Col. Patrick O'Rorke: Gettysburg's famous Irish hero

Young Irishman played key role in pivotal battle.

VIENNA, Va.—One focal point of Gettysburg National Military Park is Little Round Top, the highest area around, and highly important to Civil War buffs and historians.

Colonel Patrick Henry O’Rorke monument

Monument to Col. Patrick Henry O’Rorke

The castle-like structure at the top is favored by children who like to climb, and adults who like to photograph it. At sunset, the site is breathtaking.

Adjacent to the structure is a beautiful granite monument to Col. Patrick Henry O’Rorke, one of the bravest of the brave men who died July 2, 1863. His monument seems to draw one to it. The bas relief bust that stares out of the monument is artfully made, and so many people reach out and rub the nose that it stays brightly polished. So this is the story of another Irishman. 

Patrick “Paddy” O’Rorke’s life is a story of success and honor, of a life cut down too soon. O’Rorke came to America at the age of 3 or 4 from County Cavan in Ireland and settled with his parents in Rochester, N.Y. His father died in a railroad accident when Paddy was young, and the family was almost destitute. Still, he was at the top of his public school class and received an appointment to West Point. 

O’Rorke graduated first in his West Point class (the second class of 1861) and received his commission in the Engineers Corps.

O’Rorke’s career seemed fraught with more danger than the usual. He took part in the First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run, where a bullet went straight through his coat, and his horse was shot out from under him.  

Following that battle, he was reassigned to engineering duties in Washington City, around which defenses were being set up. Fort Marcy, Fort Davis, Fort Stevens, Fort Washington—all were established to protect the federal capital. He also worked with the engineering staff for the Port Royal Expedition.

In March 1862, the portion of his military career for which he forever will be remembered began. Having been breveted a captain, he yearned to return to actual Army fighting life and was given command of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry, nicknamed the “Rochester Raiders.”  It was definitely more exciting than the life of an engineer for the 26-year-old O’Rorke.

During the Battle of Gettysburg, thought by most to be the high-water mark of the Confederacy, Little Round Top was a highly desirable goal; he who rules the high land usually has an easier time of it.  Due to a move against orders, Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles of the III Corps had left Little Round Top undefended. 

The chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, recognized the tactical importance of the hill and quickly sought Union troops to occupy it before the Confederates could. Brig. Gen. Stephen H. Weed was in command of the 3rd Brigade, which planned to take the top, and Gen. Warren was looking for additional units to defend the important  high ground.

O’Rorke was leading his men out the Wheatfield Road on that sunny July afternoon, when an excited officer rode up to him with a change in orders. O’Rorke and his men were, unfortunately, in the wrong place at the wrong time—his was the rearmost regiment in Gen. Weed’s brigade, and Brig. Gen. Warren decided to send the 140th up to Little Round Top. It seems that O’Rorke at first questioned Weed in that decision; he had been told to follow the brigade toward the Peach Orchard.

Warren countermanded that order, telling O’Rorke, “Never mind that, Paddy. Bring them up on the double-quick and don’t stop for aligning. I’ll take the responsibility [for the change in decision].”

That change in plans spelled the end for the indomitable Irishman.

Following orders, O’Rorke rushed his men down the Granite Schoolhouse Lane and up the north slope to the crest of the rocky hill where the 4th and 5th Texans were about to turn the flank of the 16th Michigan defenders.

If you have ever been there, Little Round Top is a tough hill to climb, full of rocks and crevices and sheer rock faces. Paddy’s last charge was no easy task.

O’Rorke came up to where his regimental colors were, and grabbing them in one hand and his sword in the  other, he jumped up on a large rock to be better seen and to encourage his men. “Here they are, men!”  he shouted, “Commence firing!”

They would be his last words—he was struck by a shell in one of the first volleys and fell, mortally wounded.

A testimony to the dedication and training of his men, they were able to hold the top and continue the charge down the slope, thus securing the hill and creating one of the turning points of the battle. O’Rorke was not the only casualty: 25 other men in the 140th were killed, 89 were wounded and 18 presumably were captured.

In 1889, the state of New York erected the castle-like monument to the 140th N.Y. Infantry on Little Round Top. On the western face of the hilltop is the monument to Paddy O’Rorke.  The fame and memory of this brave young Irishman have continued to the present—in 2004 the “Colonel Patrick O’Rorke Memorial Bridge” was opened in Rochester, spanning the Genessee River.  More than 35 of the colonel’s descendants were present for the dedication.

Today Patrick O’Rorke’s monument on Little Round Top is one of the most visited in the plethora of granite in Gettysburg National Park. Deservedly so.

For those of you in D.C. and Northern Virginia, Gettysburg is about 90 minutes away, maybe less. Drive there on a pretty Sunday, check out the Monocacy River view area on the way and read about the battle. Take as long as you want in Gettysburg; it’s worth it. On the way back, stop at Boyds Bear Country, especially if you have kids or are a grandparent, then top it all off with a good piece of pie at the Shamrock Restaurant on U.S. 15.

 ––

In the interest of full disclosure, I had an ancestor in the 140th on July 2, 1862. Aaron Banta was wounded in the charge, lived for about 10 days and then succumbed to his injuries. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery and no doubt was one of the ones buried by Elizabeth Thorn, the “Angel of Gettysburg.” I place a small American flag on his grave whenever we are there.


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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."

 

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