The Irishman Who Saved the Union

Today, on St. Patrick’s Day, we’re taking a look at Patrick Henry O’Rorke, an Irishman-turned-American who was warm and endearing—and unflappable and courageous.

Born in 1836 in Ireland, “Paddy” O’Rorke was of medium size, with black hair and freckles. His family settled in Rochester, New York, and as a young man, Patrick apprenticed as a marble cutter. However, a local congressman offered him an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point, knowing of the young man’s academic prowess. There, he studied alongside Alonzo Cushing, Charlie Hazlett, George Custer, John Pelham, James Dearing, Tom Rosser, and Hugh Kilpatrick—all of whom would, like O’Rorke, find their place in history in the Civil War.

One story from his West Point days shows a glimpse of O’Rorke’s character and personality. During artillery drill one day, the gun fired prematurely while O’Rorke still held the rammer. He was thrown to the ground, but fortunately his arms were not torn off by the accident. His instructor rushed over, asking if he was all right.

O’Rorke stood up and said, “I’ve lost my glove, sir.”

“Bother your glove!” the panicked instructor retorted. “Your arm, man? Is your arm all right?”

“Oh, yes sir,” O’Rorke replied. “There’s nothing wrong with my arm.”

When war came, O’Rorke served as a staff officer and an engineer, but in the summer of 1862, while he was in New York on leave (and getting married!), he learned that a local regiment was forming—the 140th New York. He requested a commission, and in September he received the colonelcy of the regiment. Serving in the brigade of Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the 140th New York had their first taste of battle in the terrible Union disaster at Fredericksburg that December. A few months later in May, Col. O’Rorke was placed in temporary command of the brigade when Warren was made acting chief topographical engineer of the Army of the Potomac.

On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, the 140th New York sat resting about half a mile from Little Round Top. Orders came for the brigade, under the command of Gen. Stephen Weed, to move to the aid of Sickles’ III Corps. But, as they passed the little rocky hill, who should gallop up to O’Rorke but their old commander, Gen. Warren!

“Paddy,” he called, “give me a regiment!” When O’Rorke asked where to go, Warren replied, “Take your command and secure the hill before the enemy reaches it; that position must not be lost.”

Sometimes in battle, an “acoustic shadow” would occur, which is an atmospheric condition that dampens sound. Strangely enough, it is possible to be unaware of serious fighting nearby, even just on the other side of the hill! On July 2, such a shadow seems to have occurred at Little Round Top. Warren seems unaware of Col. Vincent’s brigade on the hill, and as O’Rorke and the 140th climbed the slope, they did not load their rifles, unaware that the fighting was so close. As they reached the crest however, they could see the Confederates a mere forty feet away! There was no time to form into a traditional line of battle.

IMG_0353 cropDismounting and drawing his sword, O’Rorke shouted, “Down this way, boys!” and dashed down the slope. Companies A and G followed him, loading their rifles and forming a ragged line among the boulders on the right of the beleaguered 16th Michigan of Vincent’s brigade.

O’Rorke called out, “Here they are, men, commence firing!” His men fired and the Confederates replied with a withering volley. Col. O’Rorke fell with a bullet in his neck. He bled to death within minutes.

O’Rorke fell just as his men were entering the fray, but his regiment held their ground, saving Vincent’s right flank just as the 20th Maine on the left flank began their bayonet charge. O’Rorke could have refused Warren’s pleas, or sought approval of the change in plans from Weed or Sykes, the corps commander. He could have taken a few minutes to form his regiment in a proper line, to avoid the confusion of tumbling into line first-come-first-served fashion. But he knew what was needed and when. If he had delayed even a minute, Little Round Top would have been lost. What good would the 20th Maine’s charge have been, if the Confederates had overlapped and flanked the 16th Michigan, opening an easy route to the crest of the hill?

This weekend, as you enjoy the green beer, corned beef, and shamrocks, take a moment to raise a glass to Col. “Paddy” O’Rorke, an Irishman who helped save Little Round Top, the Union Army of the Potomac…and the nation!


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