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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Colonel Dennis O’Kane

dennis-o-kaneColonel Dennis O’Kane, officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War, dies on July 4, 1863 of wounds sustained the previous day when fighting with the 69th Pennsylvania Irish Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Born in Coleraine, County Londonderry, O’Kane is a tavern owner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a member of the 2nd Pennsylvania Militia regiment prior to the Civil War. When the conflict starts, he helps recruit the 24th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a unit that has the 2nd Pennsylvania Militia as its nucleus. Commissioned Major, Field and Staff, on May 1, 1861, he is with his regiment as it serves first in Maryland and then Virginia before their enlistment expires in July 1861.

In August 1861 O’Kane joins with many of the men from the 24th Pennsylvania in re-enlisting to continue the war effort, and they form the basis of what becomes the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Commissioned Lieutenant Colonel, Field and Staff on August 19, 1861, his new regiment is composed largely of Irish immigrants like himself, and they emblazon the Irish harp on their flag. The unit eventually is joined with the 71st, 72nd and 106th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments to form the famous Philadelphia Brigade.

O’ Kane serves as second-in-command through 1862, participating in the Peninsular Campaign of May and June, the Second Battle of Bull Run in August, and the September 1862 Battle of Antietam, where his brigade is caught in the West Woods area and takes heavy losses. In November 1862, the 69th Pennsylvania’s commander, Colonel Joshua T. Owen, is promoted to Brigadier General, US Volunteers. O’Kane is advanced to Colonel on December 1, 1862 to fill the vacancy.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 14, 1862, O’Kane leads his men in the third of four waves of futile Union charges on strong Confederate positions at Marye’s Heights south of the town, and sees his regiment sustain fifty-one casualties. In May 1863 during the Battle of Chancellorsville, his brigade is held in reserve and sees limited action.

During the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, O’Kane finds the 69th Pennsylvania positioned along a rock fencing in the middle of the Union lines that becomes famous as “The Angle.” That position becomes the epicenter of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, the third day of the battle, as the remnants of the Confederate forces, having been much devastated from Union artillery fire, crash over the rock walls and engage the Philadelphia Brigade in brutal hand-to-hand fighting.

O’Kane is shot in the head at the wall and dies the following day. His regiment again takes high casualties but succeeds in helping to repulse the rebels and defeat the charge. The monument for the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry in Gettysburg National Military Park stands on the spot where O’Kane was mortally wounded.


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Pickett’s Charge

On July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as the sun rises behind the men of Colonel Dennis O’Kane’s Irish 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on Cemetery Ridge, the most famous assault of the American Civil War is being prepared across the mile of open field in front of them. The 69th Pennsylvania will be at the very vortex of that assault, now known to posterity as Pickett’s Charge.

Pickett’s Charge is an infantry assault ordered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee against Major General George G. Meade‘s Union positions on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Its futility is predicted by the charge’s commander, Lt. General James Longstreet, and it is arguably an avoidable mistake from which the Southern war effort never fully recovers militarily or psychologically. The farthest point reached by the attack has been referred to as the high-water mark of the Confederacy.  The charge is named after Maj. General George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who lead the assault under Longstreet.

Pickett’s charge is part of Lee’s “general plan” to take Cemetery Hill and the network of roads it commands. On the night of July 2, Meade correctly predicts at a council of war that Lee will attack the center of his lines the following morning.

At 1:00 PM on July 3, a massive artillery bombardment by the Confederate guns sails mostly over the heads of the 69th. The bombardment is meant to soften up the Union defense and silence its artillery, but is largely ineffective. About 3:00 PM the barrage slackens and the rebel infantrymen begin their assault. “And let your work this day be for victory or to the death,” Colonel Dennis O’Kane tells his men as the furious rebel onslaught approaches. Approximately 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades advance over open fields for three-quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire.

Soon the 69th is forced to refuse both flanks as the Confederate tide rolls up to them and laps around both sides. While many around them run, the 69th stands fast. Although some Confederates are able to breach the low stone wall that shields many of the Union defenders, they cannot maintain their hold and are repulsed with over 50% casualties. The regiment’s tenacious stand in front of the famous copse of trees is a pivotal part of the crucial Union victory and a decisive defeat for the Confederacy that ends the three-day battle and Lee’s campaign into Pennsylvania.

Good to his word, Colonel O’Kane is killed and, lying dead near the 69th’s position, wearing gray lay Pvt. Willie Mitchel of the 1st Virginia Infantry, son of Irish patriot John Mitchel. At the most crucial battle of America’s Civil War, Irish are killing Irish on a foreign field once again.

Years later, when asked why his charge at Gettysburg failed, Pickett replies, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”