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Colonel Patrick O'Rorke: Unsung hero of Little Round Top
By Roger Daene

The one who writes the history is oftentimes the one who receives the glory. This is especially true in military history. Those who survive the battle are able to tell their story known to the public. In some cases, those who die in battle can either be relegated to obscurity or their achievements are underrated because there is no one to tell their story. The Colonel of the 140th New York at the Battle of Gettysburg was one whose story is relatively unknown.

The town of Gettysburg had grown in size and importance once the railroad had come to town. Gettysburg was a crossroads town and after the war had begun, supplies had moved through this bustling Pennsylvania town. In the waning days of June 1863 both armies began to move toward Gettysburg. The town was about to move into immortality and hold a place forever in American history.

Although the armies would leave the town of Gettysburg, those three days in July remain. Today the entire town and surrounding area of Gettysburg focus on the battle. Bookstores and tourist shops are filled with books, souvenirs, and pictures. A very common picture is the downhill charge of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. The town’s most popular sites on the battlefield are Little Round Top and Picket’s charge. Colonel Chamberlain is credited as the hero of the battle for Little Round Top and for saving the Union Army. On the western slope of Little Round, overshadowed by a huge monument to New York is a small monument with a relief sculpture of Colonel Patrick O’Rorke of the 140th New York.

Colonel Chamberlain survived the battle and the war and wrote his memoirs, spoke at reunions, and was instrumental in the preservation and placements of the monuments at Gettysburg. Colonel Chamberlain and the 20th Maine held their ground against Colonel William Oates and the 15th Alabama. In spite of being hard pressed, the extreme left flank of the Union Army never collapsed. On the right side of Little Round Top the situation was different. The right flank of Colonel Strong Vincent’s brigade, which the 20th Maine was assigned to, collapsed under the Confederate assault. O’Rorke and the 140th New York arrived just as the rebels were preparing to sweep the Union from Little Round Top. Their valiant actions that day saved the position at Little Round Top. Colonel O’Rorke deserves as much credit for the defense of Little Round Top as Colonel Chamberlain. However, he died in the course of the action and his story has fallen in obscurity.

Neither the Union nor the Confederates chose to fight at Gettysburg. Both armies were using the excellent roads near Gettysburg to concentrate their armies. Contrary to popular myth, the first days fighting on July 1st were not the result of a search for shoes. General Harry Heth, of General James Longstreet’s Corps of the Confederate Army, moved Gettysburg as the lead element of the Corps to concentrate the Army of Northern Virginia. It was on the outskirts of the town that Heth’s division first skirmished with General John Bufford’s Union Cavalry division. The skirmish escalated quickly as various divisions of both armies converged at Gettysburg. July 1st saw the first major battle of what would become a three-day battle. General Bufford and his division held the Confederates under General Heth for a few critical hour. The battle escalated as both sides received reinforcements. By the end of the day, the Union I and XI Corps had been severely mauled and three Confederate divisions had severe losses. In spite of heavy losses the Union retained the heights outside of the town of Gettysburg.

During the night of July 1st and into the morning hours of July 2nd, both armies received more reinforcements. During the morning hours and into the early afternoon, General Longstreet’s Corps took position on the right flank of the Confederate Army. He was to attack the left flank of the Union Army. General Sickles of the Union III Corps moved his entire corps away from the two round tops and placed them on a smaller ridge in front of the Round Tops. Both of the III Corps flanks were unsecured and two key pieces of terrain were defended by a small detachment of signalmen. The two round tops hills were key pieces of terrain because if the Confederates possessed them, they would be able to outflank the center of the Union line anchored on Cemetery Ridge. The positions were important to the Union as they were able to observe any attempt by the Confederates to outflank them. The Union did not want a repeat of the successful Confederate flank march took place at Chancellorsville.

A signalman on Little Round Top thought he saw Rebel infantry between the Plum Run and the Emmitsburg Road. General Meade dispatched General Warren to assess the situation on the Union far left flank based on the signalman’s report. The 4th Battery of New York Light Artillery fired a shell in the direction of the suspected rebel troops. The hidden Confederate troops instinctively moved for cover. Warren claimed he spotted the glint from the bayonets and equipment.[1]

The Confederate troops, spotted by Warren, were executing this flank march, and threatened both the Round Tops and Sickles’ III Corps. Upon the discovery of no significant union troops on the Round Tops, Warren sought troops from General Meade. At three p.m. General Meade summoned Major General Sykes, commander of the V Corps. Meade informed him that the Confederates were forming up to attack the left flank of the union Army. Meade ordered Sykes to move his entire corps to the threatened area to the left of Sickles III Corps. Even though Sickles was hard pressed to hold his position, Sykes was not to send reinforcements to Sickles but to hold his position at all costs.[2] Sykes V Corps was the logical choice because V Corps was in reserve behind Cemetery Ridge in the center of the Union Line and was available for immediate deployment.

Fearing that Sykes’ troops would not reach the threatened area in time, Meade ordered Sickles to send General Humphrey’s division of III Corps to the area presently threatened by the Confederates. Sickles objected, as he believed that he needed every unit to hold his position, but was overruled by Meade. Humphrey’s division executed a reverse movement while although under fire with parade field precision.[3] This was a difficult maneuver to perform under fire but it demonstrated that the competence of the Union Army was improving to the extent that they could perform complex maneuvers under fire without becoming disorganized.

Warren became concerned that reinforcements would not arrive in time on the Round Tops. He rode to find and to encourage General Barnes of General Sykes’ V Corps to move quickly. While Warren was attempting to locate Barnes, Colonel Strong Vincent, a brigade commander in Barnes’ division, stopped a messenger from Warren to Barnes. Vincent read the message, and immediately comprehended the seriousness of the developing crisis on the Union left flank. Without direct orders from Barnes, Vincent moved his brigade at the double quick to get to Little Round Top.[4]

As General Warren was seeking troops to place on the Round Tops, the Confederates prepared for their assault. Longstreet placed one of one General John Bell Hood brigades under General Law on the extreme right of the Confederate line. His orders were to attack the Union positions in front of him. Upon seeing the Union troops in strength and supported with artillery in the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den area, Law wanted to determine the possibility of capturing Big Round Top and using it as pivot point to outflank the Union position. He understood that if the Union were in strength on Big Round Top, his orders to turn the Union left flank would be difficult. Law sent scouts to perform reconnaissance of Big Round Top. The scouts reported that Big Round Top was undefended. Law believed that the occupation of Big Round Top was the key to victory. He wanted his orders changed to be able to occupy Big Round Top. Law rode to General Hood, his division commander, and sought a change of orders. Law outlined his argument for an immediate assault on the Round Tops as follows. The strength and position of the Union troops in front of Hood’s and McClaws’ division made the chances of success with a frontal assault against these Union troops uncertain. The losses could not be justified even if the assault was successful. Instead of launching these costly frontal attacks, the undefended Round Tops could be occupied in the evening. The next day, the Union would be forced to leave their present positions and attack the Confederates on the Round Tops. Hood agreed with Law’s perception of the situation, but Hood had orders from Lee to attack en echelon up the Emmitsburg Road. Hood made his appeal to General Longstreet. Longstreet declines to change the plan. The attack was to proceed immediately.[5]

Shortly after four p.m., Robertson’s Texans and Law’s Alabamians began their attack. Anderson’s and Benning’s Georgia regiments followed behind. General Hood, riding a roan colored horse, led his division into battle. It was 20 minutes into the battle that one a critical event in the battle occurred. A fragment from an overhead exploding shell struck Hood in the left arm as he rode past the Synder House on his way to the Wheatfield. Hood was removed from the battlefield. Law, as senior brigade commander, assumed command of Hood’s four brigades, which included his own brigade, Robertson’s Texans, and Benning’s and Anderson’s Georgia brigades.[6] Precious time was lost as Law moved from his position on the right flank to take command of the division.

The numerous fences slowed the advance and Law’s Brigade veered to the right and separated from the right flank of Robertson’s brigade. A gap appeared between the two brigades. Robertson decided that the key to turning the Union left flank was the destruction of Captain Smith’s battery and infantry support in the Devil Den’s area.[7] Canister fire from Smith’s cannon fire at close range tore gaps into the advancing Confederates. As the attack on Devil’s Den developed, Law split his own Alabama brigade into two parts. He sent the 15th and 47th Alabama to seize Big Round Top and ordered the 44th and 48th Alabama regiments to attack the Devil’s Den. Union sharpshooters continued to harass the advancing Confederates and these snipers hit several officers.[8] Lieutenant Colonel Feagin of the 15th Alabama was one of these officers hit during the approach.[9] His loss would weaken the command and control of the 15th Alabama during its assault on Little Round Top.

Law ordered three companies detached from the 47th Alabama to function as skirmishers to deal with the menacing fire from Union sharpshooters. These companies remained detached from the main body of the 47th until the end of the day and were not available for the attack on Little Round Top. Colonel Oates, commander of the 15th Alabama of Law’s Brigade, would soon also detach two companies to function as skirmishers. He also sent some men to search for water because the entire regiment was suffering from a lack of water after a long march. The skirmishers were meant to screen the regiment from the sharpshooters and if possible drive them away.[10]

Upon receiving word that Oates had made it to the crown of Big Round Top, Law ordered Oates to execute a left wheel but never specified the target of this wheeling maneuver. Later, Lieutenant Colonel Bulger, acting commander of the 47th would state that he believed the target of the wheeling maneuver was Smith’s battery and the infantry defending the guns in the Devil’s Den. The 15th and 47th Alabama executed a left wheel and advanced toward the Little Round Top. At this point Law’s charge became four separate thrusts. The 4th Alabama and the 4th and 5th Texas were heading toward the lower slopes of Little Round Top. The 15th and 47th Alabama (minus the three detached companies) advanced over the north edge of Big Round Top. The 44th and 48th Alabama regiments were about to launch their attack on Smith’s battery above Devil’s Den.[11] General Benning and his Georgia brigade were meant to support Robertson’s Texans but became confused in the battle and followed the half of Law’s brigade who were attacking Devil’s Den. These four separate and uncoordinated thrusts illustrate the breakdown of the Confederate command structure that occurred after the wounding of General Hood.

After a quick march to Little Round Top, Colonel Vincent placed his brigade of 1,350 men on the lower edges of the southern and western slopes of Little Round Top. He determined that his flanks were too vulnerable if he placed his brigade on the crest of the hill.[12] Vincent ordered the 20th Maine, under Colonel Chamberlain, to hold the extreme left of Little Round Top. The 83rd Pennsylvania would hold the ground to the right of the 20th Maine. The 44th New York, a Zouave regiment, also known as Ellsworth’s avengers, guarded the right of the 83rd Pennsylvania. ‘Zouave’ regiments uniforms were copied from the Zouaua tribe of North Africa that served in the French Army in the Crimea War. The weakest regiment in the brigade, the 16th Michigan, originally from Detroit, numbered only 350 men. The 44th had originally ordered to hold the right flank but their commander persuaded Vincent to allow the 44th to stand to the right of the 83rd because that was their traditional place in the line of battle. The 16th Michigan now held the right flank of Vincent’s brigade defending Little Round Top. Keeping of that tradition nearly cost the Union the position at Little Round Top, as the weak 16th Michigan collapsed under the assault of the oncoming Texans.

The smaller hill that Oates advanced toward did not even have a name. Little Round Top would not receive a name until after the battle. The topography of Little Round would play a role in the placement and movements of units. The hill lies primarily north and south. There are three levels on the hill. The North Slope rises nearly 40 feet and ends at a ledge facing Devil’s Den. From this ledge, rising upward to another bluff and covered with boulders and sparse vegetation forms the north end of the hill’s crest. This hill’s crest is nearly 150 feet above the Plum Run. The ground slopes southward from the crest for about 100 yards and ends at a rocky cliff outcropping.[13]

Oates may not have followed Law’s orders to execute the wheeling maneuver and attack the left flank of Devil’s Den because he feared his right flank would be exposed to any defenders on the Round Tops. Oates ordered an advance to occupy Big Round Top. Finding it undefended, and without the presence of any skirmishers, he ordered down the north and northeast slopes of Big Round Top toward the smaller of the two round tops.[14]

Upon reaching the ravine between the two round tops, Oates spotted some wagons about 600 feet to his northeast. Oates did not order the wagons seized but detached a company to watch the wagons and to look out for the sharpshooters that had harassed the entire division during their advance. This detached company did not rejoin the 15th Alabama did not rejoin their regiment until after the fight.[15] The 60 or so men in this company and the 15 men detached to find water might have made the difference when Oats tried to envelop Chamberlain’s left flank.

As the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments advanced onto the slopes of Little Round Top, the battle for Little Round Top began with an opening volley from the 360 men of the 20th Maine. The strength of both sides was roughly equal but the Union held the superior position because they occupied the higher ground. The 375 men of the 83rd Pennsylvania protected the right flank of the 20th Maine. The 15th Alabama was a large regiment of 520 men. The 210-290 men of the 47th Alabama guarded the left flank of the 15th . Oates concentrated his strength on his right flank to overwhelm the flank of numerically smaller 20th Maine. Chamberlin had foreseen the need for a skirmish line to warn him of any Confederates endeavor to outflank him and detached a company under Captain Morrill to form a skirmish line. The sudden advance of Oates separated Morrill’s command from the rest of the regiment. They took cover behind a stonewall with some sharpshooters at the eastern end of the hollow that lay between Little Round Top and Big Round Top. Unlike the detached companies of the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments, Merrill’s company would play a crucial role in the battle for Little Round Top.[16]

While the 15th and 47th Alabama were beginning their assault on Little Round Top the fighting at the Devil’s Den reached its climax. As after several changes and countercharges by both sides, Smith decided to move his badly damaged battery from its present position and pull back to a safer area. Sensing that Smith’s battery was withdrawing, Col. Perry of the 44th Alabama ordered a charge that temporarily forced Smith’s gunners to abandon their position. Colonel Perry collapsed from a combination of heat exhaustion, lack of water and the exertion of this charge up difficult terrain. It proved too much for the 45-year-old teacher. This was the third regimental commander in Law’s brigade to fall out.[17] Union reinforcements from Wards’ brigade and retook the Devil’s Den area. Law countered this move by committing Benning’s Georgian brigade into the attack. By 5:45 these additional fresh troops proved too much for the Union defenders. The Confederates took control of the area.[18]

While the Devil’s Den was under full assault, the 15th and 47th Alabama struck Vincent’s line in an en echelon form of attack. In this type of attack the attacking force strikes like a wave and rolls across the front of the defenders. The 44th New York was struck first, followed by the 83rd and finally the attack wave crash into the 20th Maine. The main weight of the Confederate attack fell onto the 83rd Pennsylvania and 20th Maine. A fierce firefight broke out along the front of Vincent’s brigade. Chamberlain had learned from Adelbert Ames, the former regimental commander and presently a division commander in V Corps, to remain cool under fire. It gave the men confidence if their commander was calm and visible. Chamberlain remained visible during the entire struggle.[19]

Aware that the Confederates were moving troops to outflank the Maine position from the left, Chamberlain stretched his line and refused the left flank. Normally, a regiment fought in a straight line. However, if during the course of a battle, the enemy attempted to attack the flank and “roll up” the regiment; a commander could refuse his flank by bending the line inward and attempt to prevent the line from being “rolled up”. The 20th Maine now resembled a right angle as Chamberlain bent his line inward.

Along the center and left of the now bent Maine line, the Alabama troops advanced with 15 feet of the Maine line before Oates was forced to pull back. The 15th Alabama crashed like wave after wave into the 20th Maine.[20] The Maine regiment was badly depleted in numbers and ammunition and whose line resembled a badly bent horseshoe. During the second to last charge the 15th Alabama reached a large bolder in the middle of the line of 20th Maine.[21] This attack nearly succeeded in breaking the line of the 20th Maine. Oates thought that if he captured the colours of the 20th Maine, it would break their morale. He ordered fire concentrated on the colour guard as well as the company on each side of the flag. The center of the 20th Maine became a tangled mass of bodies. Standing like a rock was 25 year old Sergeant Tozier holding the bullet ridden flag of the 20th Maine. His disregard for personal safety earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. In spite of badly damaging the Union line, the Confederates pulled back.[22]

The heavily blooded 20th Maine and 15th Alabama possessed little ammunition at this point. Both colonels faced the reality of the situation. Chamberlain did not believe he could hold his position if the reforming rebels attacked again. Oates realized that he did not possess the strength to take the hill. The decimated 47th Alabama could not make another assault against the Pennsylvanians and the 15th Alabama was exhausted. He had no choice but to order a retreat to Big Round Top. However, Chamberlain moved first. Whether or not Chamberlain ordered the charge is uncertain. The center and right flank of the 20th Maine, fixed bayonets. The refused left flank did not hear the order to fix bayonets. They sensed the center was preparing to charge and soon followed the remainder of the division downhill. The charging 20th Maine drove the exhausted 15th Alabama from the base of the hill and Chamberlain had a difficult time keeping his scattered men from chasing the retreating rebels up Big Round Top. The 20th Maine captured nearly 80 men. One hundred and fifty rebel dead and wounded were found in front of the position of the 20th Maine. Vincent’s brigade captured 308 rebels.[23]

The victorious rebel units from the Devil’s Den threatened Vincent’s brigade on Little Round Top. This is the part of the story that few remember. This is the story of Patrick O’Rorke and the 140th New York.

The 1st Texas and 3rd Arkansas, of Robertson’s brigade, remained at the Devil’s Den. Both had suffering severely in the fighting to take Devil’s Den including Colonel Manning of the 3rd.[24] The losses in regimental officers continued to rise and the cohesion of these units would continue to decrease..

The remaining three regiments of Law’s Brigade, the 4th, 44th, and 48th Alabama and the 4th and 5th Texas of Robertson’s brigade, moved past Devil’s Den area, and began their assault on the western slope of Little Round Top. As they began their assault, a critical moment arose when the target of their assault, the 16th Michigan, began to give way under the pressure.[25] As the 16th Michigan began to crumble slowly from the pressure, Colonel Vincent ran forward to cheer on his men and fell mortally wounded from a rebel bullet. He died a few days later unaware he had been promoted to the rank of Brigadier General for his actions at Little Round Top.[26]

Colonel Rice, of the 44th New York, succeeded Vincent for command of the brigade, and informed Warren of the situation and the serious consequences if the 16th Michigan collapsed from the pressure. General Warren rushed up Hazlett’s battery to the crest of Little Round Top. Warren understood that the battery would not be able to provide direct fire support for the 16th Michigan but its fire above them might provide some needed assurance to the 16th. Hazlett’s battery did provide some much needed support for the defenders of Devil’s Den.[27]

Warren realized that fresh infantry was needed to support the crumbling 16th Michigan. Warren immediately saw his old brigade, presently commanded by General Weed was heading toward the Peach Orchard. Warren rode up to the rearmost regiment of the column, the 140th New York, its 526 men commanded by Colonel Patrick O’Rorke.[28]

Patrick O’Rorke was born on March 28th, 1836, the son of Irish immigrants. His father passed away because of an accident at work and Patrick went to learn the trade of a marble cutter. It seemed unusual when Patrick O’Rorke received a nomination to attend West Point because he was about three to four years older than most first year students. He ranked either first or second number during the four years at the academy and was remembered as possessing a quiet dignity. While at West Point, many of his classmates saw him as the future commander of the entire United States Army. One of the instructors at West Point was General Warren, who would figure influential in the events of Little Round Top.[29]

Scheduled to graduate in the spring of 1862, the entire remaining class of ’62 applied for an early graduation when the war commenced. O’Rorke finished first in the class while another classmate, George Armstrong Custer, finished last. O’Rorke was only the second Irishman to graduate from West Point to that point. He was assigned as an aid to General Tyler for the First Battle of Bull Run. After serving with the engineers for most of 1862, O’Rorke was the first West Point graduate of the class of ’62 to receive the command of a regiment. His first and only command was the 140th New York.[30]

The 140th New York was originally raised in Rochester, New York. At the time, Rochester was predominantly populated by German and Irish immigrants. The composition of the 140th reflected the demographics of the community. Companies C and K were mainly Irishmen from the Dublin area. The remainders of the companies were either Irish or German immigrants whose average age was 25. Lt. Colonel Ernst, second in command of the 140th, was a German immigrant.[31]

After fighting his first battle at Chancellorsville in May 1863 the 140th New York moved north with the army in late June. The 140th was part of General Weed’s brigade of Sykes’ V Corps. They arrived near Gettysburg on the morning of July 2nd. The entire brigade had been ordered to support the crumbling position of the III Corps when General Warren requested the 140th New York to move toward Little Round Top. As the 140th New York moved to the defense of Little Round Top, the Texans prepared for their third assault. The 4th and 5th Texas had assaulted the Union positions twice without success. Combined with the aid of the recently arrived 48th Alabama, the Texans were ready to try again.[32]

The situation was growing critical for the 16th Michigan under the weight of this new attack. O’Rorke did not have time to properly order his regiment to the rear, he ordered his men to move double quick to the summit of Little Round Top. Upon reaching the summit, the men did not have the time to fix bayonets but rushed to support the faltering ranks of the 16th Michigan. The moving at the double quick in march column and then loading and firing as each soldier arrived in position was unorthodox. This maneuver could not in any military drill manual. The ability to accomplish this feat under fire and while the 16th Michigan was breaking, shows the skill and discipline that O’Rorke had instilled in his regiment.[33]

As Oates began his final assault against the 20th Maine, the Texans tried for a final assault on the western slope of Little Round Top. With the aid of the 4th, 44th, and 48th Alabama, the Texans started to crumble the right flank of Vincent’s line. The 16th Michigan rapidly began to disintegrate. Nearly one third of the available men in the 16th Michigan ran for the rear and did not report for duty until the next morning.

Debate surrounds the situation of the 16th Michigan. Colonel Rice, of the 44th New York, stated in his official report that the 16th Michigan was broken and as a result of the misunderstanding of an order, the regiment was thrown into confusion.[34] Lieutenant Colonel Welch of the 16th Michigan states that someone from either General Weed’s or Major General Sykes ordered the regiment to fall back to a less exposed position nearer the top. Welch asserts that only the colors and the three members of the color guard obeyed this command. The remainder of the regiment held their position.[35] 35 Welch’s report is not supported by either the report of Rice, the 140th New York, or the 44th New York. The 16th Michigan was broken and in the process of compromising the entire right flank of Vincent’s brigade when the 140th New York under Colonel O’Rorke arrived about 5:30 p.m..

Unable to arrange his ranks because of the advancing Texans, O’Rorke ordered his men to fire and as soon as they reached the slope and without forming into a line. A Texan rose and fired and the bullet passed through O’Rorke’s neck. He collapsed. Two companies of the 140th fired at the Texan who had shot their commander. After the battle, this Texan was found with 17 bullet wounds. In places along the line of the 140th, the Texans closed into hand-to-hand combat. At other places, nearly point blank volleys caused dead, dying and wounded soldiers to fall in heaps. The third assault by the Texans was beaten off by the 140th New York with the assistance of the 44th New York and some of the remnants of the 16th Michigan.[36] During the brief firefight with the Texans and the three supporting Alabama regiments, the 140th New York lost about 133 men, including the gallant Colonel O’Rorke.[37]

Patrick O’Rorke was not the only casualty in the final repulse of the Texans. As the 140th New York was engaged in a near point blank firefight with the Texans, Brigadier General Weed was killed and the artillery commander Lieutenant Hazlett were killed during the assault on the western slopes of Little Round Top. They were standing next to each when a Confederate sharpshooter first hit General Weed killing him instantly. Lieutenant Hazlett reached down to grab the fallen general when the sharpshooter fired a second bullet, killing Hazlett instantly.[38]

The Texans failed in their assault at the same time that Colonel Chamberlain routed the 15th Alabama. With the failure of the third assault by the Texan regiments to take Little Round Top, General Law ordered the regiments to retire to the timberline.[39] The Battle for Little Round Top ended around 6:30 p.m.

The 15th Alabama had begun the day with about 520 men. They lost nearly 50% of their strength. Upon reaching the top of Big Round Top, Colonel Oates collapsed from the lack of water and heat exhaustion.[40] Four of the five regiments in Law’s brigade had lost their regimental commander during the course of the battle. Oates’ loss was not as critical as the loss of the other three regimental commanders because it happened at the end of the day’s battle.

Colonels Rice, Chamberlain, and Fisher (of the recently arrived Pennsylvania Brigade) realized the importance of Big Round Top. They concluded that if the rebels reinforced and fortified Big Round Top the Union positions on Little Round Top would have to be abandoned. At nine p.m. Chamberlain advanced carefully onto Big Round Top. They drove off the few rebels who were there and built a defensive line. The 83rd Pennsylvania and 44th New York joined the 20th Maine.[41]

The focus of the battle shifted to the Union center on July 3rd when 15,000 men under General Picket charged into immortality. Some Union artillery fire from Little Round Top did support the defenders but July 3rd was generally quiet on the two Round Tops. It can reasonably be asserted that had the Confederates taken the two Round Tops and held them from all counterattacks until the morning of July 3rd, Lee could have utilized Picket’s fresh division to assault the Union position from the two Round Tops. The first advantage of this would have been that the advancing troops under Picket would not have to advance across a large open field under heavy artillery and rifle fire. Second, the assault on Cemetery Ridge, the Union center, would have been made from the flank and not from the front.

In the days and years since that epic battle, Colonel Chamberlain has received the majority of the accolades for holding the position. While Colonel Chamberlain left Gettysburg to fight on other battlefields, the body of Colonel O’Rorke was taken to his hometown of Rochester, New York for burial. Was he the true unsung hero of Little Round Top?

The position held by Vincent’s brigade was rocky and uneven. Vincent choose his ground well and is credited for getting his brigade into place with mere minutes to spare before Law’s Alabama brigade attempted to turn the flank. Recognition and glory belongs rightly to Colonel Chamberlain and the 20th Maine for holding their position against the pressing attacks of the 15th Alabama. Even if the 20th Maine and the 83rd Pennsylvania had been forced to give ground, these two battered regiments could not have exploited it. The combined losses of Lieutenant Colonel Feagin of the 15th Alabama, Colonel Jackson and Lieutenant Colonel Bugler of the 47th and the exhaustion of Colonel Oates would have rendered both the 15th and 47th Alabama without any senior officers, little ammunition, and little water. These units were spent and could not have exploited to any degree breakthrough. Fresh troops were not available on the northern slope in time to exploit a breakthrough.

The 16th Michigan held the right flank of Vincent’s Brigade. By the time that the Texans attacked, Oates had begun to bleed both the 20th Maine and 83rd Pennsylvania. The uphill attack by the 4th and 5th Texans caused the 16th Michigan to break. Vincent’s brigade did not have any reserve regiments with which to counterattack. The right flank of the adjacent 44th New York was becoming open to the charging Texans. In spite of heavy losses in manpower and their colonels and lieutenant colonels in the Devil’s Den the Texans would soon be in a position to turn the flank of the 44th New York. Behind the Texans were three Alabama regiments of Law’s Brigade. Five regiments were in a position to overrun Little Round Top. Benning’s Georgia brigade could have supported any breakthrough by the Alabama and Texan regiments, by moving it from its current position at the Devil’s den.

Unlike, a breakthrough on the northern slope, any breakthrough on the western slope, reinforcements could have exploited the breakthrough. Thus the critical face on Little Round Top was not the northern slope held by the 20th Maine but the western slope held together by the resourceful and the swift intervention of Colonel Patrick O’Rorke and the 140th New York. The 140th New York arrived as the 16th Michigan was disintegrating. They deployed with unloaded muskets and suffered accordingly from the onrushing Texans but held their position.

Why does Chamberlain receive the accolades and not O’Rorke? First, Chamberlain lived and O’Rorke didn’t. Chamberlain lived until 1914 and was instrumental in the battlefield preservation and the setting of regimental monuments. Chamberlain wrote his account of the battle and O’Rorke never had that chance. No one championed the cause of the 140th New York. Amazingly, the 140th New York is not even mentioned in the official reports of the Confederate regiments who assaulted the 16th New York. They state they were repulsed but do not name by whom. The severe losses of officers may have caused these reports to be scanty. Unfortunately, the defense by the 140th New York was not even recognized by its enemies.

Little Round Top has been seen as key to the Union left and sometimes its defense is seen as the key to the entire Union position. Perhaps the importance of Little Round Top has grown throughout the years. First, Rice, Chamberlain, and Fisher thought that Little Round Top would have to be abandoned if the Confederates held Big Round Top. If Big Round Top could not have been held Little Round Top would have to be abandoned. The fighting on Little Round Top decided the possession of Big Round Top. Second, the Confederates themselves saw Big Round Top as the key to the turning of the Union left flank. Finally, unlike the appearance of Little Round Top today, the hill was sparsely forested with little undergrowth. The hill is a gentle hill. The attacking forces were roughly equal in number to those defending the hill. Big Round Top is higher in elevation with many bluffs. Several ledges made the seizure of this hill difficult. It would have taken many hours to clear a field of fire from Big Round Top, the Confederates could have compromised the remainder of the Union left flank and threatened the center from this commanding position. Oates abandoned the position because of the lack of ammunition and water. Without those two things, he could not hold the position.

The failure to seize and hold the Round Tops and thereby turn the Union left flank was a combination of three things. First, the wounding of General Hood early in the charge resulted in a failure in the command structure. Throughout the battle, Law remained in the area of the Devil’s Den. Communication with his subordinate commanders was poor. At first Law did not know he was divisional commander after Hood was removed from the field. Colonel Sheffield of the 48th Alabama did not know he was now acting brigade commander after Law assumed command of the division. Brigadier General Robertson was not aware that Law had even assumed command of the division and was in contact with General Longstreet.[42]

Second were the severe losses in the regimental commanders. Law’s Brigade lost Colonel Jackson of the 47th Alabama, Colonel Scruggs of the 4th Alabama, and Colonel Perry of the 44th Alabama. Robertson’s Texans lost Colonel Manning of the 3rd Arkansas when he was wounded. The 4th and 5th Texas lost both their colonels and lieutenant colonels. The loss of many senior regimental commanders weakened the regiment’s ability to coordinate with other regiments. The fewer officers also meant delays in carrying out maneuver, and movements.[43]

Third, the command integrity of Hood’s division was disorganized Half of Robertson’s Brigade remained at the Devil’s Den and half of his brigade advanced to assault Little Round Top. Robertson himself remained at Devil’s Den and the 4th and 5th Texas regiments of his brigades continued their attack without a Brigade commander. Like Robertson’s brigade, Law’s Brigade was split into two sections as three regiments fought in and around the Devil’s Den advanced toward the western slope of Little Round Top. Two regiments of Laws brigade assaulted the northern face of Little Round Top and were not supported by the remainder of the Brigade or coordinate their attacks with the assaulting regiments on the western slopes.

The Union had three major advantages in the fighting on the Union left flank on July 2nd. First, they did not suffer from such severe losses to either their divisional or brigade commanders that severely weakened their integrity as either a division or brigade. Vincent’s brigade was intact on Little Round Top and Weed brought his brigade forward to support the right flank of Vincent. Their commands were not intermingled and thus could mount a more effective defense because of their sound command structure. Even though Vincent was mortally wounded and Weed was killed outright, neither of their brigades were moving across difficult ground and thus coordinated movements were not necessary. The only regimental commander lost was Colonel O’Rorke. His regiment continued to fight under the able Ernst. Unlike the confederate regiments who lost their commanders, the 140th finished their deployment and remained in place.

The second advantage of the Union troops was capable leadership at the brigade, division, and corps level. Although General Sickles is not generally considered a good corps commander, the very able and competent General Hancock and his II Corps and General Sykes and the veteran V Corps supported him.

The third advantage was the troops themselves. They were fighting on northern soil, and this may have infused them with a deeper sense that retreat was not an option. Many of the regiments suffered severe losses but did not run. They simply held their position or retreated and reformed to fight again. The days of the Army of the Potomac fleeing from the battlefield were over.

In can be argued that Gettysburg was the turning point of the war in the eastern theater and combined with the victory of Vicksburg in the West, the high water mark of the Confederacy. In the smaller battles that took place in the cauldron of fighting at Gettysburg, the battle at Little Round Top was one of the turning points on July 2nd. The failure to take the Round Tops on July 2nd precipitated the disastrous assault by General Picket on July 3rd. The names of Chamberlain, Vincent, and to a lesser extent Warren would be associated with the heroic stand on Little Round Top. Patrick O’Rorke and the men of the 140th New York arrived at the critical moment to bring to an end the crumbling flank of Vincent’s brigade. Colonel Patrick O’Rorke may not deserve the title of the hero of Little Round Top, but his actions should earn him recognition on par with Chamberlain and Vincent.

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Show Notes
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© 2024 Roger Daene

Written by Roger Daene.

About the author:
Roger Daene received his Master of Arts degree in History from Cleveland State University. He presently teaches for the University of Phoenix online and at their new campus in Jackson, Mississippi.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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