July 2, 1863: Paddy O'Rorke and the 140th New York Turn the Tables at Little Round Top

July 2, 1863: Paddy O'Rorke and the 140th New York Turn the Tables at Little Round Top

Monument to 140th New York and its colonel Patrick O'Rorke at the Gettysburg Battlefield

As many readers may know, the Battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal point in securing the Union victory in the 1861-65 War of the Rebellion. Military historians and "Civil War" enthusiasts alike rightfully identify the July 2, 1863 defense of Little Round Top as a critical turning point of that great battle. Due in no small part to the immense popularity of the 1993 epic film Gettysburg, many Americans have become quite familiar with the actions of Col. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine in their heroic defense of the left wing of the defensive perimeter along Little Round Top, which left wing ended up being the "end of the line" of the entire Union Army.

Far less known, however, is the heroic role at Little Round Top of Colonel Patrick ("Paddy") O'Rorke and his Rochester, New York-based 140th New York Regiment, as well as that of Cold Spring, New York's General Gouveneur Warren. Importantly, both Warren and O'Rorke were products of the extraordinary West Point programs of science and engineering that were critical to the early development of the United States.

The Defense of Little Round Top

Before the Confederate attack at Gettysburg had commenced on the afternoon of July 2, III Corps commander Dan Sickles had, contrary to orders, moved his entire corps over a quarter of a mile west, far forward of the Union Army's Cemetery Ridge line, thus creating a dangerous salient on the Union left. Sickles’ unauthorized movement had also left the two large hills on the Union left, Little Round Top and Big Round Top.

Upon learning of this, an angry General Meade, realizing his left might now be dangerously exposed, immediately dispatched General Gouverneur Warren (at that point chief Topographical Engineer of the Army of the Potomac) to Little Round Top, the northernmost and smallest of the two rises, to apprise the situation. Warren discovered that not only had Sickles’ forward movement left only a signal corps on the hill, but he was also able to determine the position of Hood’s Division on the Confederate right flank poised for an attack. It then became painfully clear to Warren that a successful Confederate assault and occupation of Little Round Top would create an impossible situation for the Union Army which would then be faced with an enfilade of artillery fire straight down their entire line extending north across Cemetery Ridge.

Rightfully alarmed, Warren immediately ordered an aide out to find General George Sykes. As fortune would have it, Sykes’ aide ran into the 3rd Brigade and its commander Col. Strong Vincent who asked him what orders he was carrying to the division commander. When the aide insisted that he had to find Barnes first to order any movement, Vincent again demanded to know the orders and, upon being told of the circumstance, promptly informed Sykes’ aide that “I will take the responsibility of taking my brigade there.” Wasting no time with bureaucratic formalities, Vincent immediately ascended Little Round Top to survey the terrain and choose the best possible positions in which to place his brigade in order to defend what was quickly becoming the end of the Union line. By now, Confederate artillery across the field had already begun firing in preparation for the attack as Vincent ordered his regiments to their assigned positions along a spur on the southwestern side of the hill. Vincent ingeniously chose the tip of the spur which was closest to the saddle between Little and Big Round Top as his left flank. Here he placed the 20th Maine telling Chamberlain to “hold that ground at all hazards.”

But as important as the heroics of Chamberlain and the 20th Maine would become that day, all would have been naught if the right and center of Vincent's perimeter at Little Round Top had collapsed earlier on in the battle. This is precisely where Paddy O'Rorke and his heroic 140th New York came into play.

O'Rorke's early life was a true testament to Alexander Hamilton's conception of American meritocracy. Born in Ireland in 1837, O'Rorke's family emigrated to the United States and settled in Rochester, New York.  O'Rorke was actually granted a scholarship to the University of Rochester at age 16, and a few years later became a cadet at West Point where he graduated first in his class in 1861, just as the War of the Rebellion broke out. Initially assigned to the Corps of Engineers as a lieutenant, O'Rorke achieved a promotion to Colonel of the 140th New York Regiment in 1862.

As the Texans and Alabamans rushed up Little Round Top on the afternoon of July 2, the right of Vincent's line began to crumble and was about to fold. Vincent attempted t0 personally rally his men to attempt to save the line and was felled with a mortal wound, a foreboding development for the Union forces on the hill. It was just at this point that O'Rorke and the 140th New York entered the fray. Dressed in Zoave baggy pants, red jackets and fezzes, the timely arrival of O'Rorke's 500 men on the right of the Little Round Top perimeter completely tipped the balance. O'Rorke immediately ordered his regiment (all, like him, Rochester natives) down the hill directly toward the Confederate lines. As O'Rorke shouted "Here they are men, commence firing!", a Confederate minie ball struck O'Rorke through the neck killing him.

Paddy O'Rorke had paid the ultimate sacrifice, but the 140th New York had successfully plugged the hole in the line thus preventing an early disaster for the Union Army at Little Round Top. It is no stretch to suggest that is was the heroic actions of O'Rorke, Warren and Vincent that actually created the conditions for Chamberlain and the 20th Maine to successfully thwart the last-ditch Confederate attempt to fold the extreme left of the Union line at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, thus turning the tide of the war as a whole.