July 21st, 2011: Member Submission: James McKay Rorty

Posted on: 07/21/2011

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the first major land battle of the Civil War; First Manassas.  It is difficult with such an epic event to decide which soldier in particular to discuss in today’s post.  But, we were fortunate enough to receive a submission from Friends of Gettysburg member Steve Blount of Wheaton, Illinois, whose ancestor was in the thick of the fighting during the battle.  James McKay Rorty a native Irishman born in 1837, and arrived in America in 1857.  He enlisted in the first wave of recruits in the wake of Fort Sumter in April of 1861, and after two years of dedicated service had his life cut short at another epic battle in 1863.  Many thanks to Mr. Blount for submitting his ancestor to The Great Task Before Us.

As we stated in our intro, Rorty was born in Donegal Town, Ireland in June of 1837.  He was the first born of what would become a family of 10 siblings.  His life in Ireland is a bit obscure, and most details about his life come after his arrival in America in 1857.  What we do know is that Ireland was suffering through tough times during Rorty’s childhood, which gave him good reason to emigrate and find a better life for himself and his family.  He likely arrived in New York with high hopes, but was unable to find steady work.  The Irish tenement communities of the city offered little prospect for economic advancement, but he was still able to send much of his earnings back home to Ireland where the money was eventually used to bring his entire family across the Atlantic to America.


Above:  The only known image that is certain to be of James McKay Rorty.  It is from photo taken circa 1861 or 1862.

What Rorty lacked in financial means he made up for with a sense of community.  New York City in the late 1850’s was teeming with Irish immigrants.  Rorty found himself amongst a growing population of Irish Nationalists in New York known as the Fenian Brotherhood.  The Fenians were a network of Irish expatriates whose goal it was to support their mother country’s desire for independence from England.  Their efforts to achieve a free Irish state mostly centered around military actions, so when the United States went to war with itself in 1861, many Fenians saw it as a practical chance to gain the combat experience they would need to challenge British rule in Ireland.

Rorty enlisted in the 69th New York State Militia on April 20th, 1861.  The regiment had very close ties to the Fenian Brotherhood.  It was commanded by Michael Corcoran, who had helped found the organization in America.  The regiment wasted no time in departing New York for Washington, D.C., and left for war on April 23rd, 1861.  Their first few weeks of service must have been a huge disappointment for the eager soldiers.  Rorty and his comrades would not gain the adventure and military experience they desired, but were instead put on work details to help construct a line of defenses around Washington.

It wasn’t until July 16th, 1861, when Irvin McDowell’s Army of Northeastern Virginia left Washington to face confederates in the area around Manassas Junction that Rorty would have his first chance to prove himself in battle.  For a background on the First Manassas Campaign and opening stages of the battle, please see yesterday’s post on Nathan “Shanks” Evans here.

Rorty’s regiment was in the brigade of William Tecumseh Sherman.  Far from the renowned commander of armies he would become later in the war, in July of 1861 Sherman was another pre-war army officer learning how to orchestrate large numbers of troops and command them in battle.  In Sherman’s Brigade, Rorty and his comrades were part of the 1st Division of the Army of Northeastern Virginia.  This was one of the units designated to take part in the assault on the confederate army.  Sherman’s Brigade was not involved in the large flanking march mentioned in yesterday’s post, but instead would come in directly from the east.  This put the brigade in an excellent position to attack the confederates who had just exposed their right flank by turning to meet the union flanking column.

Initially successful, the union onslaught forced the outnumbered confederates southeast to Henry House Hill.  It was on Henry House Hill that the odds would be evened, however, as the confederates rallied and strengthened their defenses around a group of Virginia regiments under Thomas Jackson.  The federals failed to press their advantage, and by the time attacks were organized to push the confederates off their new stronghold, the weight of northern numbers had diminished.

The union advantage in numbers was not just diminished by the arrival of fresh confederate troops, but also by the lack of coordination amongst the union division and brigade commanders, who never were able to bring all of their firepower to bear at once.  Every attack was made at most by only a few regiments, and not in brigade or division strength.  When it was the 69th New York’s turn to storm the slopes of Henry House Hill, Rorty and his fellow Irishmen pushed forward with great enthusiasm.  The confederate defenders did not break, but counterattacked, and sent Rorty and his fellow soldiers retreating towards the banks of Bull Run.

Above:  The Capture of Rickett’s Battery by Sidney E. King.  The capture of the line of union guns pictured near Henry House Hill marked the beggining of the union retreat from Manassas.

The 69th New York stayed in good order during the initial retreat.  The confederates used their cavalry to pursue the retreating federals, and Colonel Corcoran ordered his men into a hollow square, which was a classic anti-cavalry formation.  Inside the hollow square of New Yorkers was their brigade commander, William Tecumseh Sherman.  The regiment managed to maintain order until they reached Bull Run.  At this point, according to Rorty, Sherman told his men to get across the creek as fast as they could to escape the enemy cavalry.  The New Yorkers then broke into a run and lost all cohesion.  Rorty found his commander, Colonel Corcoran, and joined a small band of other soldiers rallying around him.  Overwhelmed, the small group saw that resistance was hopeless and surrendered.  Rorty would later express his deep frustration with Sherman’s handling of the brigade during the battle in a letter to one of his fellow Fenians back in New York.

James Rorty would spend the next two months in a prison in Richmond.  He chose to end his prison time with a display of his exceptional bravery.  Rorty and two other comrades managed to escape the prison in civilian clothes, evaded confederate authorities for several dozen miles, and arrived at the banks of the Potomac River to be picked up by U.S. Navy gunboats.  He returned to New York and was officially mustered out from his original 90-day enlistment in the 69th.  By the end of 1861 he reenlisted as an artilleryman in a New York battery, but ultimately would end up as an ordnance officer conducting staff duty.  This non-combat duty did not appeal to Rorty, who often lamented about not being allowed to fight in his letters.

Above: A group of artillery staff officers.  Rorty is thought to be the man seated at right, but it is not fully confirmed.  Another face you may recognize in this photo is Alonzo Cushing, who is seen standing at center.  Both men would be killed July 3rd, 1863 at Gettysburg.

Rorty would serve the next two years in the Army of the Potomac.  It was at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863 that he finally found himself in command of a battery on Cemetery Ridge.  Until two days previous he was still an ordnance officer on the staff of Winfield Scott Hancock, but he had urged his commander to give him command of a battery.  He was placed at the head of Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery on July 2nd, and saw action during the confederate assaults that day.  On July 3rd his battery was pummeled by the bombardment that preceded Pickett’s Charge, and by the time the confederate infantry began their assault he had only one gun operational.

At some point between the beginning of the infantry assault and its repulse, Rorty was killed on the battlefield.  He had heroically stood by his guns throughout the engagement, and even beckoned infantryman near him to work what was left of his battery after it had been decimated by the bombardment.  Rorty was initially buried on the battlefield near where he fell, but was later exhumed and reburied in Brooklyn, New York’s Calvary Cemetery.

Most of what we know about James McKay Rorty comes from a short work written by the revered historian Brian C. Pohanka entitled James McKay Rorty: An Appreciation.  Friends of Gettysburg member Steve Blount wrote the foreword to the work, which is a fascinating and informative booklet that we highly recommend.  Thank you once again to Mr. Blount for taking the time to submit his great-great uncle to Great Task.  We hope this will do more to gain recognition to Captain Rorty, who gave the last full measure of devotion at Gettysburg.

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