A Leader's Meteoric Rise Annalee River, Butlersbridge, County Cavan, Ireland. Wikimedia Commons.
Patrick Henry O’Rorke Junior was born on March 28, 1836 in County Cavan, Ireland. His family left the Emerald Isle the following year, and Patrick largely grew up in the “Little Dublin” neighborhood of Rochester, New York. While anti-Irish sentiments held widespread sway in the United States at that time, Rochester was a rather accepting city with a large Irish population. The young O’Rorke played sports and sang in the church choir, while also excelling as a student at his district’s school Number Nine despite his father’s death in 1850. He performed so well that he took the scholarship examination for the University of Rochester, likely in 1852, and passed it. However, he turned down the offered scholarship, perhaps based on his mother’s opposition to her Catholic son attending the Baptist-run college. Still, Patrick O’Rorke had established himself as a young man with a bright future, and a greater opportunity awaited him.
On January 20, 1857, Patrick O’Rorke received a conditional appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point from the President. His widely-recognized talents had won him the support of Congressman John Williams, who recommended him for the Academy. O’Rorke passed the entry examinations in spring of that year and became a cadet. He was unique among his peers in several factors, including his age, socioeconomic status, and foreign birth. Yet he was also well-liked and respected by his peers, and he continued his strong performances in the classroom. Adelbert Ames, a year ahead of O’Rorke, remembered that “[H]e was popular with all . . . I was impressed by his manly bearing – his kindness and unassuming manner. O’Rorke’s class was scheduled to finish its studies and graduate in 1862, but the outbreak of Civil War changed those plans. Instead, there were two West Point Classes of 1861, with O’Rorke’s cramming a year’s worth of studies into six available weeks. Even through all these challenges, he remained an outstanding student. When the class had its commencement ceremonies on June 24, 1861, Patrick Henry O’Rorke graduated first in his class. This earned him a commission as a second lieutenant in the vaunted Corps of Engineers, and he and his classmates arrived in Washington on July 3, 1861 to report for duty. O’Rorke had come a long way from the streets of Rochester, and the early days of the Civil War would continue to test his abilities.
In the first year of the Civil War, Patrick O’Rorke put to use many of the skills he had honed at West Point. For a brief time after reporting to Washington, he helped drill volunteer soldiers, then moved to the staff of Brigadier General Daniel Tyler, the commander of a division in Irvin McDowell’s Union army, for the First Bull Run campaign. Tyler quickly put the young engineer to use, as he accompanied a scouting party that captured Confederate pickets on his first day of duty. O’Rorke wrote to his brother less than a week later to express his excitement at having been “about the first of the class within striking distance of the enemy,” as in these early days of war it was considered an honor to face the enemy on the field of battle. After the campaign, O’Rorke continued to shift between different positions. He assisted in construction of the defenses of Washington and Fortress Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, and in late October he joined the Union expedition that captured the important seaport at Port Royal, South Carolina, helping to reconstruct the defenses for use by Federal troops. In the early months of 1862, O’Rorke played a key role in the Union capture of Fort Pulaski, at the mouth of the Savannah River on the border of South Carolina and Georgia. He was instrumental in creating the strategic network of positions that forced the defenders to capitulate on April 11, and was rewarded with the opportunity to accompany Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore as he accepted the fort’s surrender. O’Rorke served his country with distinction in these important missions, further proving his worth as a soldier.
In the summer of 1862, Monroe County, New York sought to raise two more regiments of volunteers for the Union cause. Local leaders initially looked to a German immigrant, Louis Ernst, to lead the second of the two units, but Ernst insisted that a true military man would be needed. Thus, the Military Committee offered command of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry to Patrick O’Rorke, a position which he accepted in early September of 1862. The months since the capture of Fort Pulaski had been a whirlwind for the young Irishman, as he had returned to Rochester in July to marry his childhood sweetheart, Clarissa “Clara” Wadsworth Bishop. The 140th New York included primarily German and Irish recruits, including one company formed in O’Rorke’s own Little Dublin neighborhood. The colonel joined his new command on October 8 to a warm reception, and immediately set a firm but fair tone by disciplining men who had acted improperly. Disciplinary challenges frequently arose between both officers and volunteer citizen-soldiers who believed themselves the social equals of their commanders. However, O’Rorke took seriously the task of molding his men into a fine military unit, and he did an admirable job with this task. Adjutant Ira Clark wrote that “every man knew that in his Colonel, so long as he did his duty, he had a kind friend.”
The regiment first saw light action at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, where it operated as a reserve force holding the captured town during the horrific Union assaults on Marye’s Heights. When brigade commander Gouverneur Warren received a promotion to topographical engineer on the staff of new Army of the Potomac commander Joseph Hooker in early 1863, O’Rorke filled in as brigade commander. At Chancellorsville in early May of that year, O’Rorke commanded the three New York regiments in his brigade, and on the evening of May 1 he deployed his men along the Orange Turnpike as a check against Confederates pursuing the retreating Union forces. This was the first real combat experience for the 140th, but they handled themselves well, and O’Rorke received a brevet to lieutenant colonel for “gallant and meritorious services.” One of the New York regiments mustered out after the battle, and the brigade was supplemented with two Pennsylvania units. Though many thought O’Rorke would take charge of the brigade, command instead fell to Brigadier General Stephen Weed, who had served as an artilleryman to this point in the war. O’Rorke accepted this somewhat strange leapfrogging, and the men of the 140th welcomed him back on June 13. By this time, the army had turned north to pursue Robert E. Lee’s invasion force, setting Patrick O’Rorke on a collision course with his destiny.
Little Round Top and the Price of Valor The stand of the 140th New York. Gil Cohen and Gettysburg National Military Park.
The 140th New York arrived on the battlefield at Gettysburg in the early afternoon of July 2nd, 1863. By this time, the men felt the full effects of a grueling marching pace, but they remained in high spirits as they waited in reserve. Their reverie did not last long, however, as they soon received the call into action. Union Major General Daniel Sickles had, without orders, moved his Third Corps forward to an exposed position, and Army of the Potomac commander George Meade needed troops to support Sickles’ line against a Confederate onslaught. Weed’s Brigade, including O’Rorke and the 140th, marched in the direction of the Wheatfield, but along the Wheatfield Road, O’Rorke was accosted by a familiar face who would change the course of the final moments of his life.
General Gouverneur Warren, now the army’s chief engineer, ran across his former subordinate while frantically looking for troops to defend Little Round Top. The strategic hilltop on the far left of the Union position stood abandoned after Sickles’ movement, and Warren knew Confederate troops were rapidly closing in on the position. Colonel Strong Vincent’s Union brigade had already mounted a strong defense, but their strength began to flag as men from Alabama and Texas relentlessly attacked them. Warren recognized the gravity of the situation, and began shouting at O’Rorke to bring his men to the hill. The colonel now found himself in a conundrum; technically, he had no obligation to follow Warren’s commands, and could have incurred serious trouble for himself by leaving Weed’s column. But in that moment, Patrick O’Rorke made the fateful decision to turn his unit and go to the aid of Vincent’s beleaguered troops on Little Round Top. The decision brought the 140th New York into the thick of one of the most desperate struggles at Gettysburg, and it would ultimately cost Patrick O’Rorke his life.
To get to the summit of Little Round Top as quickly as possible, O’Rorke and the 140th scrambled up its rugged northeastern face. Already exhausted by their rapid pace and the oppressive heat, their ascent became even more difficult when the cannons of Captain Charles Hazlett’s battery rumbled up the slopes through their ranks. Some of the men of the 140th helped push the guns as they went, doing everything they could to secure the hill. Finally, the regiment reached the crest, and O’Rorke quickly assessed the situation while the sounds of whizzing bullets, firing muskets, and screaming soldiers filled the air. He identified the weakest point in the Union line– the right flank occupied by the crumbling 16th Michigan, on a ledge just below him–and decided to commit his men to the fight then and there. With no time for the 140th to stop and load their weapons, O’Rorke leapt from his horse, drew his sword from his scabbard, and yelled “down this way, boys!” The lead elements of the regiment plunged down the hill after their colonel and “went in with a cheer,” at which point the Confederates met them with a “murderous volley.” As O’Rorke turned to urge his men forward, one of these Rebel bullets ripped through his neck. Patrick O’Rorke was dead before he hit the ground.
As their colonel lay dead, the men of the 140th New York surged ahead and met the enemy Texans head-on just as the Michiganders gave way, stabilizing the Union line on Little Round Top. The rest of Weed’s Brigade arrived shortly thereafter, helping to repulse the flagging Confederates for good. That evening, four men of Company A carried O’Rorke’s body to the regimental surgical station before its subsequent removal to the porch of the division hospital at the Jacob Weikert farm, off the northwest slope of the hill on which he had given his life. He was buried on the farm of Lewis Bushman next to Brigadier General Weed, who received a mortal wound of his own on Little Round Top not long after O’Rorke’s death. The young colonel’s burgeoning military career had come to an early and tragic end.
Remembering a Soldier and a Gentleman Patrick O'Rorke monument at Little Round Top. Gettysburg Daily.
Patrick O’Rorke’s remains arrived home in Rochester on Tuesday, July 14, 1863. His widow, Clara, had received military authorization to come to Gettysburg to retrieve her husband from the Bushman farm, and by July 10 his remains were in the custody of a Thomas Bishop, likely her brother. O’Rorke’s funeral was held on July 15, after a procession originating at the house of his in-laws that included the Newman’s Band, companies of soldiers from U.S. Army regiments and the 54th New York National Guard, and the colonel’s riderless horse walking behind the hearse. A crowd of hundreds filled St. Bridget’s Church for the service, after which O’Rorke was buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery on Pinnacle Hill. His mother, Mary, visited his grave every day until its location at the very top of the hill made it too difficult for her and the colonel’s remains were moved to a lower section. By the end of the 1870s, though, the cemetery fell into neglect as the Catholic church moved its attention to a new burial ground. In 1887, O’Rorke’s body was moved for the last time to the new Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, where he lies next to his mother and George Ryan, who succeeded him as colonel of the 140th before dying at Spotsylvania Court House in 1864. A stylized Maltese cross marks the site of the colonel’s final resting place. Reactions to O’Rorke’s death poured out from a variety of sources. A soldier in the 140th, upon learning of the loss the next day, wrote “[T]he announcement . . . fell like a weight on our men, and many a tear was shed for the young hero. He was the idol of our Regiment, and the pride of our Brigade.” Perhaps the most poignant account came from Lieutenant Porter Farley, who after the war would author a history of the regiment that helped perpetuate the colonel’s legacy. After seeing O’Rorke’s body at the Weikert Farm, Farley wrote:
Up to that time in my life I had never felt a grief so sharply, nor realized the significance of death so well as then . . . 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 he 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. I choked with grief as I stood beside his lifeless form.
The Army Corps of Engineers reacted “[A]s a testimonial of respect for the deceased” by wearing “the usual badge of mourning for 30 days.” Newspapers memorialized O’Rorke as well, with the Troy Times stating that O’Rorke was “a true gentleman” and that “The United States army has lost one of its most active and able engineers, and the nation will mourn the loss of a noble and devoted patriot.” His passing left its mark on many people who knew and loved him.
Her husband’s death on the rocky slopes of Little Round Top shattered the world of Clarissa Wadsworth Bishop O’Rorke. She successfully claimed a pension from the federal government, but money alone could not ease the blow of her loss. Clara O’Rorke never remarried, and instead chose to enter the service of God by becoming a nun. She took her final vows in 1871 and went on to become a well-regarded administrator of convents in Detroit and Grosse Point, Michigan, Albany, New York, and finally Providence, Rhode Island. Clara O’Rorke died in 1893 at the age of 56 and is buried in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Her own life had gone down a very different path after the death of her young husband.
Patrick O’Rorke has been commemorated by several organizations in the years since his death. 1866 saw the founding of the Patrick O’Rorke Grand Army of the Republic Post No. 1 in Rochester, the first post in the state of New York. His legacy has remained prominent as recently as 2004, when the City of Rochester honored their native son with the dedication of the O’Rorke bridge spanning the Genesee River in a ceremony attended by 1,500 people. In announcing the plans to construct the bridge four years earlier, Monroe County Executive Jack Doyle singled out the Irishman as “one of the community’s greatest heroes, yet there is no significant memorial to him in his hometown . . . By commemorating O’Rorke’s life, we honor all those from our community who gave their lives to defend our nation and our way of life.”
O’Rorke achieved perhaps the ultimate measure of immortality, though with the dedication of the monument to the 140th New York on Little Round Top in September of 1889. The monument, placed on the spot on which the colonel supposedly fell, is made of Westerly Granite with bronze insets. The words “Duty,” “Patriotism,” “Valor,” and “Fraternity” appear on the monument’s four sides, representing the qualities O’Rorke instilled in the regiment. On its western side, overlooking the fields that Patrick O’Rorke last saw before his death, is a bronze bas-relief sculpture of the beloved colonel. His nose has been polished gold by visitors rubbing it for good luck over the years, but the practice is discouraged due to the damage it does to the bronze. Thus, Colonel Patrick O’Rorke and his memory are enshrined on Little Round Top forever, as his likeness keeps watch over the hill he sacrificed his life to protect.
Bennett, Brian A. The Beau Ideal of a Soldier and a Gentleman: The Life of Col. Patrick Henry O’Rorke from Ireland to Gettysburg. Wheatland, NY: Triphammer Pub., 2002.
Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934, National Archives, Washington D. C.
County, NY Monroe. “DOT Ororke Bridge.” Monroe County, NY. Accessed October 23, 2017. https://www2.monroecounty.gov/dot-bridgeororke.
Hawks, Steve A. “Monument to the 140th New York at Gettysburg.” Stone Sentinels – Gettysburg. 2017.
Military, Compiled Service Records. Civil War. Carded Records, Volunteer Organizations. Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1890–1912. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Wall, Julia C. “Patrick H. O’Rorke.” Your Friend and Classmate. Accessed October 23, 2017. http://juliawall.sites.gettysburg.edu/westpoint61/your-friend-and-classmate/patrick-ororke.
Narrative and map by Ryan Bilger, Gettysburg College.