For Erin and America - James McKay Rorty


We dug him a grave near his own shining cannon,
And laid him therein with his sword by his side,
Far away from his home by the fair flowing Shannon,
In the strength of his years and the flush of his pride ...

-- From "Captain O'Hay" a poem dedicated to
James McKay Rorty by Michael Scanlan, June, 1887

One of the many Irish-Americans who flocked to the colors in 1861 was a 24-year-old native of Donegal named James McKay Rorty. He had come to this country in 1857, and labored as a book canvasser to bring his parents and eight siblings to America.

Leslie's Pictorial History
Rorty and Kelly making their escape.

As private in Company G of the 69th New York Militia, Rorty was captured with Colonel Michael Corcoran during the chaotic retreat from Bull Run. Rorty and two comrades, William O'Donohue and Peter Kelly, escaped from a Richmond warehouse and headed north. On the night of September 27, Rorty and Kelly hid in an abandoned house while O'Donohue attempted to cross the Potomac River. He was picked up by the U.S.S. Seminole, and Rorty and Kelly were rescued the following night.

In November 1861, Rorty ignored his parents' wishes and accepted a leutenancy in the 14th New York Independent Battery In this letter to his father, now on file at the National Archives, the young Fenian sought to justify his disobedience, eloquently linking the preservation of the Union with the cause of Irish independence. -- Brian Pohanka

New York Nov. 15th 1861

My dear father,

James McKay Rorty

I received your letter of the 23rd ult. some days since, but being unusually busy I could not answer sooner. I grieve to destroy that happiness and contentment that my successful escape has given to you all and more especially to my dear mother, but I cannot deceive you, and though I would fain conceal the fact, you would sooner or later learn it, viz. that I have again taken up arms, and accepted a commission as lieutenant, tendered me by Col. Thomas Francis Meagher in his own regiment the 5th cavalry of the Irish Brigade.

I hope, my dear father, that you will forgive me, for this double breach of my duty and my pledged word. I know that you would readily do so if you knew how hard it was for me to succeed in the business you brought me up to, or in any similar pursuit. God knows I have struggled with both mind and body, for three years, and at the end I was as far off success as ever, and had only succeeded in crippling my intellect, and shattering my constitution. The occupation of book canvassing, to which I turned at first, promised well, but failed when bad times came on, and at present would not pay my board. I am convinced that under no circumstances, could I succeed in a commercial career: this is no recent opinion of mine, I have held it as long as I can remember. The fact is I have no plodding genius, and though I am capable of great exertion, I must have some more powerful incentive than the mere prospect of gain. However I intended to keep the promise I made you some time ago, until my return to New York, but the gloomy appearance of business, and my inability to get any lucrative much less any suitable employment, turned my thoughts to the army again, from which indeed I could scarcely detach them, especially since I had the prospect of an honorable position.

I cannot deny that I was attracted to this profession, and that I found in it the realization of many a cherished dream.

More than that it was beneficial to me in the highest degree, morally and physically. I joined the 69th a shy, morose, and gloomy being, weak in body and with fluctuating health, never, it is true, alarming, but never very firm or secure from change, the worst phase was the weak state of my nerves, and a moping melancholy, that grew on me daily. After enduring extraordinary fatigue and hardships I returned, in less than six months with every trace of asthma or consumption gone (a subject of frequent alarm to me before), my sinews braced and invigorated as if they were turned into iron ones, my nervousness gone (nothing for curing that like the hiss of rifle or musket balls), and in its place a cool, steady, self possession that, thank God, will keep me out of panics at any rate, and in short such an entire improvement in my size, weight and appearance, that it takes an intimate friend to recognize me. I have also been benefitted by acquiring a more through knowledge of the world, and of my countrymen in particular: more tact, address and general information, which will be useful to me in any path of life.

As to the danger of death, I always trusted in God's protection, and though it appeared at one time imminent, if not unavoidable, I was never very apprehensive. I believe in my heart that the dry goods business would be to me a more certain if not a more speedy road to death than a military life is. It is true I never intended to resume that occupation, since I left it. I quitted it after long and serious reflections, and when it was dangerous to follow it any longer as well as useless, and not from a momentary whim or from a fanciful disgust. As to getting a situation under the government, it can only be had through political influence, and I, thank God, have no friend among the politicians, who monopolize all the civil appointments. They are a set of Catalines, who, next to English abolitionism, are responsible for the unhappy conditions of this great and once happy country I could not get such a place.

But apart from the motives of self interest, and the higher one of attachment to, and veneration for the Constitution, which urged me to defend it at all risks, there is another, and a deeper one still which weighed heavily with me, namely the hope that the military knowledge or skill which I may acquire might thereafter be turned to account in the sacred cause of my native land. I may state in this connection, that some time before the present unhappy war broke out, I joined the Phoenix Brigade, an organization of Irishmen similar in its objects to the United Irishmen of bygone days, and had the honor to gain through some essays I wrote and published in the organ of the brotherhood, the friendship and approval of that single-minded patriot John O'Mahoney Esqr.

I did not then, nor can I now, see why I should not make myself competent to lead in the cause of Ireland, while I was willing to follow in the same holy and ennobling struggle. And it is somewhat odd, I confess, to me, that you should rejoice at the cheering fact that 250,000 Irishmen will become disciplined or perhaps veteran soldiers, while you grudge your son should incur any risk in acquiring the same honorable privilege. And yet my dear mother and you profess your willingness to give not me alone but us all to serve the cause that even now we are promoting indirectly. For are we not serving "the foe of Ireland's foe"?

Does not every mail bring the cheering indications that the overgrown and bloated commercial body of England will fall like an empty sack if it cannot get the usual supply of American cotton to stuff and bolster it up?

And still further, dear father, let me reassure you of my firm conviction that the separation of this Union into North and South would not only be fatal to the progress of constitutional freedom but would put impassable barriers in the way of future immigration. It would close forever the wide portals through which the pilgrims of liberty from every European clime have sought and found it. Why? Because at the North the prejudices springing from the hateful and dominant spirit of Puritanism, and at the South, the haughty exclusiveness of an Oligarchy would be equally repulsive, intolerant and despotic. Our only guarantee is the Constitution, our only safety is the Union, one and indivisible.

Illustration by Conor Laverty
Drawing of the new stone placed on James McKay Rorty's grave, May 29, 1993

And now my dear father, if what I have urged would obtain your and my dear mother's forgive-forgiveness and blessing, I would indeed be happy. The consciousness of my disobedience is the only obstacle to that happiness. I implore you then to give it to me, that I may feel an entire conception of duty, and battle with a light heart. Commend me to the prayers of my old pastors. I know you will be glad to hear that Mass and religious exercise form a part of the daily duties of the soldiers of the brigade. Do not imagine that in camp or field we learn bad habits. Nothing is farther from the truth.

As to your wish to have the conduct of my friend O'Donohue explained, I am glad to be able to say that he is entirely blameless about the affair. He did his best to induce the captain of the Seminole to send him back for us with a boat, but the latter insisted on sending him to the War Dept. with his news; O'Donohue would not go however until he promised to send for us the following night. The Captain left us to our own resources, which was somewhat mean as well as cowardly. O'Donohue is a good and loyal comrade. He is captain of the company to which I belong. Your affectionate though undutiful son, James Rorty.


James McKay Rorty was one of the most active members of the Fenian Brotherhood in the Army of the Potomac. He was wounded at Fredericksburg while serving as ordnance officer on the staff of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. On the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, Captain Rorty took command of Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery.

On the 3rd, during Pickett's Charge, Rorty's battery was heavily engaged with the Confederate guns. With all but one gun out of action and many of his men dead or wounded, Rorty stripped down to this shirt sleeves to help his remaining men man his last gun. Col. James E. Mallon of the 42nd New York, who observed Rorty during this time told him, "Rorty, you're the bravest man I have ever seen or heard of!" Sometime during the last part of that famous action Rorty recieved a fatal wound, joining eight other members of his crew in death. Another eight were wounded.

Later that day James McKay Rorty was buried just north of the place he was killed. With him were buried his Fenian dreams of someday marching through Dublin as a free Irishmen. Capt. P.J. Downing of the 42nd NY, who had witnessed Rorty's heroic final action wrote to Fenian chief John O'Mahony calling Rorty's death , ".... as severe a loss as Ireland has had in a long time."

Two weeks after the battle Richard Rorty, James' brother, came to Gettysburg and returned his body to New York, where it was laid to rest among many other Irish heroes of the Civil War in Calvary Cemetery. One hundred and thirty years later the illegible acid rain eaten marble stone on Rorty's grave was replaced by the Donegal Association and the Irish Brigade Association of New York City. On that stone are the words of Captain John Hazard, 2nd Corps Artillary Brigade commander at Gettysburg, describing the fallen Rorty. ".... a worthy officer, a gallant soldier, an estimable man." Through the efforts of organizations such as the Irish Brigade Association, future generations of Irish-Americans may still remember the name: James McKay Rorty.

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