Gettysburg’s Forgotten Hero

by John Delach

Students of America’s Civil War battles know that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was the hero of the struggle for Little Round Top fought on the second day of this momentous battle. Chamberlain led his 20th Maine Infantry out of their lines and down eastern slope routing the charging 15th Alabama infantry to save the day. Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, he went on to survive the war, become governor of Maine, president of Bowdoin College and lived a full and public life passing in 1914 at the age of 85. Chamberlain’s fame was revived thanks to his portrayal by Ken Burns in his Civil War documentary.


Fate didn’t serve Patrick Henry O’Rorke nearly as well. O’Rorke wasn’t awarded the Medal of Honor and Ken Burns found no reason to include him in his documentary. Worse yet, he was cut down at his moment of triumph by a bullet through his throat. His widowed bride of less than a year, the former Clara Wadsworth Bishop, joined the Sisters of Charity in Providence, Rhode Island where she remained until her death in 1893.


Born in 1837 in the ancient town of Brefini, County Cavan, Ireland, O’Rorke’s parents brought him to America settling in Rochester, NY in 1842. In 1853 he was offered a full scholarship to the University of Rochester when only 16 but declined and took a job as a marble cutter to support his family when his father died. Four years later he was appointed to West Point and graduated first in his class in June of 1861.


Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineering, he served at the First Battle of Bull Run where his horse was killed from under him. That autumn he provided vital engineering service for the construction of the batteries on Jones and Tybee Islands, Georgia for the siege and bombardment of Fort Pulaski guarding Savannah harbor. O’Rorke was selected as one of the officers who received the Confederates surrender following the fort’s capture.


He returned to Rochester in the spring of 1862 where he married Clara on July 9th.


In September he offered his services to New York State and was commissioned as a colonel and commander of the 140th New York Infantry Regiment a unit comprised of Irishman and other volunteers from the Rochester area. “Although Colonel O’Rorke believed in strict discipline,’ one of his soldiers wrote that every man in the regiment ‘knew that in his colonel, as long as he did his duty, he had a friend.’ Another soldier described O’Rorke as the ‘ideal of a soldier and a gentleman.”


The 140th was present at the battles of Fredericksburg in December of 1862 and Chancellorsville in May of 1863 but they were held in reserve and didn’t see action.


O’Rorke’s regiment was part of the 3rd Brigade under the command of Brig. Gen. Stephen H. Weed which arrived at Gettysburg on the second day of fighting on July 2, 1863. Weed was ordered to bring his brigade up to the front and join General Daniel Sickles’ III Corps. As they approached the front lines the 140th last in formation encountered Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren who was desperately searching for units to prop up the meager forces holding Little Round Top. Wikipedia romantically states that Warren implored O’Rorke to disregard his instructions and said, “Never mind that, Paddy, bring them up double-quick and don’t stop for aligning. I’ll take responsibility.” Wikipedia’s version goes on to note that “O’Rorke caught up to his regimental colors and mounting a rock to urge on his men, was struck in the neck and fell dead.”


Both notations of what really transpired appear to be false. (Never trust Wikipedia!)


Warren did instruct O’Rorke to send his 526 strong regiment in the direction of the 16th Michigan that was failing under the intense pressure from the 4th and 5th Texas then preparing their third assault of the day. O’Rorke sent a messenger telling Weeks of his change in plans and “…ordered his men to move double-quick to the summit. Upon reaching the summit, the men did not have time to fix bayonets but rushed to support the 16th Michigan.”


This action was unorthodox and not to be found in any drill manual. Accomplishing this feat demonstrated the skill and discipline O’Rorke had instilled in his regiment. His men fired individually as they crested the summit. The Texans returned fire and O’Rorke fell dead. Several New Yorkers fired at this soldier and his body was found to have 17 bullet wounds.


Hand to hand fighting ensued as the Texans were driven from the western side of the hill at the same time Chamberlain was clearing the eastern side. Faced with these failures, Robert E. Lee ordered a general withdrawal and so ended the day’s battle.


“Patrick O’Rorke and the men of the 140th arrived at a critical moment to shore up the crumbling (Union) flank. Colonel O’Rorke may not deserve the title of the hero of Little Round Top, but his actions should earn him the recognition on a par with Chamberlain.”


In 1889, the state of New York erected a monument to the 140th on the western face of the hill featuring a brass relief bust of Patrick O’Rorke.


If you visit the battlefield be sure to make a stop on the western ridge of Little Round Top. O’Rorke’s aquiline nose is the most prominent feature on the monument and, in a curious twist of human irony, rubbing it is considered a good luck charm. As a result, his nose looks as if it had been polished that morning even though the rest of his bust and the stone is weathered and worn.


Perhaps fame comes in different disguises?