28.3.2012

Capt. James McKay Rorty

Born Donegal town Ireland 11th June 1837. Died Gettysburg Pa. 3rd. July 1863.

Pvte. Co. G. 69th New York Militia

Lieut. 2nd Batt. Art. Irish Brigade.

Lieut. 14th. New York Ind. Batt. Light Art.

Gen. Staff 2nd. Corps.

Capt. Batt. B. 1st. New York Light Art.

The first time I came across James McKay Rorty was when I was researching the background of Lieut. Peter Kelly a Derry man of the 69th New York infantry and finding him linked with James McKay Rorty a Donegal man also of the 69th New York who along with William O'Donohue a Corkman had as a threesome made a daring and successful escape from Confederate imprisonment in Richmond Va in the early days of the civil war. Just recently I started to investigate Rorty's background in more detail. The information below is not so much about his war service which has been widely recorded in America but of his background and links to Ireland. (See notes on Kelly on another webpage).
James McKay Rorty was born in Donegal town Ireland June 11th 1837 to Richard Rorty and his wife Catherine McKay or McCay. Richard and Catherine had a linen, woolen drapers and haberdashers business on Main Street Donegal town Co. Donegal. James was the eldest of 10 children. The Rorty's business was on Main St. just off the Diamond in the centre of the town which in 1857 had a population of about 1,600. It was a town of some importance and relatively well developed. However in 1837 the year James Rorty was born Co. Donegal like the rest of Ireland was on the brink of the major famine of 1847. Poverty was rampant right across the county. Emigration would be in fairly massive numbers to many places mostly N. America and Canada but also to such places as Australia and New Zealand as well as Scotland and England. In the 1846 Slaters listing the year prior to the 1847 great Irish famine Richard Rorty is actually listed as running a "linen and woolen drapers and haberdashers" store on Main St. Donegal town. ( click on Icon below and his name appears down the alphabetical list ). It is interesting to note all the other names but also all the different trades, businesses and professions in the Donegal towns. Donegal town was a typical Irish town servicing quite a large hinterland but also had the advantage of having sea access and a small seaport capable of handling coastal trade sailing ships from all around the British Isles.

The Griffiths listings 1848-1864 of Co. Donegal shows only one Rorty family in fact the Richard Rorty family named. Other varients of the name are Roarty some 30 off in the county and mostly in the area of Tullaghbegley and numerous McGroarty's all over the county. This is interesting. The name Rorty is as such obviously derived originally from the old Donegal Irish name Mag Robhartaigh, McGroarty being the Anglised version and at times changed to McGrorty, Roarty or Rorty, much less the latter. Now what about the McKay name?. This is in no circumstances an Irish rooted name but is most certainly of Scots origin. The Scots clan of McKay has a very complex and long history. Their origins generally accepted as being in the far north of Scotland. During the Highland clearances the clan suffered greatly as thousands were forcibly forced off their lands by fair means and foul so that the landlords could exploit the cleared land for more profitable enterprises such as sheep rearing for the lucrative wool markets. The Highland clearances a period of which few records were kept is basically Scotland's hidden history rarely talked about outside Scotland and even less in Scotland though in recent times there has been a reawakening amongst Scots at home and indeed there descendants all over the world. It should be noted that there are many people carrying the name McKay in Donegal. Many of these especially in Donegal would be descendants of a more recent immigration during the Plantation of Ulster after the fall of the Donegal ruling family of the O'Donnells and the O'Neills of Tyrone. Thus there are many Presbyterian McKays and a much lesser number of Catholic McKays in Co. Donegal. In many cases the Catholics carrying the name seem to use the McCay spelling.
The Rortys were noted as shopkeepers. As a county town Donegal would be a focal point for the surrounding area. As a consequence there were many small shops and businesses such as banks, tailors, grocers, hardware merchants, small hotels for travelling salesmen, saddlers, carpenters, etc and of course numerous small public houses where many deals were made between farmers and no doubt where a few marriages were arranged and news from letters from the folks who had written back home from "the shores of Amerikay". Most then as now would have many links to America especially the big cities of the east coast especially Philadelphia and New York. It is interesting to note that in 1857 for 1,600 townsfolk there were some 14 spirit and porter dealers, Always good back up for the busy weekly market!!!.
Richard and Catherine Rorty probably were just about able to keep their young family in reasonable comfort but Ireland and particularly Donegal had a lot of poverty. By 1857 their oldest son James was now aged 20. As things started to get difficult for Richard and Catherine Rorty burdens had to ease and the thoughts of emigration started to take root. In 1857 their oldest son James aged 20 departed for America, to New York to ease the burden on the family and if he made a success of it then he could send money back home, the usual emigrant scenario of the time. Not a lot is known about James's formative years in Donegal. What we do know is that he was baptised Catholic by Father Eugene McCafferty the local curate (See Slaters link 1846) on June 18th 1837 a week after his birth. The years until he set off for America would appear to have included his junior school years at the local National School. However though he may have worked in his fathers business I feel that he may well have been sent to one of the local "Academies" that existed at the time teaching classics etc. perhaps in a local town. His parents obviously wanted their first born to get educated and move on in life. However what can be gleaned by 1860 he was a very well educated young man when he left for America. I base this primarily on reading the content of letters he wrote to various American newspapers at the start of the Civil war. An example is one he wrote to the Irish American from New York on Oct 12th 1861 about his experiences at the battle of Bull Run with the 69th New York and subsequent escape from capture.
Donegal town in the middle 19th century would have been a reasonably mixed society of Catholic and Protestants. His folks would I think been able to afford what fees were required for his education the emphasis being on writing, reading and arithmetic, the three "r's" greatly stressed in the Ireland of the time. However if he did attend any of the local "academies" his education would have been greatly enhanced. I feel he was given this chance of further education. In my research of the soldiers of the 69th Pa. I have found that any soldier who had these basic skills gained promotion nearly immediately and those who had a higher state of education gained higher ranks quite quickly.
From family history it is seen that James kept in close contact with his family back home. It is noted that when he arrived in New York he endeavoured to set up a book canvassing business which was not really successful and he reverted to running a dry goods store. He obviously hated both businesses. However from the latter he was able to provide the fare for his younger brother Richard aged 18 to come to America in 1860. On joining the Union Army from subsequently money he earned as an enlisted officer he sent back home to enable another brother David aged 16 to follow in 1862. Later with his now officers pay he was able to pay for the passage of his parents and four other brothers and three sisters to come to America and they arrived in New York May 1863 just before the battle of Gettysburg.The family settled on Franklin St in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. James had taken time off to go and meet them and no doubt get them settled in. Sadly not too long afterwards tragedy would strike the family as James was killed at the battle of Gettysburg.
Why and under what circumstances did James relinquish his book canvassing and dry goods business and volunteer to join the Union army and end up as a high ranking member of the Fenian Brotherhood organisation in both New York and in the army.
Here is my take on what happened to James. It may be at odds with other's thoughts but it is a perspective from this side of the Atlantic.
James had arrived in New York as a kid of 20 probably having never travelled much beyond Sligo and neighbouring south Donegal towns. He arrived in New York in 1857 a city and society in a very unstable state with the clouds of civil war looming. It would have been a daunting experience for such a young man. He had to organise himself, get lodgings, set up a book canvassing business and try and make a go of it which he did showing a young man of great endeavour. However it would be a very lonely place. I feel that there were several forces at play in his life at the time. He was obviously well educated and a highly motivated young man looking for success in his new homeland. However for whatever reason perhaps of necessity he chose, if indeed he had a choice to get into "book canvassing". At home he would have been known as a "commercial traveller" going around the booksellers in and around New York trying to sell books to them on behalf of a wholesaler thus getting a small percentage or cut from each sale. He would have had very good knowledge of just what this occupation was from working in his fathers business in Donegal where "the traveller" would call perhaps weekly or monthly and take orders or try and generate business. Such men were a necessity at the time but not held in much esteem as each business tried to get as a good deal as possible from them always with the threat he would lose the good will of the shopkeeper who could easily change to someone else ready to sell at a lower price. He no doubt loathed doing this job for a living in New York as he later indicated in his letters home. He no doubt looked for other Irishmen that he could relate to and obtain stability from. No different to the thousands of other immigrants from many nations flowing into the city. By chance or by design he would appear to have befriended some radical nationalistic Irishmen who had arrived a few years before Rorty many who had been members of the Young Irelanders society of circa 1848 in Ireland who had a more radical physical force ethos to solve Irelands relationship with England. Amongst these men was the noted John Mitchel. A group from amongst these men formed up what was the Phoenix society some of whose members formed up what was to become the Fenian Brotherhood the F.B. A major player in this organisation was John O'Mahony a colonel in the 99th New York National Guards. James would also soon be noticed by the former Young Irelander Michael Doheny now of the 69th New York State Militia..
Rorty was obviously impressed by these men and befriended them and wrote several articles for the Brotherhood's publications. He was soon noticed and soon afterwards was initiated into the Fenian Brotherhood by a Patrick W. Phelan. Rorty soon signed up for service in Capt. Phelans Co. D. of the "O'Mahony's Guard" a company within the 40 comprising the Phoenix Brigade. His transition from book salesman to dry good store keeper to being an activist and soldier had started. His life would change for ever. There would certainly be challenges and excitement. He soon made a name for himself in Fenian circles in New York. He was noted by a Michael Cavanagh a future biographer of Francis Thomas Meagher as a "well educated, gentle, and unassuming in manner and gifted with a power of eloquence rarely vouchsafed to so young a young man".
On April 12th 1861 things would change further for Rorty. The Civil war commenced when Fort Sumter was fired on. One of the men in charge of the guns at Fort Moultrie in Charleston harbour would be Capt John C. Mitchel a Confederate officer and son of the Irish Nationalist and founder member of the Young Ireland movement in Ireland. No doubt Mitchel was well known to Doheny and O'Mahony from back in Ireland. Most certainly John O'Mahony, Meagher and Doheny would have known of Mitchel more than likely known him personally.
On April 20th 1861 a week after the commencement of the Civil war Rorty enlisted for a term of 90 days in Co. G of the 69th. New York State Militia commanded by Colonel Michael Corcoran another founder member of the Fenian Brotherhood. Rorty was now in a position in life he probably never thought possible.

A sketch of Rorty from the Irish World 18th June 1887.

Note the figure 5 on the above sketched portrait. He had just been commissioned 2nd Lieut. by Thomas Francis Meagher in the newly formed 5th Regt. of the Irish Brigade.
However though he had indeed found a new life for himself both exciting and fulfilling there would I think be associated problems back home perhaps on two fronts, his putting himself in danger as a soldier which he really did not need to do and also his alignment with a fairly radical political society of the Fenian Brotherhood the American equivalent of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. How would this go down with his parents back home?. To understand this aspect I think it is fair to look at the situation existing for his parents and their business back in Donegal. Donegal town had a diverse religious mix of Catholics, Presbyterians, the Established Church (Protestants) and Methodists. It was basically a county controlled by the landlords and their agents. Businesses and trade would on the whole would be mostly in the control of the non-Catholic inhabitants. The Catholic population though in the majority would have little financial and social clout. They were between a rock and hard place between the dominant landlord/economic controllers and that control exercised by the Catholic church who took their money but not their side. I suggest linking to the site below and looking at the names and professions of the Donegal town of 1857. You will see Richard Rortys name and that of Father Mc Caffery who in 1813 baptised James. To those of you who have good knowledge of names as related to Irish history then and now will soon see my point.

Now it is very probably that in peaceful times the Rortys enjoyed business support from as is said here "both sides of the community". Could this change? I think most certainly. Around the time their son James got involved with the the Fenian Brotherhood in America word would soon get back home. Just maybe because of this Richard Rorty's business in Donegal town might not have had such good support from the "other side of the community". The scenario relevant then and as relevant in 2012. Ireland's history has been dogged by religion and land ownership.
Was James Rorty very political minded before he left for America? On a personal basis I think not a lot. Yes, he probably could see the massive poverty all around him, the inequality of his fellow countrymen and the landlord system in full control from the magistrates to the militias, to the Established Church with its social control and the dreaded landlords the so people from "the big Houses" with massive land ownership of the best land. Would he have thought of getting involved in any radical movement eg to take up arms to change the system?. Maybe he though of it but we will never know for sure but he probably realised that a few could do little against the "system" as was at that time. However maybe seeds were planted and his future links in New York awakened these thoughts.
At about the same as Rorty was becoming ever more deeply involved in Fenian politics in New York political and indeed religious unrest would be rising back home in Donegal. Evictions would be common. Perhaps the most notorious one which made world headlines in Ireland and indeed America was the eviction of some 250 poor tenant farmers labourers at Glenveagh in north Donegal by the notorious and loathed landlord John George Adair a man who had come north from Co. Leix and bought thousands of acres of the area around Glenveagh. He saw no merit in having all these poor peasant farmers and their hovels spoiling his view and not paying their rents in fact not being able to. On various pretexts on 1st April 1861 he had them forcible evicted. They were literally turned out on the roadside to fend for themselves. Many were left for others to feed , and many were "encouraged" to head for Australia and New Zealand and no doubt their descendants are still there. Adiar built a Scottish baronial castle in the area. Later he would head off to America and later in 1869 married Cornelia Wadsworth the daughter of Union General James Wadsworth. Later he moved to the Texas Pahandle and commenced ranching.
No doubts event like this in 1861 fed directly into Rortys feelings and how he could eventually change things back home. The Fenian Brotherhood was perhaps a channel.
Rorty's letter writing and speech making were obviously of great help to the likes of Meagher and the Fenian Brotherhood's cause. Rorty had established himself in the upper circles of the Fenian Brotherhood in the army of the Potomac. His noterity in this position was obviously feeding back to Ireland as in early `1863 the prominent Irish Fenian Thomas Clark Luby when on a visit to America probably to exchange views and arrangements between the I.R.B. and the American Fenian Brotherhood (the F.B) in the "Potomac Circle" made it his business to engage with Rorty. Luby was obviously impressed by Rorty whom he described as " the cleverest and most promising young Irish soldier...one of whom would have been priceless value to us at home....a nice looking young man well mannered well spoken, highly intelligent seemingly educated, certainly well informed on military subjects...twas indeed a pleasure to converse with him". Later after Rortys death at Gettysburg Luby stated "he was probably a more serious loss to our cause that even Corcoran". This surely says a lot about Rorty's politics. Remember he was just 24 and was now an officer and amongst the "big boys". He was now also somewhere between a rock and a hard place. He had some explaining to do as no doubt his parents in Donegal could sense problems for themselves and certainly for their son. It was time to write back home and explain.
He was probably in frequent written correspondence with his parents back home. A letter he wrote back to his father from New York Nov. 15th 1861 is a massive reflection of the situation he had created for himself and for his family. He starts off at length apologising for his having re-enlisted in the Army. He had obviously broken promises to his mother in particular that he would not re-enlist but tried to gloss over this by making them proud that he was now a lieutenant in the 5th Cavalry of the Irish Brigade and infers that Col. Thomas Francis Meagher gifted him his higher officer ranking.
In the letter he goes on to explain just how awful his life had been as a book salesman and dry goods businessman, how it affected his health and how army life completely changed him for the better mentally and indeed physically. He then goes on to state that the invaluable fighting skills he and many thousands of other Irish soldiers in the Union army would learn could be put to good use to free Ireland when they all returned home etc.
Rorty then seems to round on both the North and the South participants in the Civil War. The North because of its Puritanism and the South a haughty oligarchy but the "Constitution" was the only safety of the Union. He also goes on to state that his fellow escapee O'Donohue from Confederate capture should not be judged too harshly for whatever misconduct he had done in their escape from prison in Richmond. In his letter he goes on to appeal to his mothers "forgiveness" by stating just how the Brigade attends to its religious duties daily and the soldiers learn no "bad" habits!!.
At the end he even goes to the length of assuring his folks that he had not even broke any parole conditions with his Confederate captors and as such they could not hang or shoot him should they ever capture him again!!. Did he really believe this or is this for his parents naive consumption? If he did really believe what he was writing then just maybe he was an innocent abroad and was utilised by darker forces in the Fenian Brotherhood at the time. In any case his letter just about covered as many angles as he could.
It is a personal opinion that Rorty's actions in America obviously changed his life for ever but alas also his family back home. By 1862 another brother David arrived and a few weeks before the battle of Gettysburg the remainder of his family arrived. His father at the age of 47 in 1863 sold up his business set off on the long ardous trip to America with his wife and seven young children. How they must have felt boarding the stage in the Diamond just along from where they lived on a Spring mid morning of early May 1863 for Catherine 22, Michael 16, Mary 15, Theodore (Teddy) 15, Francis (Fanny) 15, Margaret (Maggie) 9 and John 8 to journey to Derry to join a ship bound for America perhaps via Liverpool to an America in the throes of a massive civil war. These are the scenes overlooked by historians. They left their beloved Donegal for ever and tragedy awaited them as their anchor in America James would soon be killed at Gettysburg. No doubt the children viewed the journey as a massive thrilling adventure, Perhaps their parents Richard and John more likely viewed it with trepidation. They arrived in New York just six weeks before Gettysburg.

Kelly, Rorty and O'Donohue newly promoted New York after their escape from Richmond prison.

No doubt traumatised by the loss of their son and brother the family fought through and despite some bad times persisted and at the end of the day triumphed. Their American dream beared fruit as their descendant families like millions of other immigrant families fused into the society that is America.
Rorty apart from his early experiences and capture went on to promotion and fight in various other Artillery units of the Union army. He was nevertheless always in and around the core elements of the Irish brigade. I will leave the reader to research the military side of his short life.
It is worthwhile noting some facts about his final demise. He fought valiently at Gettysburg and there are many accounts of his bravery, but alas he would be killed there on that fateful day of July 3rd 1863 as a member of Pettits battery. His body was buried in a shallow battlefield grave close to where he was killed. A Capt Andrew Cowan of the 1st New York Ind. Battery assisted with his burial. Some two weeks later his brother Richard travelled to Gettysburg and retrieved his body. He took it back to New York and he was buried July 19th 1863 in the city's Calvary Cemetery. He was aged just 26. So many questions so few answers. He would never see his beloved Donegal again.

Unveiling of memorial to Rorty 1st Calvary Cem. N.Y. May 29th 1993.

Some 130 years later the badly weather family headstone was located and a new plinth erected and unveiled. The noted Civil war historian Brian C Pohanka wrote and delivered an eulogy on James McKay Rorty. Many descendant family members were present and a 21 musket salute given by some UNion and Confederate re-enactor units.

The late Brian C. Pohanka reads his appreciation at the ceremony.

The Diamond Donegal 1890. A view very well known to the Rorty's and not too much changed from their times.

Donegal town side street in 1901.


Brian Pohanka's dedication booklet. Click to open PDF file

Rorty grave marker Calvary Cemetery New York. Section 5. Range 14 Plot U. Grave 9.

Marker Courtesy Shiela K Find a Grave member No. 46516735.

Lieut. William O'Donohue Co C. 4th New York Art.

Born Co. Cork Ireland. Died the battle of Chancellorsville Va. 6th May 1863.

William O'Donohue initially enlisted into Co. K of Meagher's Zouaves. He was one of the three soldiers along with Corcoran who were captured at the battle of Bull Run. He along with Rorty and Kelly escaped from Confederate imprisonment at Richmond and it would appear this very successful event led to awards in that they were very quickly up ranked to officer status. We know quite a lot about Kelly and Rorty but little about O'Donohue. We know from Major General Winfred Scott Hancock who mentions him in his report on the battle of Chancellorsville Va May 1st-6th. that O'Donohue as a Lieut in Co. C. of the 4th U.S. Artillery was killed there probably 5th or 6th of May 1863. I can find no trace of his burial place so I assume that he was buried in a battlefield grave somewhere in the area.

With thanks to the following sources.
The research of the late Brian C. Pohanka
The Donegal Genealogy Resource for website links and images.
Information and images from descendant members of the Rorty family in America.
Images from related extended family members of Peter Kelly both in Ireland and America.
The National Archives.
The 69thnysv.org website