Improving the Present by Studying the Past: Killed at Gettysburg Remembers O’Rorke and Phelps

By Ryan Bilger ’19

This semester, I have had the honor of working on the Civil War Institute’s Killed at Gettysburg project, hosted at killedatgettysburg.org. The project seeks to document the lives and legacies of soldiers who died during the three days of fighting in July 1863. I am happy to be contributing to Killed at Gettysburg again, as I strongly connected with the project when I worked on it for Dr. Carmichael’s Gettysburg class last semester.

In the course of my research and writing, I have dealt specifically with two men who gave their lives at Gettysburg. One, Colonel Patrick O’Rorke of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry, is quite possibly one of the most well-known soldiers among the battle’s dead. The other, Fourth Sergeant Charles Phelps of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, may not be quite as famous but still has a great story of his own. Over the last couple of months, I have researched the lives and deaths of these two gallant soldiers and constructed narratives to inform readers about their experiences before Gettysburg; what happened to them on July 2, 1863; and how their deaths affected other people, both at home and beyond. Supplementary interactive maps will join these narrative texts in the final product, enabling viewers to explore the ground over which Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps took their final steps and creating a more holistic reader experience.

ColPatrickORorke
Colonel Patrick O’Rorke, 140th New York. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

My primary goal throughout my work on Killed at Gettysburg has always centered around putting flesh and blood behind these stories of the past. Rather than presenting O’Rorke and Phelps as ephemeral legends of a bygone era, I want to humanize them to the reader. These men who gave their lives so long ago had personalities that made them unique. In addition to remarkable heroism and bravery, they had hopes, dreams, worries, and fears, just as we do today. I hope that the Killed at Gettysburg project can help close the gap between the past and the present by making readers feel like they are truly getting to know the soldiers we are profiling on a level beyond their basic achievements in life.

In many ways, it is hard to believe that it has been 154 years since the Battle of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s famed address. Living and learning in Gettysburg can sometimes make it feel as though these events took place not so long ago. This observation, and the commemorations that take place each year, beg a larger question: why bother remembering what happened at Gettysburg? What makes men like Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps worthy of attention in a modern that is world far different from that which they inhabited?

To me, we should–and do still–care about the past because of how it can help us improve in our present and our future. O’Rorke and Phelps both demonstrated highly admirable qualities in their daily lives and on the battlefield at Gettysburg that we can learn from today, even across such a wide expanse of time. Patrick O’Rorke grew up as an Irish immigrant during a time when anti-Irish sentiment was at its absolute highest in the United States. Yet, he did not allow himself to be put in a box based on his background; he excelled as a student, graduated first in his class at West Point, and appeared poised for a sterling military career before a Confederate bullet tore through his neck on Little Round Top. Charles Phelps demonstrated great loyalty and tenacity by striking down the enemy soldier who had mortally wounded his brigade commander before being killed near the Wheatfield. Only nineteen years old at the time of his enlistment, Phelps displayed strength beyond his years in his final hours. Both men ultimately put their lives on the line for the cause of the Union in which they so dearly believed. When the time came, as Lincoln said, they gave their last full measure of devotion, and that ultimate sacrifice cannot be forgotten. Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps stand as prime examples of courage and devotion that we can still learn from, and to me, that makes their stories matter even today.

Each year, Remembrance Day provides us with a perfect opportunity to consider these lessons and sacrifices from so long ago. The luminaria candles that adorn the gravestones in the Soldiers National Cemetery represent the everlasting public memory of those who gave their lives so that the nation might live. Though Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps are both buried in their home states rather than the national cemetery, I believe that those candles burn for them as well. Beyond the immediate stimulus of Remembrance Day, I hope that the Killed at Gettysburg project will also keep these flames of memory alive. O’Rorke and Phelps deserve secure places in the public mind so that we in the present can continue to learn from their exemplary lives and legacies. Remembrance Day and Killed at Gettysburg both serve as important reminders of these lessons from the past, and this year we should take the opportunity to remind ourselves once again.

An Interview with Harold Holzer: Lincoln, Memory, and Dedication Day

Last Friday, CWI Fellows Abigail Cocco ’19 and Ryan Bilger ’19 interviewed renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer about his upcoming Dedication Day speech at the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19th. Holzer discussed various aspects of Civil War memory as well as Lincoln’s legacy in contemporary society. Currently the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, Holzer has authored, co-authored, or edited 52 books, the most recent being Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Mr. Holzer was also a featured speaker at the Civil War Institute’s annual summer conference this past June. You can watch his CWI talk here.

harold holzer

Holzer’s Dedication Day speech will take place at 10:30 a.m. at the rostrum in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg National Military Park, following a 10:00 a.m. wreath-laying ceremony at the Soldiers’ National Monument. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit www.lincolnfellowship.org.

“Died of the Spotted Fever”: The Spot Resolutions and the Making of Abraham Lincoln

By Ryan Bilger ’19

On December 22, 1847, the Speaker of the House of Representatives recognized a young, freshman congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln who wished to speak about the ongoing war with Mexico. The lanky, awkward, high-voiced westerner raised doubts regarding President James Knox Polk’s conduct in starting the war, proposing eight resolutions that challenged Polk to provide evidence for his stated reason for doing so. Polk had said that Mexican troops had shed “American blood on American soil” and forced his hand, but Lincoln challenged this assertion. Lincoln insinuated that the fatal encounter between Mexican and American troops had in fact occurred in a contested region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, a region to which Mexico had stronger claims than the United States. With his demand that Polk prove that the exact location of the engagement had been on American soil, Lincoln’s proposals became known as the “Spot Resolutions.” This speech brought Lincoln into the national spotlight for the first time, and it proved key in the development of his future career.

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Caption: Daguerrotype of Abraham Lincoln as Congressman-elect in 1846, by Nicholas Shepherd. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Lincoln’s Spot Resolutions provoked a storm of intense reactions from fellow politicians and newspapers alike. Many of these criticisms compared Lincoln unfavorably with the former holder of his Congressional seat, John Jay Hardin, who had served as a militia commander in the war with Mexico and had been killed in action earlier in 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista. Missouri Congressman John Jameson, for one, responded in a speech of his own a few days later with the exhortation, “The gentleman from Illinois, from the Hardin and Baker district, took a strange position before the American Congress for such a Representative. Yes, sir; look back and see what your Hardin did.” The Illinois State Register gave Lincoln the nickname “Ranchero Spotty,” connecting him with Mexican guerrilla fighters who preyed on American soldiers that left camp alone. The Democratic Peoria Press heckled, “What an epitaph: ‘Died of the Spotted Fever.’ Poor Lincoln.” Even Lincoln’s friend and law partner, William Herndon, wrote to him criticizing his Spot Resolutions speech as “political suicide,” while gatherings of citizens in his home district in Illinois denounced his “base, dastardly, and treasonable assault upon President Polk,” labeling him “this Benedict Arnold of our district.” This outpouring of public sentiment contributed greatly to Lincoln’s defeat in his reelection bid the next year, putting a hold on his time in the national spotlight.

Though many people disagreed with the ideas expressed by Lincoln in his Spot Resolutions speech, others recognized his great capacity for oration. This sentiment permeated across the nation. The Missouri Republican wrote that the speech was “one of great power, and replete with the strongest and most conclusive arguments. He commanded the attention of the House, which none but a strong man can do.” The Baltimore Patriot opined that “evidently there is music in that very tall Mr. Lincoln.” In Massachusetts, a Solomon Lincoln wrote to his congressman that “[O]ur attention has been arrested in this quarter of the country by the able speech of Hon. Mr. Lincoln of Illinois made this session, in the House of Representatives, and it has been a source of gratification to those bearing his name to know that the old stock has not degenerated by being transplanted. On the contrary, it exhibits fresh vigor in the fertile soil of the West.” Lincoln’s speech won him acclaim from a range of outlets, a real achievement for a young, first-term congressman.

Abraham Lincoln may have only served one term as a congressman before his 1860 nomination for president on the Republican ticket, but in that brief time he put himself on the map with his Spot Resolutions speech. The speech was far from an unmitigated success, as it provoked a political firestorm that both failed to stop Polk’s war in Mexico and largely led to Lincoln’s defeat in his reelection campaign. It became such a memorable strike against Lincoln that in his debates with Stephen Douglas more than a decade later, the “Little Giant” would ask the audience its thoughts on Lincoln’s efforts “to dodge the responsibility of [the Republican Party] platform because it was not adopted in the right spot” and refer to him as “Spotty Lincoln.” Yet, the wide range of reactions from across the United States demonstrated that Lincoln had the power to craft his orations in such a way that they left a mark on people, an ability that proved highly useful in his later political career. The Spot Resolutions were thus integral in the making of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps ironically so for a man who would later preside over the most catastrophic war in American history. The elevation of his name into the national consciousness as a man of great ability and conviction at such an early point in his career set the stage for his eventual meteoric rise, culminating in his election to the presidency. As such, Lincoln’s Spot Resolutions speech deserves greater recognition among Civil War historians and enthusiasts alike.


Sources

DeRose, Christopher. Congressman Lincoln: The Making of America’s Greatest President. New York: Threshold Ed., 2014.

Fisher, Louis. “The Mexican War and Lincoln’s ‘Spot Resolutions’.” Washington: Law Library of Congress, 2009.

Greenberg, Amy S. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013.

Merry, Robert W. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.

Marching in Step:  USCT Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic

By Ryan Bilger ‘19

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

USCT Veterans on Parade, Easton, PA. Postcard. Black veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic were, like their white counterparts, very active in the realms of commemoration and politics. “Decoration Day,” the precursor to our modern Memorial Day, officially started with the GAR in 1868, and served both purposes. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

For many United States Colored Troops, remembering the Civil War and their comrades who fell in it became an important part of their post-war life. One of the primary opportunities for public expression of remembrance was Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day. African Americans played a critical part in the creation of this holiday. On May 1, 1865, the newly-freed black residents of Charleston asserted their place in Civil War memory by leading a parade to a recently constructed cemetery for Union prisoners at the city’s horseracing course. The procession heaped flowers upon the graves of the honored dead, after which ministers from the town’s black congregations gave dedicatory speeches. This event, known among some in the North as the “First Decoration Day,” exemplified African American interest in perpetuating the memory of the Civil War. However, the resentment of white Southerners at the time towards this instance of black agency led to the marginalization and eventual forgetting of the event in the mind of the public at large.

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Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson, and the Civil War: A CWI Fellow’s Response

By Ryan Bilger ’19

In an interview for Sirius XM Radio released this Monday, May 1, President Donald Trump made some intriguing comments regarding the reasons why the American Civil War took place. He started by describing his beliefs on how 7th President Andrew Jackson would have influenced the events leading up to the Civil War:

I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that he saw what was happening, with regard to the Civil War. He said, there’s no reason for this.

Donald_Trump_official_portrait
President Donald Trump. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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The Legacy of “Old Osawatomie”: John Brown in Art and Memory

By Ryan Bilger ’19

Have you seen this man before?

John Brown Kansas
Tragic Prelude (1940) by John Steuart Curry. Located in the east wing of the 2nd floor rotunda in the Kansas State Capitol Building. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps you have, and perhaps you’ve already thought a bit about him and what he represents to you. But if you have not, take a moment and just look at him, and consider the question I have raised. What emotions does this painting, showing a man towering over other figures and a landscape like a god stir up in you?

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