The 69th regiment was recruited mainly from men in the Philadelphia environs, and most of its recruits were Irishmen described as “robust and of fine physique.” In fact more than 220 of its members’ surnames began with “Mc” – or nearly a fifth of the entire regiment. The regiment’s first colonel, Joshua T. Owen, had commanded the 24th Pennsylvania as a three months regiment at the start of the war and was able to muster his new unit into federal service by August of 1861. He moved his new regiment, commonly called the “Irish Regiment,” to Washington where it was engaged in work on fortifications and routine duties. In February of 1862, the citizens of Philadelphia presented this band of Irishmen with their own green flag, which they would soon bear into battle.
Civil War recruiting was a local affair, and often desperate companies were raised with their own character and personality. Sometimes, just as in the militia of the several states, companies would find ways to make themselves distinct from the remainder of their regiments. Usually for Civil War volunteer companies this distinction was limited to a prideful company name such as the “Iron Guards” who were Company “A” of the Sixth Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry Regiment or the “Juniata Cavalry” or Company “A” of the First Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment. In the 69th Pennsylvania two companies shared the same name – “The Baker Guard Zouaves” – who were “two additional companies of Irish Zouaves” raised as flank companies for the regiment. Company “K” was raised in Philadelphia by Captain William Davis, who was reported to be formerly of the “gallant New York 69th,” and his new command was described in a Philadelphia newspaper as being “armed with the Enfield rifle with sword bayonets” and was to “act as skirmishers.” Further described as “a corps of gallant young men,” they were expected to live up to the “expectations” of their namesake, Colonel Edward D. Baker, Colonel of the 71st Pennsylvania and commander of the Philadelphia Brigade to which the 69th was assigned in October of that same year. The second company of zouaves, Company “I,” was formed originally from two independent companies, “Gillen’s Independent Zouaves” and the “Philadelphia Zouave Cadets” before being assigned to the 69th Regiment.
Several newspaper articles and later accounts specifically refer to the distinctive uniforms of these companies. The New York Tribune described their uniform as “a dark blue round-about trimmed with green,” an account most likely taken from an earlier Philadelphia newspaper description. The second flank company, Company “I” also received the green-trimmed zouave jackets described as like Baxter’s Zouaves’ jacket but with medium green trim and wore them with light blue vests and trousers which were tucked into white leggings. This uniform was approved for reissue by the federal quartermasters in April of 1862, when Lieutenant Colonel George H. Crossman, Deputy Quartermaster at Philadelphia approved the manufacture of 160 uniforms “of the same pattern” which were known by the manufacturing firms of Rock & Wilson and Jacob Reed. A surviving specimen in the Smithsonian verifies its design as being the same as worn by the 72nd and 95th Pennsylvania Regiments of zouaves except for having green trim rather than red.
Although Colonel Baker did not live long enough to know that their record of service would indeed meet his expectations, having been killed in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861, these Irish Zouaves did indeed exceed any expectations of 1861. Along with the other companies of the 69th Pennsylvania Regiment they fought in every major engagement of the Army of the Potomac from 1862 to the war’s end in 1865. At Gettysburg, where the 69th was crucial in the repulse of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, the regiment suffered 143 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Of this number six officers and 32 enlisted men died. By 1865 the “Irish Regiment” formed by Colonel Owen had suffered the loss of twelve officers and 166 enlisted killed or mortally wounded.