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Irish Brigade monument at Gettysburg has York connection

Hundreds of thousands of visitors drive through Gettysburg National Military Park each year. Some come to honor their ancestors or to study the battle tactics. For others, the primary interest is the hundreds of stone and bronze monuments, vintage works of art, that dot the hallowed battlefield.

Among the most popular and most photographed artwork is the impressive monument to the three New York infantry regiments that belonged to the famed Irish Brigade, as well as the 14th New York Independent Battery of artillery. The Irish Brigade memorial is on Sickles Avenue south of Gettysburg in the Rose Woods. It marks one of the positions held by the Irish during the fighting on July 2, 1863, during the second day of the battle. The renown brigade, part of Hancock’s Second Corps, came into Gettysburg severely depleted from previous battles, illness, and the long campaigning. Under the command of Col. Patrick Kelly, the Irish Brigade was part Union reinforcements sent to stabilize the Wheatfield/Rose Farm area. half the men did not return.

The popular website Stone Sentinels succinctly describes the postwar monument to the New York Irishmen: “The monument is a Celtic cross supported by a granite base, standing 19’ 6” tall. It was sculpted by William R. O’Donovan, a former Confederate soldier who fought at Gettysburg. The front of the cross is an ornate bronze ornamented by a 2nd Corps trefoil, the numbers of the three New York regiments, the Seal of the State of New York, and a harp flanked by eagles. At the foot of the cross lies a life-sized Irish wolfhound, symbol of honor and fidelity. The monument was dedicated on July 2nd, 1888.”

Did you know William R. O’Donovan, the Irish Rebel soldier who sculpted this well-known monument, has a connection to York, Pennsylvania?

William O’Donovan’s monument to the Irish Brigade graced the cover of one of my books.


William O’Donovan was born in Preston County, Virginia in 1844. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the Confederate in the Staunton Artillery. The battery, under Capt. Asher W. Garber, served in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. When the Gettysburg Campaign commenced in early June 1863, the Staunton Artillery was one of four batteries that comprised Lt. Col. Hilary Pollard Jones’s artillery battalion. They reported to Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s division.

Early’s assignment during the early phases of the invasion of Pennsylvania was to march east from Fayetteville, PA, across South Mountain to York. There, he was to break up the Northern Central Railway, levy the town of 8,600 people for much-needed supplies and food, and proceed eastward to Wrightsville. Once there, he was to burn the long covered bridge over the Susquehanna River and then return to York. He was then to take his division north to Dillsburg to support the rest of the Second Corps which was threatening Harrisburg. The Rebels encountered state militia in and around Gettysburg and drove them off. The militia proved so “utterly inefficient” that Early decided to seize the bridge at Wrightsville, guarded by more of these untrained amateurs, he believed, and march into Harrisburg along the unguarded East Shore.

Jubal Early’s 7,000-man division arrived in York on Sunday, June 28, after the chief burgess and civic leaders surrendered the town to one of Early’s subordinates the previous afternoon. The Staunton Artillery, including young Pvt. William R. O’Donovan, deployed on Webb’s Hill (now known as Reservoir Hill) south of York. The artillerymen stayed there until early on the morning of Tuesday, June 30, when Early’s division, having received orders to concentrate at Heidlersburg with the rest of the corps, departed York. They fought at Gettysburg from July 1-3 before retreating into Virginia. O’Donovan’s military career ended with the surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

1893 photo taken on Webb’s Hill. Young Billy O’Donovan and the Staunton Artillery were posted on this hill during the Rebel occupation of York. They faced north toward York; this view looks to the southwest toward the open countryside where the Confederates raided farms for fresh horses. A pair of O’Donovan’s comrades in the battery likely took this road and headed south after they deserted.

After the war, O’Donovan became a well-known sculptor, with a studio in New York City for more than five decades. He married a New York woman and was a longstanding member of the Society of American Sculptors and the Architectural League. Known for his busts of prominent Americans (including Union General Daniel E. Sickles of Gettysburg fame), O’Donovan was also a talented painter and architect. He crafted statues of George Washington (for Caracas, Venezuela) and of Lincoln and Grant for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The ever-busy O’Donovan also created monuments from the Revolutionary War battle of Trenton and for the Peace at Newburgh. He also sculpted soldier statues for various town memorials.

But, perhaps, William O’Donovan’s most-beloved work of art is the Irish Brigade Monument, which was dedicated in a ceremony on the 25th anniversary of the Irish Brigade’s fight in the Rose Woods. The memorial is the only one for Union troops designed and sculpted by a Rebel soldier who fought at Gettysburg.

A Rebel with a wartime connection to York.

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