The students of Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia were gathered in the third-floor auditorium to honor “Our Soldier Dead.” It was Monday, May 29, 1911, Memorial Day. The school newspaper, The Purple and Gold, noted that three Union Army veterans — described only as Captain McGuigan, Private McCue, and Comrade Early — addressed the students on the origins of Memorial Day with Early stating that it “was instituted to commemorate and honor those heroes who died to save the Union.”
The veterans then vividly recalled for the students the Battle of Gettysburg, and Early described the now-famous incident in which Father William Corby, chaplain of the Irish Brigade, stood on a large boulder among the soldiers. “He gathered the troops around him and addressed them as follows: ‘Boys, you are going into a battle, and God only knows how many will return from it. Now, kneel down and I will give you absolution, and always remember, even when in the thickest of the fight, that the Catholic Church does not recognize a man who turns his back on the American flag.’ That same rock on which he stood has been preserved, and on it now stands a bronze statue of Father Corby.”
Within the archives of Roman Catholic High are many remarkable documents, such as the 1878 will of Thomas Cahill, which allocated the bulk of his estate for the establishment the first free Catholic high school in the country; the personal Civil War maps and records of original school trustee Col. Francis J. Crilly; and a 1940 letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt congratulating the Alumni Association on the school’s 50th anniversary. However, the article about the three veterans vividly describing Gettysburg is one of the most fascinating I’ve come across. The men were referred to as “three well known veterans of the G.A.R.” (Grand Army of the Republic), indicating that Philadelphians of that era were very much aware of the crucial role our city played in the Union victory, particularly the heroic exploits of a local Army regiment that was part of the Philadelphia Brigade.
The brigade was composed of the 69th, 71st, 72nd, and 106th Pennsylvania infantry regiments. Although most of the brigade were Philadelphians of Irish descent, the 69th was often referred to as the “Irish Regiment” as it was the only Pennsylvania regiment to carry a green Irish flag into battle. Unfortunately, this was during a time of great discrimination of the Irish in Philadelphia. Patrick Young, in his essay “The Irish Regiment That Ended Pickett’s Charge,” described the harsh scene at a city train station as the regiment prepared to board 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.’”
At Gettysburg, the commander of the 69th was Col. Dennis O’Kane, an Irish immigrant who had settled in Philadelphia. (He was also my great-great-great-grandfather’s brother.) Ironically, O’Kane had been court-martialed a few months before the battle for beating his commanding officer, Joshua Owen, after Owen directed lewd comments toward O’Kane’s wife. But at the trial, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock ruled in O’Kane’s favor.
Because the 69th had fought courageously at the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, the regiment was assigned the difficult task of defending a critical position at Gettysburg along Cemetery Ridge — the “Bloody Angle.”
As chronicled in Dennis O’Kane and the 69th Volunteers, by Walter Fox, on July 3, 1863, the third and final day of the battle, with the Confederate regiments closing on the 69th, O’Kane climbed upon a stone wall and faced his troops. “Men, the enemy is coming,” he said, “but hold your fire until you see the whites of their eyes. I know that you are as brave as any troops that you will face, but today you are fighting on the soil of your own state, so I expect you to do your duty to the utmost.”
The fighting that day was among the bloodiest in U.S. history. Although decimated by the Union artillery during their assault, the Confederate soldiers still breached the Union lines. The fighting was hand-to-hand, with bayonets, rifle-butts, and fists. But the Irishmen of the 69th stood their ground, beating the Confederates back until they retreated. During the battle, O’Kane was shot in the head, and succumbed to his injuries the following day. He is buried at Old Cathedral Cemetery in West Philadelphia and a monument to the 69th now stands at Gettysburg on the very spot where O’Kane was mortally wounded.
After the three Civil War veterans concluded their addresses to the Roman students that day in 1911, the Memorial Day hymn was sung by all. The students then closed the assembly with the singing of the school’s alma mater, the “Purple and Gold” — a tradition that continues to this day. Filled with a renewed patriotic spirit, the boys proudly sang in unison, their voices drifting out the open windows of the third-floor auditorium and down onto Broad Street below.
Eight years from that day, many of those young men would march up that same street as returning soldiers in a homecoming parade, after fighting in a conflict whose horrors far surpassed those of Gettysburg. And six of the boys who sang with them that day – Raymond Hummel, Louis McGinnis, Richard Currie, John Boyle, Francis Schommer, and Walter Wiegand – would give their lives in that war.