ECW welcomes guest author John B. Haltigan
It is a remarkable irony of history that the most visited monument at Gettysburg that the monument to the New York regiments of the Irish Brigade was sculpted by a Confederate soldier who fought at Gettysburg. The monument, dedicated in 1888 and located on Sickles Avenue near where the Irish Brigade fought is adorned with the traditional Celtic cross on top of a shaft of polished granite commemorating the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York Volunteer Infantry regiments. At the base of the monument an Irish wolfhound, a traditional symbol of loyalty, honor, and fidelity, is depicted weeping for his fallen master.
The sculptor of the monument was William Rudolph O’Donovan, a Confederate soldier of Irish descent, who himself fought in the Battle of Gettysburg. He was born in 1844 and spent his childhood in Preston County, West Virginia east of Morgantown, which was then part of Virginia. When he was a young boy, his family moved to Carmichaels, Pennsylvania, near Uniontown, where he was apprenticed to a marble cutter. He soon left his family to seek work in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
In 1861 at the age of seventeen, O’Donovan enlisted in the Confederate army, serving with the Army of Northern Virginia throughout the war with the Staunton Virginia Artillery until the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox. He was wounded at the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862, where the Irish Brigade was also heavily engaged.
One year later on July 1, 1863, in the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg, O’Donovan manned one of the four Napoleon guns of Captain Asher Garber’s Battery near present day Jones Avenue, northeast of Gettysburg, as part of H.P. Jones Battalion of General Jubal Early’s Division and General Ewell’s Corps. His battery fired on Union troops retreating east from Seminary Ridge and was held in reserve for the final two days of the battle.
After the war, O’Donovan (a self-taught artist) went to New York City to seek a career in the arts. He found work in the National Fine Arts Foundry owned by Maurice Power. The foundry made three-dimensional figures and bas-relief tablets later cast in bronze. Power was the contractor who furnished American Revolution and Civil War sculptural monuments to civic commissions to memorialize historical events and mark hallowed sites. American architect John H. Duncan, who also worked with Power’s Fine Arts Foundry, was the designer of the Celtic Cross monument.
One Irish Brigade veteran wrote of O’Donovan, “It is not generally known that he is an ex-Rebel, but so it was, and so often opposed to the Second Corps in which the Irish Brigade served from the first, that his election of the old Celtic emblem (the Celtic cross) was intended as a compliment, and his selection as the artist for the monument was a remarkable coincidence.”
O’Donovan worked for the foundry until the end of the century. Some of his other famous works include a statue of Archbishop John Hughes at Fordham University, the statue of George Washington at the Trenton, N.J. battlefield, and a Confederate Memorial Monument in Wilmington, North Carolina. He died in New York City in 1920 at age 76.
It should be noted that at the base of the Celtic cross monument O’Donovan sculptured bas-relief bronze depictions of artillery soldiers loading and preparing to fire their cannon, something that O’Donovan was part of on the Confederate side. The right base of the monument honors Captain James Rorty and the men of the 14th New York Independent Battery Light Artillery who were killed at the bloody angle during Pickett’s Charge. The battery had mustered in with the Irish Brigade but was detached and fought at Gettysburg consolidated with battery B of the 1st New York Light Artillery.
Letters of William Rudolph O’Donovan 1860-1920, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga. Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg Vol. 2, Albany, N.Y. 1900.
Kelly’s Heroes, The Irish Brigade at Gettysburg, T.L. Murphy, Farnsworth House Military Impressions, Gettysburg, PA. 1997.
Trenton Times Newspaper, Trenton, New Jersey, April 21, 1920
Gettysburg Daily Blog – September 9, 2008