, the field officers, regimental adjutant, and sergeant-major distributed themselves along the rear of the regimental line. By the manual, each of these men had his specific position to occupy in action. Col. O'Kane positioned himself immediately in the rear of his regiment's center. Lieutenant Colonel Tschudy took his post in the vicinity of Co. F and Maj. James Duffy would have stood near the rear of Co. B. Each of these men ordinarily should have been mounted to see over the line of battle. But since no one in the 69th recalled any officers being mounted we must presume they were on foot. The duty of these officers was to see that the regiment was to see that the regiment was positioned to deliver its full firepower on the attack or the defense; to observe the movements of the enemy in order to maneuver the regiment to its best advantage, and, if necessary, to lend their presence to the battle. The adjuant, Lt. William Whildy, took his station with Co. I and the sergeant major stood with Co. G on the left flank. Not to be overlooked were the regimental colors. The 69th carried two colors, a state-issued National color and the green flag of Ireland in place of the blue infantry regimental color. The colors were positioned with Co. C. he flags represented the honor of the regiment, yet their purpose on the line of battle was more than symbolic. In the black powder combat of the 19th Century they communicated the position of the regiment through the smoke and confusion and helped to hold them together. If the regiment were jarred by the shock of battle the flags would serve as rallying points to reform the men.

This then was the arrangement of the 69th Pennsylvania in line of battle as it waited the battle on July 3.

The morning passed with the 69th playing the role of interested spectators. At earliest light cannonading shattered the stillness of the dawn as Union batteries on Powers Hill commenced shelling Confederate positions on Culp's Hill. Within the hour the roar of the guns was swelled by the crashing of heavy volleys of musketry as the infantry joined the struggle for the hill. The evening before the fighting in this sector had caused consternation in the ranks of the 69th, for the men were unaware that the Union front hooked around to the east. Brigade commander Web, who was probably just as ignorant of the army's general dispositions attempted to allay the fears of his men by spreading the false rumor that Maj. General George B. McClellan would arrive in Gettysburg in the Confederate rear the following afternoon with 30,000 men. Either because of Webb's story-telling or knowledge that powerful Union forces had been moved to confront the Confederates on Culp's Hill, the morning struggle for the hill did not elicit the concern of the evening before within the ranks. It may also have been that the regiment had diversions close at hand to absorb its attention.13

From first light the opposing skirmish lines and sharpshooters throughout the long front of both armies had been active. Skirmishing and sniping were particularly 'heavy in the disputed ground between Seminary and Cemetery ridges. The sound rose and fell, sputtered and raged intermittently throughout the morning. The farm of William Bliss, situated midway between the Emmitsburg Road and Seminary Ridge, became the focal point for some of the sharpest skirmishing. Confederate skirmishers and sharpshooters had found Bliss' stout farm house, barn, and out buildings to be excellent cover from which to harass the Cemetery Ridge defenders. Several efforts were made to dislodge these troublesome Butternuts, but each time they filtered back and reoccupied the farm. By 11 a.m. it was apparent the Confederates could not be permanently removed and the Federals dispatched a force that fought its way to the farm and torched several buildings.14

This sharp skirmishing was periodically underscored by fitful artillery exchanges between the ridges. At 7 a.m. Southern artillery on Seminary Ridge began shelling Zeigler's Grove, drawing a response from Woodruff's regular battery. The duel soon died out, but an hour later Confederate guns opened again, shifting their fire towards Arnold's and Cushing's batteries. A shell struck Cushing's number 2 limber. The explosion caused the contents of the number 1 and 3 limber. chests to go up in one conflagration. The concussion from this explosion was so great it hurled men in Arnold's nearby battery to the ground and shook the Rhode Islanders' horses for the rest of the day. The horses on Cushing's number 1 limber miraculously survived the explosion, but they bolted off in terror, leaping over the stone wall and galloping beyond into the Confederate lines.15

This was the closest shave with death or wounds the 69th experienced that long morning. Otherwise, they were simply bystanders to the killing and maiming that went on around them.

By 11 a.m. the sharp skirmishing between the ridges and struggle for Culp's Hill had subsided and the field lapsed into tense stillness. "Of that stillness you have often heard," wrote Anthony McDermott of Co. I, "no language of mine could cause you to imagine its reality, such a stillness I had never experienced before, nor since, and I have borne part in every engagement of the Army of the Potomac."16

The lull would have allowed members of the 69th to take some notice of their physical circumstances. The weather was oppressively hot. By 11 a.m. it was at least in the upper 80s, on its way to a high of 91 degrees. One veteran of the regiment recalled the "sun gave forth a heat almost stifling and not a breath of air came to cause the slightest quiver to the most delicate leaf or blade of grass." The heat would have advanced the decomposition of the bodies of dead men and animals who lay in front of the 69th's position. Wright's Georgia brigade had lost 183 men killed or mortally wounded in their assault on July 2 and many of these men, along with the dead horses of Brown's battery were scattered about in the field in front of the 69th's position. By late morning the nauseating smell of these decomposing bodies permeated the air.17

There was little the men could do about the stench of the dead. To bury them was to risk exposure to sharpshooters. But the men could do something about the intense sun. Shelters were raised by "sticking the muskets into the ground up to the shank of the bayonets, which were of course fixed, fastening the corners of a blanket between the triggers of two, the width of a blanket apart, and affixing the opposite corners of the blanket to the two ramrods stuck in the ground." Others took out their rubber groundcloths and fastened them on bayonets or sticks so that the green hills were splattered with white.18

Besides suffering from the oppressive heat, the regiment had been on the march for days, enduring both drenching rains and broiling heat with its accompanying suffocating dust that settled upon everyone. No one had had opportunity to bathe and lice probably infested everyone without regard to rank. Unless water was available most riflemen in the regiment probably still wore the grimy, sweaty residue of black powder on their hands and face from the fighting on July 2. By the morning of the 3rd, according to Lt. Frank Haskell of John Gibbon's staff, the infantry "looked like an army of rag-gatherers . . . for you know that rain and mud in conjunction have not had the effect to make them very clean, and the wear and teat of service have not left them entirely whole.19

The regiment had also been without food for nearly 48 hours. Anthony McDermott recalled the men ate a stew early on the 3rd, which might indicate some tent mates who shared some left-over food, or some resourceful veterans still had some rations on hand. But most members of the regiment went hungry. This shortage of food was prevalent throughout the 11 Corps, which had left supply and baggage wagons far in the rear during the forced march to Gettysburg. By the 3rd some of the supply wagons were making their appearance on the field and around 1 p.m. Cushing's battery was fortunate enough to draw rations. Joseph McKeever of Co. E was hungry enough to leave the ranks and walk over to the artillerymen to see if he could beg some food. He managed to get a box of hardtack which he dumped into the big Kossuth hat he wore. As he turned to go back to his regiment, the previously tranquil Confederate positions along Seminary Ridge suddenly erupted in artillery fire.20


The queer stillness that had descended upon the around 11 a.m. was shattered at 1 p.m. when the Confederate artillery bombardment commenced. The bombardment had several purposes. One was to disable the Union artillery, thereby crippling the arm with which the Federals could disrupt the Confederate assault formations at long range. Secondly, the shelling was intended to sew terror among the Union defenders, breaking down their will to resist. Lastly, it would inflict casualties in the Federals' ranks, creating disorder in their defense.

The 69th was in a particularly terrifying position because of the proximity of Brown's and Cushing's batteries. Not only did these guns draw a storm of Confederate artillery fire, but their counterbattery fire passed near, and in some companies, directly over the men's heads, sending repeated concussion waves through the ranks. Christopher Smith, a member of Cushing's battery, recalled that the concussion from his battery's guns sent "waves" across the grass field in front of the 69th "like gusts of wind." A member of the 149th Pennsylvania, who experienced this at another point on the line, recalled that the pressure and concussion from the battery firing 20 feet in his rear "was so great that the grass between and in front of our men flattened to the ground at every discharge.21

Deafening noise and choking clouds of black powder smoke would have added to the furious assault upon each man's senses. "Who can describe such a conflict as is raging around us?" wrote Lieutenant Haskell: "To say that it was like a summer storm, with the crash of thunder, the glare of lightning, the shrieking of the wind, and the clatter of hailstones, would be weak." Yet, despite the roar of exploding shells and firing cannons it was possible to pick up a multitude of distinctive sounds. Haskell wrote that

the projectiles shriek long and sharp, they hiss, they scream, they growl, they sputter. . . . The percussion shells would strike and thunder, and scatter the earth, and their whistling fragments, the Whitworth bolts, would pound, ricochet and bowl far away sputtering, with the sound of a mass of hot iron plunged into water; and the great solid shot would smite the unresisting earth with a sounding "thud," as the strong boxer crashes his iron fist into the jaw of an unguarded adversary.

It was also possible to see the incoming shells on occasion, as division command John Gibbon related:

The larger round shells could be seen plainly as in their nearly completed course they curved in their fall towards the Taneytown road, but the long rifled shells came with a rush and a scream and could only be seen in their rapid flight when they "upset" and went tumbling through the air, creating the uncomfortable impression that, no matter whether you were in front of the gun from which they came or not, you were liable to be hit.22

Few members of the 69th probably gazed upwards to observe the flight of shell and shot. "After the cannonading began, we were all hugging the earth and we would have liked to get into it if we could," stated Joseph McKeever of Co. E. Not only fear would have limited the men's view of the artillery duel. Even if they had looked up their vision would have been obscured by the clouds of thick smoke that blanketed the field. Christopher Smith of Cushing's battery wrote that "the smoke became so dense that we could see nothing on the other side of the valley. It was a bright day, but the sun through the smoke looked like a great red ball ... all around was a great cloud of smoke." General Gibbon recalled that "over all hung a heavy pall of smoke underneath which could be seen the rapidly moving legs of the men as they rushed to and from between the pieces and line of limbers, carrying forward the ammunition."23

Most of the Confederate artillery fire overshot the Federal infantry, but many shells found their mark within the Federal artillery. It was here that the most terrible slaughter took place, for artillery fire inflicted horrible wounds. In one instance a shell burst at the muzzle of one of Brown's Napoleons, killing two men, one of whom had the top left side of his head sheared off. The other unfortunate gunner had his left arm nearly severed. In Cushing's battery two shells burst almost simultaneously over open limber boxes, blowing both up "with an explosion that shook the ground, throwing fire and splinters and shells far into the air and all around, and destroying several men." That these men were "destroyed" and not merely killed implies their bodies were torn to pieces-virtually evaporated by the force of the explosion. If the smoke had permitted, many members of the 69th would have witnessed these or other dreadful scenes. Such sights were the means by which the bombardment was intended to spread terror through the defenders' ranks and break down the will to stand ground for the infantry assault.24

But the 69th and other infantry regiments extending to right and left were not seized with terror and did not bolt to the rear. They remained in position, hugging the ground. Why? What held them in position? That the men were frightened is unquestioned. Recall Joseph McKeever's statement that the men would have liked to climb into the earth. A sergeant of the 1st Minnesota, which endured the same fire the 69th was exposed to, wrote, "we had been badly scared many times before this but never quite so badly as then." Anthony McDermott wrote that although the fire was not destructive "the dread it occasioned, the range seemed so low and the air so thick with flying missiles, that we did not enjoy any space of relief from the dread of being ploughed into shreds." Yet the men remained .25

One explanation for why they did so is that to have risen from their scant cover to run for the rear was far more dangerous than staying put. It is also possible that the light casualties from the cannon fire gave the men increased confidence they would survive. Apparently only one man in the regiment, John Harvey, Jr., of Co. A was killed by shell fire. The number of wounded is not known - General Webb reported 50 casualties in the brigade - but since no one in the regiment spoke of cannonade casualties, they were probably slight. Light losses meant little disorder in the ranks.26

Good morale may also have been sustained by the fact that the 11 Corps artillery returned the Confederate fire throughout the cannonade. General Hancock believed that keeping his guns in the fight would keep up the courage of his infantry. Indeed, in making this decision Hancock defied Chief of Artillery Henry J. Hunt, who believed the artillery should cease fire to conserve its ammunition for the enemy infantry. Technically, Hunt was undoubtedly correct, but he ignored the psychological impact upon the infantry which would have had to endure the heavy shelling without the satisfaction of at least hearing its own guns firing back. "Every soldier knows how trying and demoralizing it is to endure artillery fire without reply," wrote Col. Francis Walker of Hancock's staff. Also not to be ignored was the morale effect of Hancock's artillerymen, who, despite fearful losses, courageously kept up the fight. The infantrymen, who at least enjoyed some cover, would have taken heart at the courage of the gunners who worked their pieces nakedly exposed to enemy fire. Thus the scenes of horror witnessed by the 69th in Brown's and Cushing's batteries, rather than sowing seeds of panic and despair in the regiment's ranks, may instead have emboldened the men by the very fact that the surviving gunners continued to work their pieces in spite of the terror that engulfed them.27

Staunch discipline also would have helped sustain the regiment. Colonel O'Kane had instilled strong discipline into the regiment during its training period in early 1862. That the regiment possessed excellent battle discipline is indicated by an incident related by Joseph McKeever of Co. E. McKeever was the hungry soldier who had begged some hardtack from Cushing's artillerymen moments before the cannonade commenced. When the Confederate guns opened up, McKeever ran down to the front, taking cover with the right of the regiment, probably with Co. A or 1. In spite of the heavy shell fire a member of his company rose from his cover, ran down the length of the regiment, found McKeever, and told him to return to his proper place in line, which McKeever obediently did. Fear of humiliation and disgrace may have also held men in line. Anthony McDermott wrote that O'Kane "above all despised a coward." Possibly O'Kane had instilled in his regiment the idea of running from danger was disgraceful and unthinkable.28


By 3 p.m. the artillery fire slackened and finally ceased altogether. Michael Fay of Co. A recalled the air was "black with smoke." But a slight breeze soon picked up from the southwest, dispersing the smoke and lifting it from the ridge. The regiment stood, no doubt as much to stretch limbs as to see what might be approaching. In the distance, visible through the murky atmosphere, long lines of Confederate infantry soon appeared, advancing to the attack. There were thousands of Confederate soldiers, more than any these Philadelphians had seen in battle array. Yet their appearance did not arouse a sense of dread within the regiment. "Their appearance was truly a relief from that terrible fire of their artillery," wrote Anthony McDermott. "It requires less nerve to face the enemy man to man, in open field, than to lie down supinely while he hurls his missiles," a captain in the eighth Maine related. "There may be less danger in the latter process, but testimony of all gives preference to the former."29

The advance of the Confederate infantry was measured and superbly disciplined. McDermott recalled "no holiday display seemed more imposing, nor troops on parade more regular, than this division of Pickett's Rebels, as they came steadily, arms at a trail." Indeed there was something about the spectacle of these thousands of fighting men advancing in beautiful order to the attack that aroused feelings of admiration and respect within the Federal defenders. It was a spectacle the like of which none of these men had ever seen.30

The lines of Confederate infantry continued to advance steadily despite a heavy artillery fire that pounded their every step and felled dozens. As the distance to the Federal line closed and the punishing artillery fire failed to check the advance, admiration and respect would have been replaced by uneasiness and fear. This beautifully disciplined advance of Lee's veterans was intended to strike fear into the hearts of defenders who had just been pounded for two hours by artillery. In ancient times, the measured, disciplined advance of the Spartan phalanx often frightened and broke their opponents before spears were even crossed. Gen. Robert E. Lee was calculating that the Federal soldier, so recently beaten at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and shaken by the first two days at Gettysburg, would lose their will to resist at the sight of this seemingly irresistible advance of his incomparable infantry.

In the 69th, Colonel O'Kane and brigade commander Webb sought to nerve their men for the inevitable clash. Brave words and appeals to the men's personal courage were spoken. O'Kane instructed his men not to fire until they "could distinguish the whites of their eyes," drawing from the immortal command to New England militiamen at Breed's Hill. He reminded the men that they were defending the soil of their native state and that they were as brave as the attacking enemy. If any man should flinch in his duties, "he asked that the man nearest him would kill him on the spot." Following his speech O'Kane passed along each of his companies, speaking words of encouragement and reassuring his men by his presence. Webb stood near the left of the regiment. Those who heard him recalled he told the men that if they behaved as well as they had on July 2 he would be satisfied. He added a caution not to fire until the enemy had crossed the Emmitsburg Road - a remark that O'Kane may not have heard. "These addresses were not necessary," wrote Private McDermott, "as I do not believe that there was a soldier in the Regt. that did not feet that he had more courage to meet the enemy at Gettysburg, than upon any field of battle in which we had as yet been engaged, stimulus being, the fact that we were upon the soil of our own State."31

When the Confederate infantry made its appearance, the surviving artillerymen of Cushing's battery, accompanied by their intrepid lieutenant, pushed two pieces of the battery forward with the assistance of volunteers from the 71st Pennsylvania. The guns came down into Co. I and the men were ordered to make openings to allow the guns room at the wall. By this time the Confederates were nearing the Emmitsburg Road, in canister range. Either because of the excitement or the inexperience of a crew composed largely of infantry, one of the two guns fired before all the members of Co. I were clear. The blast of canister blew the heads off Pvts. Christian Rohlfing and Edward Head .32

On the regiment's left rear, Brown's wrecked battery had been withdrawn and replaced by Capt. Andrew Cowan's 1st New York Independent Battery. Cowan unlimbered five guns behind Cos. B and K and the 59th New York. He engaged the enemy with shell, firing over the heads of the infantry.33

Now the Southern infantry had reached the Emmitsburg Road and was rolling over the fences or crowding through gaps. Men in the 69th had dropped to one knee in order to gain the cover their slight breastwork offered. The Southern brigades lost their formation in crossing the road and fences and pushed on "toward the crest, and merged into one crowding, rushing line, many ranks deep." As the Southern infantry cleared the road some "irregular, hesitating fire," broke out on the left of the 69th and soon increased to a disciplined file fire. The majority of the regiment, however, obeyed O'Kane's earlier orders to reserve fire until the enemy were close enough to see the white in their eyes. The reality of this order meant that the enemy would close to within speaking distance before fire would be delivered. Only the strictest fire discipline would enable such an order to be obeyed.34

Pickett's and Pettigrew's infantry broke into a double-quick as they cleared the Emmitsburg Road "without regard to alignment" and rushed the Federal line. Captain Cowan recalled that several hundred Virginians, presumably of Kemper's brigade, dropped down behind the brushy knoll in front of the 69th's left and "opened fire upon us ... .. But the large body of them, to their left, (Garnett's brigade) rushed in the direction of the angle," wrote the captain. According to John Buckley of Co. K, the Confederates approached to within 50 yards before the bulk of the regiment fired a general volley. "The slaughter was terrible," wrote Buckley. Private McDermott noted the volley "disordered and confused the enemy and forced him to halt." The frightfully exposed Confederates gamely stood their ground, despite the slaughter, and returned the 69th's fire while others pressed toward the angle.35

The press of Confederates surging towards the angle caused the two companies of the 71st to beat a retreat back to the main body of their regiment, leaving that sheltered position on the flank of the 69th in Southern hands. Cushing's two guns, after discharging several rounds of canister into the massed Confederate ranks, were abandoned, leaving Cushing dead by his pieces. On the left of the 69th, Cowan had changed to canister to counter the sharp musketry fire he was receiving from the knoll. The New Yorkers' fire proved to be equally deadly to the supporting infantry. Two privates in Co. G, James Coyle and James Clay, were both struck in the head and killed. Joseph McKeever of Co. E remembered that the fire also killed two men in Co. K. James Buckley of that company recalled that the canister discharges threw up stones, one of which struck him, raising a lump. Certainly others were wounded by this fire. Caught between two fires, a panic seized many of the men in front of Cowan's guns. A group jumped up and rushed through the clump of trees to the right, possibly in response to events to be described. However, "quite a number," wrote Cowan, "ran away through my guns." One was a captain, "with his sword tucked under his arm, running like a turkey." Although Cowan spoke contemptuously of these men, they had simply reached their breaking point under fire from two directions.36

The Confederates moved quickly to exploit the breaks on the flanks of the 69th. On the left, many Confederates rose up from the brushy knoll and rushed forward "with wild cheers" to envelop the left of the 69th and overrun Cowan's guns. It was at the angle, however, that the largest penetration was effected. Confederates of Garnett's brigade had seized the angle after its abandonment by the companies of the 71st. Confederates exchanged fire with the 71st and the 72nd Pennsylvania, which Webb had brought up to restore his line. Armistead's brigade was crowding its way to the front by this time, and Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead pushed his way up to the jumble of men at the angle. He was seen running to the wall by Anthony McDermott of Co. I, who noted that he ran the gauntlet of the company's fire to reach the angle.37

After what must have been but a momentary pause, Armistead crossed the wall with a group of infantry of various regiments, sweeping past the flank of Co. 1. Someone, either Colonel O'Kane, Lieutenant Colonel Tschudy, or General Webb - who had run down to the regiment- ordered the three right companies to change front to the rear in order to cover the right of the regiment and fire into the flank of Armistead's stalwart band. Cos. A and I quickly obeyed the order and fell back firing, "not in good order, but in some order," recalled McDermott. The captain of Co. F, George Thompson, was shot in the head before he could deliver the instructions to his company and was instantly killed. His company hugged the wall, unaware of their instructions, and a gap opened between their right and Co. A. Confederates at the wall quickly exploited this, rushing into the gap and running over the company. Every member of the company was killed, wounded, or seized as a prisoner.38

The moments it took to destroy Company F allowed Capt. Patrick Tinen to pull his Co. D back from the wall to face the Confederate rush that threatened to destroy the regiment. "The contest here became hand-to-hand," wrote Private McDermott. Men struck at each other with the barrels of their rifles and in rare instances clubbed their weapons and swung them at dodging heads. Cpl. Hugh Bradley of Tinen's company, who was known as "quite a savage sort of fellow," struck out on all sides with his musket clubbed until a Confederate crushed his skull with a musket. Bradley's was the only death in the regiment that any survivor of the 69th recalled was due to anything but musketry or artillery fire. Many men were struck by rifle barrels and butts, but few caused disabling injuries. This "hand-to-hand" struggle, seems not to fit the popular image of bayonets flashing (no one mentioned a bayonet being used), clubbed muskets swinging wildly, and men locked in a death grapple. It seems that men kept a firing grip on their weapons and simply used their rifle-musket barrels to strike at nearby enemy soldiers, or to parry blows, so that some of the "hand-to-hand" struggle may have resembled a stick fight.39

The most destructive agent in this close quarter engagement-indeed, the most destructive agent at all points of the fight that now raged along Cemetery Ridge-was musketry fire. The wounds the heavy lead missiles made when they struck the human body were frightful. At the range the fire was being exchanged in the angle fight, the wounds were frequently fatal. Lieutenant Colonel Tschudy, who may have pitched in with Co. D or F was shot through the bladder and killed. Sgt. Jeremiah Gallagher of Co. D was killed by a minis ball that passed through his intestines. Sgt. James Hand was shot through the lungs with a mortal wound, and Pvt. William Hayes was shot through the brain and killed. Four other members of the company were fatally wounded by minis balls and ten were wounded, leaving 17 men in the company down with fatal or disabling wounds.40

It was Co. D's momentary, but costly, stand "that saved the remainder of the regiment from being enveloped and possible capture." Alerted to the danger upon their flank, many of the men of other companies of the regiment gave back several feet from the wall. In rear of the center the standing and cut brush and trees in the "clump of trees" prevented the men from going any farther. "There was more danger tramping over the trees in the position we had there than if we stood still," testified Robert Whittick of Co. E. Order was lost in the movement and Cos. H, C, E, B and parts of K and G mingled in a mob of men held together by their colors.41

This movement from the wall caused the fire along the regiment's front to slacken, and the Confederates in that sector boldly pressed up to the wall. Some of these Virginians physically ran over the members of the 69th who remained at the wall; others demanded the surrender of these Federals. Only two men were seized as prisoners; the others fought on. Most of the Virginians who climbed over the wall were quickly shot. But the 69th lost a number of men who were shot lying behind their poorly constructed breastwork by Confederates who advanced up to the wall. This fighting at the wall and near the regiment's colors, around which the "mob" was assembled, "was more desperate than at any point of our line," recalled Anthony McDermott. Joseph McKeever, who was within the mob of men, stated later that "everybody was loading and firing as fast as they could," but the Confederates came in all around them. "How they fired without killing all our men I do not know," he testified. "We thought we were all gone." Colonel O'Kane fell at this point, shot through the chest or abdomen. He would die on July 5 from his wound. Major Duffy also fell, wounded through the thigh. His wound would plague him until he succumbed to its complications on June 16, 1869.42

Despite the loss of all the field officers-a loss which would have dissolved many volunteer regiments-and despite the sense of despair that gripped the men in the main body of the regiment, they fought on. What held them together? The colors were undoubtedly crucial in holding the men together after the fall of the field officers. Perhaps the courage of key company officers sustained the mens' courage and enabled them to fight on. But while these factors probably enabled the regiment to keep up the fight, it was the arrival of help that turned the tide. The 69th "never could have withstood all this force if it had not been for the shifting to our aid of Hall's men and the 72nd Penna to the crest of the ridge," wrote Anthony McDermott. The fire of the 72nd and 71st Pennsylvania, along with that of Cos. A and 1, created a crossfire that swept through Armistead and his followers. Armistead was struck twice and fell near one of Cushing's guns that sat back from the wall. This brave leader's fall caused the collapse of this Confederate penetration. The survivors of his group either ran back to the shelter of the wall or threw themselves down on the ground to avoid the enemy fire.43

A counterattack by the 19th Massachusetts and 42nd New York relieved the threat to the rear of the 69th. Other men from regiments in Hall's and Harrow's brigades and Col. Theodore Gates' demi-brigade of the I Corps, moved to join this movement. The fire of this force helped relieve the pressure on the 69th's left and front. Part of this jumble of men pressed their way through the "clump of trees," in rear of the "mob" of 69th companies, directing fire towards the angle. The others fought forward on the left of the regiment. Freed from the pressure upon the rear and left, and the Confederates in the front having to respond to the advance upon their right flank, the "mob" advanced back to the stone wall. Men from Cos. I and A had fought a separate battle, likewise advanced upon the wall.44

This general forward movement by the 69th and the other various Federal commands which had come to assist marked the collapse of Confederate resistance. Those Virginians who had not already retreated dropped their weapons in token of surrender. Many threw themselves upon the ground to avoid the fire of the Federals that was directed at some isolated pockets of resistance. But if we interpret the accounts of this stage of the battle correctly, the musketry fire ceased almost immediately after the general collapse of Confederate resistance. By the time most of the advancing Federal regiments made their way to the stone wall, the battle was over (despite the postwar claims of some regiments) .45


Following the cessation of fighting, many Federal soldiers made their way to the stone wall for no purpose other than to look upon the slaughter or seek trophies. A captain of the 19th Massachusetts recalled that "the men who went down there [to the angle) afterward seemed to be prompted more by a sense of curiosity than through any need of their presence there." The slaughter had been horrifying. General Webb counted 42 dead Confederates within the angle area. Many more lay along the stone wall and in the field beyond. John Buckley of Co. K wrote that "the slaughter was terrible, to which fact the ground [was) literally covered with the enemy's dead." Anthony McDermott remembered that as he advanced back to the stone wall he found the ground "covered with the dead and wounded of both sides." A member of the 13th Vermont, who looked upon this area, deemed it "the great slaughter pen on the field of Gettysburg ...... Five hundred and twenty- two dead Confederates would be buried in a mass grave in the field that extended from the angle area to the Emmitsburg Road; a ghastly and tragic confirmation to the Vermont soldier's statements.46

In the moments following the end of the fighting, the 69th was overwhelmed by the hundreds of prisoners they were suddenly confronted with and by their own heavy casualties. The prisoners were ordered to the rear, without escort, their capture to be claimed by other commands. The able-bodied survivors then turned their attention to seeking out dead and wounded comrades. The assault had cost the regiment 32 killed, 71 wounded, a number of whom were wounded mortally, and 18 captured. Most of these losses had been incurred in probably less than 10 minutes-from the moment the regiment loosed their first volley to the collapse of Confederate resistance.47

It is interesting to note that the 69th secured no trophies of war-no flags were "captured" by any members of the regiment and no Medals of Honor were earned. Considering the regiment was engulfed in the battle, this would seem curious. A number of fallen flags lay along the stone wall or within the angle after the fight ceased. "They were there for anyone who chose to gather them up after the fireing had ceased," wrote Anthony McDermott. Then why did men not pick them up as trophies of their victory? Part of the reason was the regiment's survivors were busy passing prisoners to the rear when many of the flags were picked up. McDermott recalled that while he was ordering Confederates to the rear, he saw a man with a 42 on his cap run past him and seize a large Confederate flag resting against the wall where McDermott's company had been in line. "I spoke to him at the time making some remark belittling his act," wrote McDermott; "I saw the figure 42 on his cap. I could have had that flag without any trouble and if I thought acts like that would have brought a medal, its more than likely I would have preferred the flag to the gathering up of prisoners." But the larger reason for the fact that the regiment secured no trophies, when they were readily available, was the casualties they had taken. Everyone knew someone who had been shot, and the able-bodied were searching for fallen comrades, not for battle trophies. McDermott stated that his overriding concern when he made his way back to the stone wall was "that one of my tent-mates had fallen and we were looking him up." The same was probably true throughout the regiment. The casualties of nearly 50 percent had overwhelmed the command.448

The regiment spent the remainder of the day and night dealing with the wreckage of battle. The wounded were assisted to the rear. The dead were buried. The Confederate wounded also received what attention and relief the regiment could offer. The majority of the killing and maiming had encompassed perhaps 15 short minutes, yet the attention to the regiment's dead and wounded, and the wounded of the enemy, went on for nearly eight hours, which can give us some inkling of the massiveness of the human carnage and suffering that engulfed the regiment after the shooting ended. Capt. William Davis of Co. K, who, as senior captain assumed command of the regiment, also put the men to work improving defenses. Such were the melancholy duties the 69th labored at for the remainder of July 3.49 The 69th's experience of battle on July 3 paralleled that of many infantry regiments at Gettysburg. Combat occupied but a brief period of the day (ammunition supply alone would limit how long a unit could remain in battle). It had been violent, chaotic, carried out at ranges closer than we would imagine rifled weapons to be engaged, and, consequently, did not last long before resistance on one side collapsed, since so many men would be shot. Infantry combat was a shockingly grim and bloody encounter. Anthony McDermott described it best, when, in speaking of the struggle at the angle and its aftermath, he stated, I know it struck horror to us all. 50