Pat O'Rourke at Gettysburg

Saving the Day on Little Round Top

Patrick Henry O'Rorke was born on 28th March 1836 in County Cavan, in the Province of Ulster, to Patrick and Mary McGuire O'Rorke. The O'Rorkes were among some 40,000 Irish who emigrated to America in 1837 ten years before the massive numbers fleeing the man-made famine. [For a picture of the Ireland of the 1830s and later in American, see Thomas Keneally. The Great Shame: and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.]

The O'Rorkes settled in Rochester, New York, where the Erie Canal crosses over the Genesee River , very near to Lake Ontario. The sixth of seven children, in working class circumstances in America, Paddy was able, by the force of his intellect and of his character, to secure an education, and become the first foreign-born Cadet to be appointed (knowingly - there is a question regarding Phil Sheridan’s actual place of birth) to the United States Military Academy at West Point. This O'Rorke of Breffny finished first in his class, the Second Class of that year, 1861, which graduated early because of the war.

[The last man in the class of which Paddy O'Rorke was valedictorian was also of Irish (and German) ancestry, although of American birth, George Armstrong Custer (1839 -1876), whose mother was born Maria Ward Kirkpatrick. Autie Custer would achieve a reputation as a leader of cavalry, which would parallel that of his Confederate Cavalier rival, James Ewell Brown ("JEB") Stuart (1835 - 1864), USMA 1854, whose Presbyterian family had left Derry in 1726 to escape religious persecution. The two would meet in a clash of cavalry during the Battle of Gettysburg on 3rd July 1863, which would be one of several actions that, had it gone the other way, would have changed the outcome of the battle, and possibly of subsequent history. (See Thom Hatch. Clashes of Cavalry: The Civil War Careers of George Armstrong Custer and Jeb Stuart. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2001.)]

After distinguished service as an Army Engineer, Paddy O'Rorke became the first member of his class to command an infantry regiment, the largely Irish and German 140th New York, his hometown regiment. He was selected over senior colonels for acting command of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, 5th Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac by "Fighting Joe" Hooker, who had replaced Ambrose Burnside after the disaster at Fredericksburg, 13th December 1862. Handling his brigade masterfully during the epic Chancellorsville campaign, O'Rorke would earn a brevet promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, Regular Army, for his "Gallant and meritorious services." During the reorganization which followed in June, command of the brigade went to Brigadier General Stephen Hinsdale Weed, who was senior to O'Rorke in the Regular US Army. O'Rorke resumed command of the 140th New York as the Army of the Potomac under its new commander, George G. Meade, began its march north into Pennsylvania in pursuit of Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in what would become the Gettysburg Campaign. (See Edwin Coddington. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Dayton: Morningside House, 1979, reprint ed.; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984.)

The motion picture "Gettysburg," based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, gives a dramatic account of how Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren, the Army's Chief Engineer, together with some signalmen on the crest of Little Round Top, spotted the movement of Confederate General James Longstreet's Corps, which threatened to turn the left flank of the Union Army, and rushed to find Union forces to secure Little Round Top against this move. The first he found was the brigade commanded by Strong Vincent, who took the initiative of posting his troops on the ridge of the southern slope, in front of the advancing Confederates. The gallant stand (on the extreme left of Vincent's Brigade), and bayonet counter-attack by Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine has passed into history and into legend as one of the most decisive actions of the war.

In 1997, during a staff ride from the Army War College (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) attended by Colonel Frank Riggio (former Commanding Officer of the active battalion of the 69th Regiment of New York, and a piper of Cork ancestry) and Captain Liam Murphy (an Honorary Member of the 69th Regiment, and a co-founder of the Irish Brigade Association), the class walked the ground defended by the 20th Maine, and then was conducted to the top of Little Round Top. It was then pointed out that while the 20th Maine was holding Vincent's left, two Texas regiments were on the verge of breaking through his right, where Vincent had been cut down while trying to rally his men. It was at this moment that Warren rushed down the north slope of Little Round Top and met O'Rorke and his 140th New York on the Wheatfield Road and demanded that he move his troops to the summit of Little Round Top.

O'Rorke, seeing that there was no time to clear the action with Weed, led his column up Little Round Top. On reaching the summit he assessed the situation, dismounted and drew his sword to lead the attack upon the advancing Confederates. Historian Brian Bennett in The Beau Ideal Of A Soldier And A Gentleman: The Life of Col. Patrick Henry O'Rorke From Ireland to Gettysburg (Wheatland, New York: Triphammer Publishing, 1996) cites O'Rorke's adjutant, Lieutenant Porter Farley, "His sword flashed from its scabbard into the sunlight," and O'Rorke commanded, "Down this way, boys!" running down to meet the advancing foe. As he neared the enemy, followed immediately by Companies A and G of the 140th New York, O'Rorke was shot through the neck (probably severing his spinal column) and fell at the head of his men, who continued the attack, just in time to save the right flank of Vincent's Brigade, the summit of Little Round Top, the left flank of the Army of the Potomac, and the day for the Union.

In the years after the great American Civil War, the survivors of both sides of its biggest, and perhaps most significant, battle, Gettysburg, returned to erect stone monuments to commemorate the time and the place of what they considered their finest hour. As you tour the battlefield it is as if the very stones speak to you. The monument of the 140th New York at Gettysburg is placed on the spot on top of Little Round Top where O'Rorke received his death wound. It was the "united wish" of the surviving members of the regiment that his likeness be included as part of the monument, which also bears the Maltese cross of the 5th Corps.

The Army War College professor remarked, when the class had reached the summit of Little Round Top, "If O'Rorke hadn't done what he did, when he did, it wouldn't have mattered what Chamberlain and the 20th Maine later did below." Brian Bennett points out that Colonel Harry J. Maihafer, a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, includes O'Rorke as one of only fourteen soldiers profiled in his book, Brave Decisions: Moral Courage from the Revolutionary War to Desert Storm (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 1995). The others are: Daniel Morgan, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, Henry Walker, Stonewall Jackson, John J. Pershing, Billy Mitchell, Matthew Ridgeway, Douglas MacArthur, Lucius Clay, William F. Dean, Maxwell Taylor, Alexander Haig and Norman Schwartzkopf. (See also: Oliver Norton. Attack and Defense of Little Round Top. New York: The Neal Publishing Company, 1913; reprint ed., Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Press, 1983, Bruce Catton. Glory Road. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953 and Brian A. Bennett. Sons of Old Monroe: A Regimental History of Patrick O'Rorke's 140th New York Volunteer Infantry. Dayton: Morningside House, Inc., 1992.)

The examples which the Army War College draws from the Battle of Gettysburg suggest that the margin of victory was the cumulative result of a lot of initiative shown by many individual Union Army officers, the failure of any one of whom might have spelt disaster. This includes, but is in no way limited to: John Reynolds' support of Buford's cavalry on July 1st; Patrick Kelly and the Irish Brigade's fight in the Wheatfield, which delayed Longstreet's advance on July 2nd; Dennis O'Kane and the 69th Pennsylvania; and Rorty's battery at the “High Watermark” of the Confederacy on Cemetery Ridge on July 3rd, the final phase of the battle. But none of these was any more essential to the cause of the United States than Paddy O'Rorke's leadership of the 140th New York into the bearna baoil on Little Round Top, 2nd July 1863. Brian Bennett cites Porter Farley's recollection of part of a poem by a member of the 5th New York Zouaves (Warren's old regiment) at the dedication of the Gouverneur Warren monument on Little Round Top:

"So rein to bit, and spur to side,
Fast down that slope you see him ride
In search of men.

Hope spurs him on, for at a glance
He sees a few tired troops advance
From out the glen.

I say a few, yes? All too few,
But brave and loyal, good and true,
And men of fate

To thus meet Warren, then and there,
Without a moment's time to spare,
Or all too late.

In voice with pent emotion thick,
He cried out, "Forward, double quick,
And do not stop."
"Colonel! Advance your whole command,
And do not halt them, till they stand
On that round top."

The brave O'Rorke stops not to ask
The reason for such a hurried task.
But, out of breath,
Leads quickly on his soldiers brave:
The pinnacle of fame to save
And reaches - death.
Colonel Patrick Henry O'Rourke lies in Rochester's Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, between his mother, Mary, and George Ryan, his successor as colonel of the 140th New York.

By Liam Murphy

Post Script by Charlie Laverty

In 1999 at Gettysburg’s High Water Mark of the Confederacy, during the Army College Staff Ride I was happy to outline the role of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry in repulsing Pickett’s charge and the subsequent law suit by the 69th against the veterans of the 71st Pennsylvania  seeking to prevent them from placing their monument IN the actual wall  as the 69th monument is placed in the actual wall  and instead requiring the 71st to position their monument several yards to the rear of the wall because that regiment flinched, retreating from its assigned position, unlike the embattled 69th Pennsylvania  led by Colonel Dennis O’Kane from Coleraine, Derry.

The displacement of the 71st thus exposed the right flank of the 69th, allowing many Confederates to rush in behind the Union lines and cause the 69th to fight in hand-to-hand battle to its rear as well as its front.  Just in the nick of time, other units were rushed in to fill that gap, including (if I am not mistaken) the 42nd NY (Tammany) Infantry in which a number of prominent Fenians served, including Captain Billy O’Shea, an old comrade of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. They were sworn into the Brotherhood together in Skibereen, Cork. See details in Chapter XXVI, Rossa’s Recollections, Self-Published, Mariner’s Harbor, NY, 1898. O’Shea’s brother (David?) was killed in the war about three weeks after Gettysburg, and Captain Billy O (as Rossa titled a poem in his honor) himself was killed one month later. O’Donovan Rossa (Recollections, page 383) says that the brother lies in Old Calvary Cemetery, Queens NY, where Captain Billy himself also rests.

We can’t discuss Fenians at Gettysburg without mention of Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth (from Fermoy, Cork) who led a brigade positioned immediately of the Webb’s brigade (of which the 69th Penna was part). With the death of Major General Michael Corcoran, commander of the Irish Legion, General Smyth assumed the leadership of the military wing of the Fenian Brotherhood. Sadly, however, Thomas Smyth was mortally wounded on the second last day of the war, in the Appomattox campaign. The Brotherhood thus sacrificed most of its senior leadership in America’s civil war, from James McKay Rorty and Corcoran to the O’Sheas, Thomas Smyth and others. Terribly hard blows from which the organization never recovered.

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