Bull Run at Gettysburg: James McKay Rorty

10 12 2017

On Dec. 2, I was in Gettysburg for a gathering of friends. Arriving on Saturday afternoon and the meeting not set to begin until 6 pm, I decided to “get my steps in” and did a little loop on Hancock Ave. from the Alexander Hays statue to the First Minnesota July 2 monument and back, stopping at each marker along the way. This meant there was a lot of back and forth and backtracking. While there were plenty of Bull Run connections along the way, let’s just take a look at one: Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery.

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Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, at Gettysburg

You’ll recall that Private James McKay Rorty of the 69th New York State militia was captured at First Bull Run, escaped from prison in Richmond and made his way back to Washington (read his Bull Run account here, and also read a more complete biography of Rorty here). Mustered out of the militia, he subsequently enlisted in what was designated the 5th Regiment of Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade (read his letter to his father explaining his rationale for enlistment here). This turned out to be a battery of New York Light artillery – he had expected it would be cavalry – though his record of formal attachment to specific batteries thenceforth is murky. Regardless, by May of 1862 Lt. Rorty was serving as ordnance officer on the staff of Major General Israel B. Richardson.

At Gettysburg, now Captain Rorty was ordnance officer on the staff of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who had succeeded Richardson upon the latter’s mortal wounding at Antietam and was then in command of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps. Technically, Rorty was in command of the non-existent 14th New York Independent Battery of the Irish Brigade. At the same time, Rorty maintained his association with Irish Nationalist organization the Fenian Brotherhood, and was recording secretary in the group’s Potomac Circle. You can read about Fenians in the Civil War here – there’s a lot to it, and it’s not always what you think. Long story short, Rorty was a big deal in “the movement.”

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Artillery officers on the Peninsula, 1862. Rorty is seated on the right. Fellow Bull Run vet Alonzo Cushing is standing, center. From LOC.

On the afternoon of July 2, Rorty became anxious to join in the fighting, and petitioned his boss for assignment to a combat unit. Hancock acquiesced, and some time that day Rorty was placed in command of the 122 men and four 10 pounder Parrot rifles of Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, 2nd Corps’ Artillery Brigade. Late in the day, the battery was in place in the Plum Run Line that helped repulse the assault of Longsteet’s Corps’ assault on the Peach Orchard salient. The battery lost one man killed, eight wounded, and 13 horses rendered unserviceable.

On the morning of July 3rd, Rorty’s command was moved to a point about 250 yards south of the now famous “copse of trees” believed by most to be the focal point of General Robert E. Lee’s assault known as Pickett’s Charge. During the artillery barrage that preceded the infantry advance, Rorty advanced his guns to the stone wall in front of his position, and returned fire. His command began to suffer casualties, and Rorty moved from gun to gun, issuing orders and encouragement. Eventually three of his four rifles were out of action, and Rorty himself stripped down to his shirtsleeves, grabbed a sponge staff, and joined the crew of his last gun. The Captain called for help from the nearby 19th Massachusetts Infantry, and received about 20 men in reply. Then, the Confederate infantry moved out from the tree line to the west.

Rorty’s lone gun continued to fire on the advancing rebels, until the men of Brigadier General James Kemper’s brigade came past the barn of the Codori farm and into canister range. Some time before the advance petered out at the stone wall, Capt. James McKay Rorty was dead, killed instantly by a shot to the head or heart. Nine more of his command lay dead; another eight were wounded.

Two weeks after the battle, Rorty’s brother Richard gathered his remains from where he had been buried on the field and returned them to New York. He was reinterred in Calvary Cemetery on July 19, 1863.

6016383_1113996429586016383_1399684971Rorty’s grave in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, New York, from FindAgrave

 





Bull Runnings at West Point

6 11 2017

On Friday, October 20, my family toured the grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. Thanks to our mutual friend Dr. Carol Reardon, we were given a guided tour of the post cemetery by military history instructor Lt. Col. David Siry (Dave’s efforts bring us the wonderful West Point Center for Oral History features, which you can also follow on its Facebook page). It was all a little overwhelming – in such a small plot of land, you’re pretty much tripping over U. S. Army history with every step. Cemeteries have the most significant emotional impact of any historic sites for me – not only are they the resting places of the mortal remains of the people I’ve read so much about, but the gravesites were often the last place where loved ones gathered with them, where they were remembered and “sent off” to, well, wherever we think they go. I could have spent a week in the West Point Cemetery. But, of course, I couldn’t. Now, we only had the one day, and it was a football weekend (Army beat Temple on a pass play the next day…A COMPLETED PASS!!!), so before you say “Oh, you should have seen X, Y, or Z” we saw as much as we could see in the time we had. Below, I’ll recap the day via photos of First Bull Run related items. (I took about 275 photos, and they’re not all BR1 related, but this is a First Bull Run site. I’ll post other Civil War related shots on the Bull Runnings Facebook page if you’re interested.)

First thing, if you want to visit the Academy, you’ll need to get clearance and an ID at the off post visitor’s center, where the museum is (we didn’t get back there until after 4:00, when the museum closed.) It’s not too bad – you need your driver’s license and your social security number. Our process took a little longer because it was a football weekend, and alumni and cadet parents get preference. The photo ID is good for up to a year, and it makes a cool souvenir too. Just be patient and don’t try to make too much small talk with the processors.

We picked up Dave near his office in Thayer Hall, and it was off to the cemetery, with our guide describing points of interest along the way. One thing’s for sure: the Academy is very, very gray. Gray, stone, imposing buildings predominate. This stood out in stark contrast to the amazing Fall colors of the Hudson Valley. And we had a beautiful, clear day. (Click on any image for a great-big-giant one.)

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Gray – I think that is Thayer Hall to the right.

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Not gray – The Hudson Valley from Trophy Point

Here are the Fist Bull Runners as we came across them in the cemetery:

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Alonzo Cushing, who was with Co. G, 2nd U. S. Artillery. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in June, 2014

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Erasmus Keyes, Brigade Commander, Tyler’s Division

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Keyes rear

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George Sykes, commanded the U. S. Regular Battalion

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General-in-Chief Winfield Scott

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Mrs. Scott

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Sylvanus Thayer – 5th Superintendent and “Father” of the U. S. Military Academy

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Joseph Audenried – ADC to Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler

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George Armstrong Custer – 2nd U. S. Cavalry

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George Armstrong Custer – 2nd U. S. Cavalry

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George Armstrong Custer – 2nd U. S. Cavalry

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George Armstrong Custer – 2nd U. S. Cavalry

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Elizabeth Bacon Custer

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Lt. Col. Siry and I discuss the history of the Custer memorial as my son listens in

Dennis Hart Mahan and his ideas on engineering and military theory had perhaps the greatest influence on the cadets at West Point. In 1871, after the Board of Visitors recommended he retire, he leapt into the paddlewheel of a Hudson River steamboat.

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The Old Cadet Chapel served as the Academy’s place of worship from 1836 until it was replaced by the current Cadet Chapel and moved to the cemetery from its original location, brick by brick through the efforts of alumni, in 1910. It was in this building that cadets gathered in 1861, in the wake of resignations of cadets from southern states, to take a new Oath of Allegiance to the United States and its constitution. Mounted on the walls inside are war trophies and plaques to various individuals, including past superintendents, the first graduating class (2 cadets), and one plaque that lists no name, in non-recognition of former post commander Major General Benedict Arnold (the day before, in Tarrytown, NY, I visited a couple of sites pertaining to the capture of the treacherous Arnold’s British contact, Major John Andre).

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Winfield Scott’s pew used in his retirement. He sat next to a column at the far end, which obscured his often dozing form from the view of the officiant.

The new (107-year-old) Cadet Chapel is adorned with representative flags of various Civil War regular units, some of which were present at First Bull Run. It’s also home to the world’s largest chapel pipe organ, with 23,511 pipes. Despite having played – in church, no less – as a youth, I was not going to embarrass myself…

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This pew is not used, and the candle remains lit in remembrance of those cadets who did not return home (per an overheard tour guide)

Trophy Point overlooks the Hudson Valley and offers one of the most scenic views in the nation. For many years it was the site of graduation ceremonies, and now is home to a large artillery display (many prizes of war, hence “Trophy Point”) and one of the tallest polished granite columns (46 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter) in the world, the Battle Monument. Designed by architect Stanford White, the Battle Monument displays the names of regular army officers and men who perished in the Civil War. The column is topped by the figure of “Fame.” The names of fallen Regular officers encircle the column, first those on staff, then those in the regular regiments and batteries. Enlisted men’s names are inscribed around eight globes placed around the column.  There are over 2,200 names in all. Each of the eight globes is adorned with two cannons, each muzzle inscribed with the name of a Civil War battle. Here are a few shots of the monument, with particular attention to First Bull Run related items.

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Capt. Otis H. Tillinghast, Acting Assistant Quartermaster, McDowell’s Staff, mortally wounded at First Bull Run

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Lt. Patrick H. O’Rorke, ADC to B. G. Daniel Tyler; Cadet John R. Meigs, attached to staff of Maj. Henry Hunt, 2nd U. S. Artillery

I’m sure there are names I missed, but again, this was on the fly. Maybe next time.

All-in-all, a great trip. We saw a great deal in addition to what I included above, yet I can’t imagine leaving this place, particularly on such a beautiful fall day, without wishing I had more time. Thanks so much to Lt. Col. David Siry for his fine tour of the cemetery. If you get the chance to visit the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, definitely do it. And give it as much time as possible. It’s an informative and even moving experience.

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Lt. Col. David Siry at the grave of Capt. Ronald Zinn, Class of 1962, whose unusual gait led him to race walking and the 1960 & 1964 U. S. Olympic teams

 





Image: 2nd Lt. George Armstrong Custer, Co. G, 2nd U. S. Cavalry

21 09 2017
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Cadet George Armstrong Custer, USMA Class of 1861 Album (Buffalo Bill Center of the West)





Ballou Balloon Burst?

12 09 2017
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Horatio Rogers, Jr.

The entire Robert Grandchamp America’s Civil War magazine article, “‘O Sarah!’ Did Sullivan Ballou’s Famed Letter Come From Another’s Pen?” can be found right here.

Go here for a link to an interview with Mr. Grandchamp.

Caption to photo in America’s Civil War magazine:

Was It Rogers? Some suspect Horatio Rogers Jr., not Ballou, wrote the famous letter, perhaps as a way of eulogizing his dear friend. (The Robert Grandchamp Collection)





Something About Sullivan

2 09 2017

800px-Sullivan_BallouHere’s a little Q & A with a historian who has a take on the authenticity of the famous “Dear Sarah” letter.

I have no dog in this fight.





Image: Lt. James P. Drouillard, Aide to Major George Sykes, U. S. Regulars

12 07 2017
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Lt. James Pierre Drouillard, Aide to Major George Sykes, as a West Point Cadet (see this site)





Image: Corp. Benjamin F. Smart, Co. D, 2nd Maine Infantry

11 07 2017
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Corporal Benjamin Freeman Smart, Co. D, 2nd Maine Infantry (see this site)