02 July 2013

A Misfiring Gun at Gettysburg

Patrick O'Rorke was born in County Cavan, Ireland 25 march 1837. When just one year old his parents emigrated to America. By 1842 he was living in Rochester, New York. He was an intelligent man, being awarded a scholarship to the University of Rochester when he was 16. He turned down that scholarship in order to help support his mother and the rest of his family.

In 1857 he would become a cadet at the US Military Academy at West Point. He graduated first in his class and was commissioned to the Corps of Engineers in June 1861.

The Civil War
In September 1862 he was appointed colonel of the 140th New York Infantry which was composed mostly of volunteers from Rochester. He led the 140th at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

During the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg O'Rorke led his men to the defense of Little Round Top which was in danger of falling into rebel hands. Despite heavy casualties they helped hold the ground. During the fighting O'Rorke caught up his regimental colors and, mounting a rock he urged his men to continue the fight. They pushed back the 4th and 5th Texas. Thirty-Six of their men were killed, 78 wounded, and 18 were missing.

Colonel O'Rorke continued to lead his men for the rest of the war. Two of the more costly battles they fought in were the The Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Cold Harbor. At Five Forks, Virginia one of O'Rorke's men, First Sergeant Robert F. Shipley, captured the flag of the 9th Virginia Infantry in hand-to-hand combat. Shipley would be awarded the Congressional Medal or Honor.

New York Assembly
After leaving the Army in late 1869 O'Rorke returned to Rochester with his wife and three children. He was a hero in Rochester and turned that popularity into a successful campaign for New York State Assembly. He ran as a Republican defeating Democrat George D. Lord in the November 1870 election.

In 1874 during the 97th New York State Legislature session he met and befriended fellow Republican Assemblyman, Hamilton Fish II. Fish's father was the U.S. Secretary of State for President Grant's administration.

O'Rorke did not run for re-election in 1876. He had received an offer to help Hamilton Fish, Sr. on an important project in Washington.

US Department of State
Patrick O'Rorke's excellent military record, knowledge of engineering, and connections with Hamilton Fish and President Grant gave him a post with Secretary of State. They wanted his help with negotiations and planning for an inter-oceanic canal in Nicaragua. Negotiations were successfully completed in late March 1877 with O'Rorke's contributions. It was at this point the new President, Rutherford B. Hayes, came into office and created his own cabinet. Hamilton Fish was replaced. Patrick O'Rorke was kept on and placed in charge of the Nicaraguan Canal project.

Nicaraguan Canal Company
After moving his family down to Washington, DC O'Rorke worked full time on the canal project. He would have to spend more than half of his time in Nicaragua surveying sites and overseeing local operations. It was estimated that the project would take fifteen to twenty years to complete. Unlike all estimates it ended up being optimistic – the project took nearly thirty years and cost considerably more blood and treasure than was imagined.

None of the near catastrophic problems with the construction of the canal can be blamed on Patrick O'Rorke however. Unfortunately he died in 1879 of malaria at the age of 42. He left behind his wife, Clara as well has three children – his son Neil, and daughters Mary and Eileen. His body was returned to Rochester and buried in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetary.

It has been wondered by many how the Nicaraguan Canal project would have turned out if Patrick's life had not been cut short. Would he have had the intelligence and strength of character to keep the worst problems from being as severe.
Lt. Colonel O'Rorke was killed on 2 July 1863 defending Little Round Top at Gettysburg. He was still young (26 years old) and intelligent. It was 150 years ago today that he died. This is an alternate history to honor one of my hometown's Civil War heroes.

*Patrick O'Rorke over at Wikipedia (a portion of this post is taken from the entry on O'Rorke and the 140th.
*Robert F. Shipley
*140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment
The images are also from Wikipedia. Both are public domain due to their age.

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