James McKay Rorty (1837-1863)

James McKay Rorty was born in Donegal Town in Ireland on June 11, 1837.  He was the oldest of ten children born to Richard Rorty and his wife Catherine. As a young adult he witnessed the death, devastation and squalor caused by the contrived famine of the 1840’s. There is no evidence to suggest that he received any formal education, however, its evident from his writings and successful military career that he was highly intelligent, a keen student of history and a talented writer. Little else  is known of his early years in Ireland except, as some accounts suggest, that he worked in the family's dry goods business before emigrating to the U.S.  in 1857.

After arriving in U.S, he worked as a book canvasser, an occupation he described in a letter to his father as "crippling my intellect, and shattering my constitution".  After his carrier as a book canvasser ended he returned to the dry goods business before enlisting in the army. During this period he brought two of his siblings to the U.S  and by 1863 had brought the rest of his family along.

In 1859, Rorty signed on as a member of Captain Phelan's Company D, the "O'Mahony Guards," one of 40 independent companies comprising the Phoenix Brigade. Rorty soon make a name for himself in Fenian circles as a  writer and orator. Michael Cavanagh,  (a biographer of Thomas Francis Meagher) described Rorty as  "a well-educated, gentle, unassuming in manner, and gifted with a power of eloquence rarely vouchsafed to so young a man."

In April of 1861 at the onset of the Civil War, Rorty enlisted  in Company G  of the 69th New York State Militia, a regiment commanded by Colonel Michael Corcoran a founding member of the Fenian Brotherhood.  The 69th left Manhattan in late April for Washington DC.  By mid-July, after having spent several weeks constructing defensive fortification in Arlington, the 69th set forth to engage Confederate positions at Manassas in what was thought would be a decisive Union victory that would bring the war to a quick end. 

Instead of the anticipated easy victory Union forces were routed and  forced into a disorganized retreat back towards the Washington.  During the chaotic retreat, Rorty and many of his comrades were captured as was Colonel Michael Corcoran.  After two months in captivity he made a daring escape from a Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia with two comrades.  They all made good their escape by successfully reaching the Union lines.

Rorty returned to New York where he was officially mustered out of the 69th New York State Militia.  Succumbing to his parents wishes he promised not to re-enlist, however,  economic conditions and his penchant for army life led him to change his mind.   Seeking to justify his decision he wrote a letter to his father explaining his reasons for re-enlisting.  Below is an excerpt from that letter, which is now preserved in Rorty's military file in the National Archives in Washington DC:

"But apart from the motives of self interest, and the higher one of attachment to, and veneration for the Constitution, which urged me to defend it at all risks, there is another, and a deeper one still which weighed heavily with me, namely the hope that the military knowledge or skill which I may acquire might thereafter be turned to account in the sacred cause of my native land. I may state in this connection, that some time before the present unhappy war broke out, I joined the Phoenix Brigade, an organization of Irishmen similar in its objects to the United Irishmen of bygone days, and had the honor to gain through some essays I wrote and published in the organ of the brotherhood, the friendship and approval of that single-minded patriot John O'Mahony Esqr." (Leader of the Fenian Brotherhood, based in New York.)

In November of 1861 Rorty was commissioned a 2nd, in the newly formed 5th Regiment of the Irish Brigade by Thomas Francis Meagher. Shortly after receiving his commission Rorty was presented with a saber, sash and belt as a tribute by prewar comrades in the "O'Mahony Guards." In thanking his comrades Rorty stated:

"My political faith as an Irishman has only one article -- a firm belief in the future resurrection of Ireland. And whether death meets me, as I hope it will, on an Irish battlefield, or whether it overtakes me battling for freedom on the hot plains of the South, it will ever find me as firm in that faith as it finds the dying Christian in the faith of his own resurrection."

During the Peninsula Campaign Rorty served as Acting Ordnance Officer on the staff of General Richardson. When Richardson was fatally wounded during the Union assault on  the heavily defended  'Bloody Lane' at Antietam, Rorty was reassigned to the staff of Richardson's replacement, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock.  During the Marye's Heights assault at Fredericksburg Rorty was wounded in the arm and had his horse shot from under him. After recuperating from his injury he returned to his duties and was engaged in combat at Chancellorsville where he was singled out for praise for his "gallantry" by Hancock.  Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant.

During this period, Rorty maintained his association with the Fenian Brotherhood and served as Recording Secretary to one of the organization's military subgroups, the Potomac Circle. When James Stephens toured the U.S. during the civil war he met all the leading American Fenians.  Lieutenant James McKay Rorty, at the time, Secretary of the network of about 30 Fenian Circles (in effect, Companies), was viewed by Stephens as among the most promising of the leaders. These Circles, usually led by officers, were secretly organized in the two combatant forces, though mostly in the Union army and navy.

In May of 1863 he requested a short leave to return to New York to greet his parents who had arrived from Ireland. After returning to duty he was promoted to the rank of captain. 

On July 2nd the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, Rorty asked General Hancock to take a more active role in the fighting. Hancock acquiesced to his request and put him in command of Battery B, 1st New York light Artillery (once part of the Irish Brigade).  On July 3rd during the most critical and dramatic hour in American history, known to the world as 'Pickett's Charge' Rorty was mortally wounded while manning the last operable artillery piece in what was a four gun battery. 

Capt. P.J. Downing of the 42nd NY, who had witnessed Rorty's heroic final action wrote to Fenian chief John O'Mahony calling Rorty's death , " as severe a loss as Ireland has had in a long time."

Rorty was buried close to where he fell. A few weeks later Richard Rorty, James' brother, came to Gettysburg and returned his body to New York, where it was laid to rest among many other Irish heroes of the Civil War in Calvary Cemetery.

On May 29, 1993, one hundred and thirty years after his internment, the badly weathered headstone on Rorty's grave was replaced by the Donegal Association and the Irish Brigade Association of New York City with the headstone shown below.

Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


Footnote:

Unknown to each other, Captain Rorty and another Irish youth, 19-year-old Private Willie Mitchel son of the incomparable Irish patriot, John Mitchel, was killed while bearing the regimental flag of the historic 1st Virginia Infantry Regiment, Pickett's division, in the Confederate service. Considering the position of Rorty's guns just 150 yards directly opposite the Codori House where Private Mitchel fell mortally wounded, it is within reason to believe that the fatal explosive was fired from the single gun of Rorty's Battery still manned by Rorty himself.


Cemetery AND grave location

Name:      Calvary Cemetery                                                                PHONE NO.       (718) 786-8002

ADDRESS:    49-02 Laurel Hill Blvd,  Flushing, NY 11377

GRAVE LOCATION:      Plot: Section 5, Range 14, Plot U, Grave 9


  HEADSTONE

 

INSCRIPTION ON BACK OF HEADSTONE

CO., D. O'MAHONY'S GUARDS

PHOENIX BRIGADE

POTOMAC CIRCLE

FENIAN BROTHERHOOD


Back to Biographies                                                                                                                                   Posted 11/03/2007 --  Updated  12/12/2008