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"Paddy" to the Rescue: Patrick O’Rorke and the 140th New York at Gettysburg

The fate of the Union hung in the balance as the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia locked horns on the fields around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 2, 1863. Late in the afternoon of that brutally hot day, the extreme left flank of the Union line on 650-foot-high Little Round Top was on the verge of collapse. With the soldiers of the 16th Michigan crumbling before them, hard-charging Texans and Alabamians pushed past their exhaustion and rushed up the boulder-strewn hillside to complete their conquest of the key to the entire Federal position at Gettysburg. As Union Colonel Strong Vincent watched his line unraveling, he desperately tried to rally the Wolverines until he was cut down by Rebel gunfire and mortally wounded. Just when the 16th Michigan was about to break, however, a hero in blue led his men into the breach to save the day.

Desperate to find and send reinforcements to the ferociously unfolding battle for Little Round Top, Union Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren had previously come in contact with Colonel Patrick Henry O’Rorke at the head of the 140th New York and called upon him to lead his troops to the threatened point. In what was to be his first serious action of the war, O’Rorke did not hesitate and led his men to the sound of the guns.

Born in County Cavan, Ireland on March 25, 1837, O’Rorke’s family emigrated to the United States when he was only a year old. An 1861 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, O’Rorke went on to rank number one in the Academy’s first Civil War graduating class and was also the first Irish immigrant to graduate from West Point. Know as “Paddy” to his fellow cadets, one upperclassman remembered him as “popular with all . . . I was impressed by his manly bearing – his kindness and unassuming manner.”

O’Rorke as the first Irish immigrant to be accepted at West Point. (Photo Credit: Ancient Order of Hibernians)

After O’Rorke led his men up the rocky east slope of Little Round Top and saw the desperation faced by the 16th Michigan, he dismounted off his horse, waved his sword, and shouted, “Down this way boys!” Dashing headlong into the mayhem, he led his soldiers forward, blunting the Rebel advance at the supreme moment of crisis. “It was about this time,” wrote Sergeant James Campbell, “that Col. O’Rorke, cheering on his men and acting as he always does, like a brave and good man, fell, pierced through the neck by a Rebel bullet.”

With their leader down and facing withering enemy fire, O’Rorke’s troops carried on the fight. In their fury, the soldiers of the 140th New York focused their attention on O’Rorke’s killer, ensuring it “was Johnny’s last shot,” and supposedly hitting the Rebel 17 times.

Colonel O’Rorke and the 140th New York’s timely arrival helped save the Union at Little Round Top. Their firepower finally forced the Confederates to fall back, but the cost was heavy. In a short span of fighting, O’Rorke and nearly a quarter of his men became casualties. Their sacrifices were not only pivotal to safeguarding the extreme left flank of the Federal line on July 2, but also contributed to the Union’s ultimate victory at Gettysburg after repulsing Pickett’s Charge the following day.

A bas relief of Colonel O'Rorke on the monument to the 140th New York atop Little Round Top at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)

Patrick O’Rorke was only 26 years old at the time of his death. He will always be remembered as one of the great heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg.


Ancient Order of Hibernians: Patrick O'Rorke, a Forgotten Hero of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears.

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