Neither of us has a drop of Celtic blood but the Irish Brigade monument near the Wheatfield in Gettysburg is a special place for me and my wife. One summer evening in July 2009 we were heading back to our hotel after a long day in the field when yours truly took a wrong turn. Completely lost, with the sun setting, we turned a corner where appeared the Irish Brigade monument, placed in tribute to the men of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York regiments on the 25th anniversary in 1888. The Irish had a complicated relationship with the Civil War. It was less than two weeks after Gettysburg that a predominantly Irish mob expressed their displeasure with the recent Enrollment Act by looting businesses and government offices, destroying millions of dollars in property, and killing dozens of mostly African-American citizens who they unfairly blamed for causing the war. There were Irish on both sides of the conflict and, ironically, this monument was built by an Irish Confederate soldier, William R. O’Donovan, who was with the Army of Northern Virginia and thus found himself at Gettysburg that July. For the most part the men of the Irish Brigade, and the Irish in general, fought well and honorably in the Civil War, whether at Fredericksburg, Antietam’s Bloody Lane, in the Wheatfield, during the siege of Petersburg, or the numerous other places they were engaged.
When we first traveled to Gettysburg we were not yet married and I don’t think my soon-to-be wife knew what to expect. We had walked Pickett’s Charge, done Culp’s Hill and the Round Tops, and seen the Peace Light Memorial. She had enjoyed it all, but nothing meant as much to her as this tribute to these brave men from the Empire State tucked away on a quiet road far from the crowds.