An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg


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Those who immigrate to the United States are called First Generation Americans. Their U.S.-born children are said to belong to the Second Generation. Sociologists recognize an intermediate group, children born in another country but who come here while still very young. Often called Generation 1.5, these young people are both fully American and entirely integrated into their ethnic communities. They are said to have their “feet in two worlds.”1

Patrick Henry O’Rorke, known to history as “Paddy O’Rorke,” had deep roots in his people’s diaspora. Born in Ireland 24 years before the Civil War, O’Rorke’s family moved first to Canada, and then, when he was six, they settled in Rochester New York in the city’s Irish ghetto known as “Dublin.” O’Rorke was a promising teenager and he was offered a scholarship to attend the University of Rochester, a Baptist school. From an ardently Catholic family, he turned the school down and worked as a stonemason. Soon after, he was selected to attend West Point, becoming the first Irish immigrant to be appointed to the Academy. O’Rorke graduated first in his class just as the Civil War broke out.2

ororke-west-pointPatrick O’Rorke at West Point.

O’Rorke displayed his young courage at the First Battle of Bull Run where the brand new lieutenant had his horse shot out from under him.  When a new regiment was organized in Rochester in the second year of the war, O’Rorke was offered its command. At 25 he became Colonel O’Rorke. The new regiment, the 140th New York, had strong Irish working class representation. Men from backgrounds like Col. O’Rorke’s made up a fifth of the regiment. German immigrants made up another fifth. In all, half of the regiment’s soldiers were born in another country. The regiment also had one Native American.3

One-in-ten of the regiment’s men were day laborers. One-in-twenty worked as boatmen on the Erie Canal that flowed through the city. Many of the native-born men were farmers from the rural districts of Western New York. There were no lawyers in the ranks but there was one professional dancer.4

On July 2, 1863, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee hoped to exploit his victory in the first day of fighting at Gettysburg by crushing the defeated Unionists on the hills south of that village. Most of Lee’s troops had already arrived on the field of battle, but the Union soldiers were not all up and they were coming up piecemeal. If Lee could attack the Union troops before they solidified their lines, he might be able to defeat the seven corps of the United States army one at a time. 5

The Confederate attack would open on the far left of the Union line. Lee’s most trusted general, James Longstreet, was to overrun what he believed to be an almost undefended hill at the very end of the Union defenses that was called Little Round Top.6

The scenes of the fighting on the left would soon be frozen in American memory as Devil’s Den, the Valley of Death, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard, but on that day they were just rises of land, scattered boulders, and farmers’ plantings. Because of an error by Union General Dan Sickles, a New York politician with no military training, the far left was isolated from the rest of the Union line, but it was not undefended. 7

A small brigade led by 26 year old Colonel Strong Vincent was establishing a thin defense of the strategic hill when the Confederate assault began.  Vincent would soon be mortally wounded, but his subordinates, including the college professor Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, would stubbornly defend Little Round Top. They repelled the initial Confederate attacks but they were running out of men, ammunition, and energy when a Union general on the hill saw new Confederate regiments moving around the right of Strong Vincent’s brigade.8

General Gouverneur Warren raced down the hill looking for reinforcements. The first regiment he met was the 140th New York which had orders to head away from Little Round Top. Warren found Colonel O’Rorke and begged him “Paddy give me a regiment.” O’Rorke had his orders, but he knew Warren and understood immediately what was on the line.9

O’Rorke did not hesitate. He resolved to lead his men to the very point of the new Confederate attack, a place where no Union troops stood. Warren’s aide, George Washington Roebling who would later build the Brooklyn Bridge, guided O’Rorke up the hill. His men, dressed in the baggy pants, red jackets, and fezs of North African zouaves, came up right behind him.10

little-round-top-map2Map showing Little Round Top

When they reached the crest of Little Round Top Col. O’Rorke waved his sword and shouted “Down this way boys.” Only 40 feet away from the Confederates, O’Rorke ordered his men to open fire. At that moment O’Rorke was hit in the neck by a Confederate bullet. He died instantly.11

Harry Pfantz, the Chief Historian of the National Park Service, wrote that “O’Rorke’s five hundred men tipped the scales heavily in the defenders’ favor.” The Irish colonel’s decision to break from his orders when an emergency erupted, his decisive lack of hesitation, and his quick ascent secured the hill that secured the whole Union battle line.12

The colonel’s death was felt throughout the regiment, especially among the immigrant soldiers who saw O’Rorke as a pathfinder for the rising generation of Irish Americans, men who could excel in learning and lead other men in action while maintaining their Irishness. Lieutenant Porter Farley wrote “Up until that time in my life I had never felt a grief so sharply…To me and all of us he had seemed so near the beau ideal of a soldier and a gentleman, all that he had been and the bright promise of what was to be was so fresh in our minds, and now, in an instant, the fatal bullet had cut short the chapter of that fair life.”13

paddy-orourke-gettysburgThe O’Rorke monument at Gettysburg.

It was not only his men who felt O’Rorke’s death. A year earlier he had married his childhood sweetheart Clara Bishop at the Catholic Church in the heart of Rochester’s Irish ghetto. When the young woman found out she was a childless widow she decided not to remarry. Instead she became a nun. Clara would educate thousands of young people throughout her career as a teacher and administrator, but her chance to have a child of her own died on that small mountain at Gettysburg.14

Clara-ORorkeClara Bishop O’Rorke in later life.

VIDEO: Gettysburg Guide describes the fighting at Little Round Top

Sources: [will be inserted July 30, 2013]
1. O’Rorke’s name is sometimes spelled “O’Rourke”.

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg


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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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