Archive for the ‘Corby’ Category

Civil War Chaplains and Executioners

September 21, 2008

John E. Carey

Civil War diaries and letters from the front reveal a common thread about chaplains: the soldiers almost universally admired and respected the good chaplains and treated others with distain. Chaplains had many roles to fill and their duties either endeared them to the men or caused misunderstandings or unhappiness.

Civil War chaplains served in dozens of roles both traditional and unusual. Typically, and rightly, we think of chaplains holding services, preaching to the soldiers, listening, and leading the men in church songs. But chaplains worked every day; not just on Sunday. War diaries tell us that the chaplains performed many non-traditional functions such as mailman, pay collector (sending soldiers’ pay home to their relatives), correspondent (writing letters for the wounded or illiterate and to families after deaths occurred). Some chaplains became scouts, provisioners and diplomats. Almost universally, chaplains assisted doctors in the hospitals in any number of ways. Following a Court Martial, it was often the chaplain who made that last lonely walk with the condemned man on his way to meet his maker.

Summoned by military order and sometimes in writing, the chaplain would find himself face-to-face with some wretch who had been convicted of desertion, rape or some other grievous offense. This religious duty of extending God’s graces to even the most questionable of characters meant that the priest or chaplain gained a keen insight into the depths of human nature. He became, in effect, a good judge of character.

When the chaplain encountered the “executioner,” that is, the officer who convened the Court Martial or commanded the unit involved, the chaplain’s judge of character and reputation came into harsh conflict with the rigors of military discipline.

On April 24, 1864, Father William Corby of the Irish Brigade made efforts to set aside a conviction and execution of one Private Dawson. His requests moved up the chain of command without resolution. Finally, Father Corby sent this telegram to President Abraham Lincoln: “His Excellency; A. Lincoln; President of the United States — General Meade has not the official proceedings relative to the court martial of L. Dawson who is under sentence of death to take place the 25th instant therefore….Please say what might be done.”

We can only speculate as records are incomplete but it appears that Father Corby may have previously discussed the Dawson case with President Lincoln.

Corby had put Lincoln on the spot. Lincoln had been widely known in the army as a man of reason and leniency. By 1864, military leaders considered this a severe negative influence on good order and discipline. Grant had discussed the issue himself with the president, encouraging the commander in chief to stay out of the Court Martial appeal process.

On April 25, General Meade sent this telegram to the President: “I duly received your note by Mr. Corby & after examining the case of Dawson could find nothing to justify my recommending a mitigation….Unless you intervene he will be executed.”

Dawson was executed.

Even though Corby had come into conflict with General Meade, Meade understood and respected the role of the chaplain and kept him involved with the execution process.

On July 12, 1864, Father Corby was summoned to assist a convicted man with this memorandum:

“Rev’d Sir: There are two men to be executed on the 15th inst., one of whom, especially, is very anxious to secure the services of a priest. If you will be pleased to attend him, the provost-marshal at headquarters will be instructed to furnish you all the facilities necessary to discharge the functions of your sacred office.”

“By order of Maj-Gen. Meade”

Father Corby rode off immediately to fulfill his ordered “sacred office” and upon meeting the convicted immediately sensed innocence. “He was not a low, depraved person by any means, but in time of temptation he had fallen.” Father Corby went to work ministering to the condemned man.

Military justice, more often than not, dominated any attempts to set aside a conviction. Father Corby was bound to see this execution to the end. “There were, perhaps, ten thousand men present. A strong guard conducted the prisoner to the scaffold, and I rode beside him until we reached the spot…. I attended to the two men and escorted them up the scaffold. Without very much ceremony the ropes were adjusted about their necks, and, while both continued to pray for God’s mercy, a silent signal was given and both dropped dangling at the end of the ropes – dead!”

General Meade was not inclined toward leniency.

Father Constantine L. Egan, who had served with the 9th Massachusetts until the muster-out of the regiment in June of 1864, and then was attached to the Headquarters of the 5th Army Corps, recounted a very similar summons to minister to a convicted man in April, 1865. “We have a prisoner under sentence of death for desertion; the time appointed for his execution is Friday. He desires the attention of a clergyman of your denomination…”

Egan set about to have the execution put aside. He convinced Major General S. H. Crawford of the Third Division, Fifth Army Corps, to send him to General Meade with a letter of introduction and a military escort. “The carriage was made ready with seventeen troopers, and Gen Crawford, handing me the letter, we started on our journey.”

Father Egan ultimately had a hearing with General Meade but he was not as successful in his mission as he had hoped. Egan wrote, “The principle point of my argument representing the prisoner as a reckless half-fool, non compos mentis. The general remarked that that fellow was no fool, for he broke away from the guard three times.”

Ever the tough nut on military discipline, Meade only partially relented to Egan’s argument. “Well, Father,” Egan recalls Meade as saying, “I will suspend his execution for tomorrow, but you will have to get the doctors to substantiate your claim that the prisoner is non compos mentis.”

Thus Egan the advocate bought at least a little time to gather more information in the hope of saving a man’s life.

Like the chaplains, the doctors were under military commanders and the medics of the Civil War had virtually no knowledge of the concepts later known as “battle fatigue” and “post traumatic stress disorder.” Egan would have to witness an execution.

Military chaplains who served in combat throughout history faced daily tests of their courage and faith. The Civil War chaplains were no different. No test could have been tougher than taking that last walk with a condemned man when the chaplain believed in his heart that the accused was innocent.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page and The Washington Times.


Civil War Hangings

By Mike Parker, The Kinston Free Press

(Oct. 11, 2004) — In the wee hours of Feb. 2, 1864, Confederate forces captured 53 men who had deserted the Stars and Bars and currently wore the uniform of those serving the Stars and Stripes. These men comprised nearly the entire roster of Company F of the Second North Carolina Volunteer Union Infantry.Within four months of capture, nearly all were dead. Many became victims of diseases after they were sent to southern prisoner of war camps.

Some were branded with a “D” for “deserter” on their hips.

However, 22 of these men were publicly hanged in Kinston.

The story of these hangings, once the stuff of local legend, entered this summer into the arena of international study thanks to the efforts of Dr. Donald Collins, a retired history professor from East Carolina University.

His account of these ill-fated men appeared in the June issue of the CHAB News. CHAB stands for the Confederate Historical Association of Belgium.

The publication is a popular Civil War magazine, similar to the Civil War Times Illustrated published in the United States.

“During the past two years, interest in the story of the Kinston hangings has expanded nationally and internationally,” Collins said. “Northerners visiting the South are often dumbfounded by the interest of Southerners in the Civil War.

“They would be more surprised at the intense interest our war has generated throughout the world.”

Germans, Austrians, Australians, Frenchmen, Belgians and other Europeans hold round-table discussions, and European re-enactor groups, fighting as both Federals and Confederates, recreate the battles of Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor and Antietam, Collins explained. The First North Carolina Cavalry has a German branch that has ridden into action for the past 12 years.

Even the Internet offers evidence of the interest people world-wide have in the American Civil War. One website’s greeting reads, “Willkommen auf des Homepages des Union and Confederate Reenactors International,” while another says, “Bienvenue sur le site du Club Confedere et Federal de France.”

Dr. Collins’ article in CHAB News, titled “General George Pickett and the Mass Execution of Deserters in Civil War Kinston, North Carolina,” is just the latest chapter in the story of this professor’s personal quest.

“I became interested in this topic many years ago while doing genealogical research on my great-grandfather, Richard Louis ‘R.L.’ Collins, who was the husband of Elsy Becton of Lenoir County. R.L. Collins owned a tailor shop next to the Pollock Hotel across from the court house before the Civil War,” Collins said.

“He lost his shop at the beginning of the war when he refused to make a Confederate flag. He even refused to sell the material to make Confederate flags.”

Collins said when he learned that his great-grandfather’s death occurred around the time of the Kinston hangings, he suspected that his Union-sympathizing ancestor was possibly one of those who ended up at the end of a rope. R.L. Collins was 31 at the time of his death.

As the professor meticulously examined documents from that historical period, he pieced together the story of the captured deserters and the Kinston hangings. Major General George Pickett was in command of Confederate forces in the Kinston and Goldsboro areas at the time of the hangings.

“I never did find out how my great-grandfather died, but being a historian, I decided to write the most detailed story of the hangings possible,” Collins explained. “After I completed the article, it took years to get it into print.”

Since the story’s first appearance in print, Collins has published an expanded version of the article in The Human Tradition in the Civil War and Reconstruction, published by Scholarly Resources, Inc.

In Jan. 2003, Collins told the story of the Kinston hangings to the Pickett Society in Richmond, Va., at the annual commemoration of Pickett’s birthday.

Professor Collins has no kind words for Gerard A. Patterson’s book, “Justice or Atrocity: General George E. Pickett and the Kinston, N.C. Hangings.”

“I have great disdain for Patterson’s book for two reasons. First, he took a subject too short for book-length treatment and padded it with Pickett’s love story,” Collins said.

“Even worse, he padded the text with statements that are just outright wrong. He makes mistakes page after page. The courts-martial did not take place at the courthouse but at Pickett’s headquarters, first in Kinston and then in Goldsboro. His claims to know the location of the hangings is incorrect because no one knows with certainty just where the hangings took place.”

Dr. Donald Collins is a retired history professor from East Carolina University. At the time of this article he was in the final stages of completed his latest book. “The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis,” scheduled for release in May 2005.

Account of Civil War Executions
By Rev. Francis Springer 

On the 29th wit. A.J. Copeland, James H. Rowden, John Norwood and William Carey suffered the extreme penalty of the law for murder and the violation of the civilized rules of warfare. These men were tried by a military commission and found guilty of the above names crimes.

In April here, in company with twenty or more accomplices, they murdered eight Federal soldiers of the 1st Ark. Cav., who were herding horses near Fayetteville, Ark. They approached our men dressed in the uniform of U.S. soldiers, and pretending to belong to the 14th Kans. Cav., completely throwing them off their guard. That point gained, they suddenly and without a moment’s warning fired upon them, and killing eight out of ten.

A Union citizen, named John Brown, was also killed by the miscreants at his own house about the same time.

When the sentence of death was first read to the culprits, they first seemed to be indifferent, one of them remarking with an air of bravado, “Well, all right.” As the time of their execution drew near, however, they began somewhat to realize their awful situation, and requested the services of a spiritual adviser, and Rev. Francis Springer assumed that duty.

During the ministrations of several weeks of this reverend gentleman, they showed symptoms of considerable contrition, thought at first they seemed to be aware of scarce any consciousness of the awfulness of their crimes, which they had committed. They began to feel that they had been in their previous career the enemies of God and man, and confessed that they had been “pretty bad boys.” So callous and hardened were they at first that what they had done, they considered as first rate, too.

The condemned were all very young men, their average age not exceeding nineteen years.

Carey, the youngest, was a most desperate case, and gave his spiritual adviser a partial history of his wicked career. He is said to have killed twenty-one men. . They had all been once in the confederate army, but at the time of their capture were levying war upon their own hook, that so had become outlaws.

Early in the morning of their last day on earth the prisoners were visited by the chaplain, and impressive religious [illegible] were held. Soon after the close of this interview the irons were taken off the culprits. They were then brought forth from the prison and placed in the custody of the guard detailed for the occasion. In a few moments more they were in the wagons each one seated on his coffin. Chaplain Springer was with two of the condemned in the first wagon, and Chaplains Wilson and McAfee with the other two in the second wagon.

The solemn procession was then formed, the Provost Marshal of the District, Capt. C.O. Judson, 6th Kans. Cav., with his staff, taking the lead. Then came the music and the firing party, consisting of 64 men of the 13th Kans. Inft., the two wagons with the culprits and chaplains, and lastly the guard. A large number of citizens and soldiers lined the streets through which the procession moved.

The unfortunate but guilty man evidently tried to be firm and composed on the march, except Norwood, who repeatedly gave signs of grief by weeping and inaudible prayer. The expression of their countenances, in spite of endeavors to be self-possessed, was that of sadness and despair.

On reaching the place of execution south of town and just outside of the rifle pits, the prisoners were arraigned in a line, each one by the side of his coffin. Three sides of a hollow square of infantry had previous been formed to keep the multitude of the spectators at a proper distance, leaving the side next to the prisoners open.

The Judge Advocate of the District, Lieut. Whicher, then read to them the charges and findings of the military commission, after which the condemned kneeled down with the chaplains, and Rev. Mr. Springer offered a short and appropriate prayer. At the conclusion of it, the officers and others about the condemned shook hands with them and, bidding them a final farewell, retired except the Judge Advocate who remained til their eyes were bandaged and hands tied. By this time all of the unfortunate men showed signs of intense mental distress. Carey and Copeland prayed audibly and with great force. Norwood started a hymn, and was still singing in a low voice when the death volley sent his soul into eternity. Carey, on shaking hands with the Judge Advocate, remarked, “Judge, I hope to meet you in Heaven.” At length, as the preparations were completed, and in another moment or two forty-eight muskets were pointed at the culprits. One moment more and at the simultaneous discharge of the forty-eight guns, four lifeless bodies lay stretched on the ground.

The whole terrible scene, from beginning to end, was conducted with the propriety due to a transaction so awful but to the detail entrusted with the fatal shooting a special word is due. The entire detail, consisting of sixty-four men of the 13th Kans. Inf., was commanded by Capt. Frankhouse. Forty-eight were in line about twenty-five feet from the doomed men. One half of the guns were charged with ball and the other half with blank cartridges. The remaining sixteen men were held as a reserve in case of failure in the first discharge, but the volley of forty-eight guns was simultaneous and complete. Death ensued almost instantaneously — no lingering agony remained to torture the doomed and distress the beholders. The most painful reflection awakened by the sad ceremony was that selfish, faithless, and traitorous citizens should have stirred up a strife that precipitates into the vortex of crime, ignominy and ruin so many of the young men of our once peaceful, prosperous and happy country.

This account of the execution of four bushwhackers originally was published in the Aug. 6, 1864 edition of the Fort Smith New Era. Although the name of its author was not given in the New Era, the Rev. Francis Springer wrote the account under the name Thrifton, according to The Preacher’s Tale: The Civil War Journal of Rev. Francis Springer, Chaplain, U.S. Army of the Frontier, by Francis Springer; ed. William Furry. A copy of the account in Springer’s hand signed “Thrifton” was with his journal. Letters from each of the condemned men to their families, three of which also were written in his hand, were found among his papers. Presumably, Springer took dictation from them. For another version of the execution from Springer and text of the letters, prefer to The Preacher’s Tale.

Meagher of the Irish Brigade

August 30, 2008

By John E. Carey
Peace and Freedom

In one magical and sweeping moment, an Irishman that had been exiled from Britain for attempting to overthrow the King of England, approached the Governor of New York and asked his permission to raise and equip a body of troops. Practically all the volunteers would be Irishmen.

That man was Thomas Francis Meagher, founder of the famed Irish Brigade.

Thomas Francis Meagher, the controversial and flamboyant commander of the famed Irish Brigade (2nd Brigade, 1st Division,

Meagher (pronounced Mahr) was born in Waterford, Ireland, on Aug. 23, 1823. He grew up amid the Irish independence movement. He learned discipline and logic from Irish Jesuits at the Clongowes Wood boarding school in Kildare. He studied law in England at the Jesuit Stonyhurst College, where he honed his oratorical skills.

He became so convinced of the legitimacy of the violent opposition to oppression, and gave so many eloquent speeches detailing his logic, that he became knows as “Meagher of the Sword.”

Many, perhaps most of his contemporaries in Ireland, considered him a patriot and a hero. He became the spokesman of the independence movement. As famine destroyed Ireland and thousands departed for America, Meagher toiled tirelessly for his cause. Early in 1848, at age 25, he was brought before the bar of justice ostensibly for inciting revolt. He was acquitted by just two votes – in essence, a hung jury.

Later that year, implicated as a conspirator in the rebellion, Meagher was imprisoned, and charged with “levying war against the Queen” and “compassing [in this case, scheming or conspiring] the death of the Queen.” Despite his protestation that the jury had been packed, he was convicted and sentenced to death.Queen Victoria “graciously” ordered that the sentence should be “mitigated to transportation for life.”

Meagher was exiled to Tasmania off the coast of Australia. In 1852, he escaped and made his way to New York City, where he was greeted with a hero’s welcome by his countrymen.

Meagher Clubs were formed and he became a lecturer, co-founder of a journal called the Citizen, and founder and editor of the New York Irish News. He lived for a year in Central America, participating in a plan to put arailroad across Panama. He hunted big game. He spoke everywhere to enthusiastic audiences, becoming one of the best-known speakers of his day.After the death of his first wife, the handsome and eloquent Meagher courted Elizabeth Townsend, daughter of a wealthy New York businessman who tore up his will when he learned of his daughter’s intention to marry the firebrand Meagher. Nonetheless, they were married.

In the late 1850s, Meagher traveled through the South frequently, expressing sympathy for the Southern cause. He wrote editorials and campaigned for Democratic candidates. But as war broke out, he understood the need to bring Irishmen to arms in support of the Union. He knew well how the Union had accepted so many Irish exiles and poor immigrants. He knew the importance of America’s toleration for all religions and peoples.

“Duty and patriotism alike prompt me to it. The Republic that is the mainstay of human freedom, the world over, that gave us asylum and an honorable career, is threatened,” he wrote.

“It is the duty of every liberty loving citizen to prevent such a calamity at all hazards. Above all it is the duty of us Irish citizens, who aspire to establish a similar form of government in our native land.”

In 1861, he raised a company of “Irish Zouaves,” to be attached to the 69th New York militia. The colonel of the 69th, Michael Corcoran, was being court-martialed for insubordination at the outbreak of the war – having refused to march his men in a parade honoring the Prince of Wales. Corcoran’s trial dissolved amid the need to put troops into the field.

Meagher, 38 and a captain in the 69th, took his Zouaves along to Bull Run, where he attained recognition and praise in battle. A sergeant under his command wrote, there was “not on this continent a braver man than Thomas Francis Meagher.”

Mustered out at the completion of their 90 days of service, Meagher and many of his allies immediately set out to recruit a unit of Irish volunteers to serve for three years. In his appeals, he reminded young Irish immigrants that their ancestors, divided and unable to unify, had allowed England to conquer their homeland.

Meagher’s persuasive talents as a recruiter eventually led to the creation of the Irish Brigade: the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York regiments. The brigade later included the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania. In camp near Alexandria, Meagher and the Irish Brigade attained instant notoriety. Meagher adorned his headquarters with the skin of a jaguar he had brought home from Central America. The troops were well-drilled and finely turned out – but sometimes rambunctious and fond of their whiskey.

Meagher made St. Patrick’s Day an event talked about by the entire Army of the Potomac. Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker, when commanding the Army of the Potomac, was the honored guest at one celebration. Festivities began on the eve of the holiday, with the night of March 16 devoted to music and song.At dawn on March 17, according to Meagher’s biographer, Michael Cavanagh, preparations were made for Roman Catholic Mass.

“A new and elegant vestment had been purchased by the men for their beloved chaplain, Rev. William Corby,” he wrote.

After Mass, the brigade challenged units of the Army of the Potomac to athletic contests, followed by food and drink.The Irishmen carried green flags into battle alongside the Stars and Stripes. Their distinctive green flags were adorned with the harp of Erin embroidered in gold, “with a sunburst above it and a wreath of shamrock below. Underneath, on a crimson scroll, in Irish characters, was the motto, `They shall never retreat from the charges of lances.’ “The Irish were fighters, and Meagher led them in the Peninsula Campaign, and at Antietam, Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville.

Before Antietam, Meagher displayed again the leadership and sense of style he had established in camp. One of his officers wrote, “On Wednesday, September 17, 1862, General Meagher, gotten up most gorgeous in a somewhat fancy uniform, with a gold shoulder belt, was carefully brushed by an orderly, and remarked that `we’d all have a brush soon.’ And we had it.”

At Antietam, Meagher and the Irish Brigade achieved immortality. Attacking the Sunken Road, the Irish Brigade’s hard fighting became the stuff of legend. Wrote Brevet Brig. Gen. Ezra Carman of the 12th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, “The ranks of Meagher’s Brigade had been greatly thinned. The 69th New York had nearly melted away but a few heroic Irishmen were left, huddling about its two colors, when one of the enemy shouted from the Sunken road: `Bring them colors in here’; upon which the two color bearers instantly advanced a few steps, shook their colors in the very face of the enemy and replied: `Come and take them you damned rebels.’ “Brigade historian David Conyngham tells the story from a different angle:”The fight here was terrific. The rebels were entrenched and screened in the sunken road, all the time pouring a deadly fire into the advancing column of the Brigade. The green flag was completely riddled, and it appeared certain death to any one to bear it, for eight color-bearers had already fallen.”

According to Mr. Conyngham, with the green flag of the Irish Brigade in the dirt, “Meagher called out `Boys, raise the colors, and follow me!’ ” Capt. James McGee took up the colors, and “as he raised it, a bullet cut the standard in two in his hand; and, as he again stooped down, another bullet tore through his cap. He jumped up, waved the flag, shook it at the rebels, and cheered on the troops.”After seeing the Irish Brigade valiantly attack the formidable Rebel forces at Fredericksburg, Confederate Gen. George Pickett wrote to his fiancee, “The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. . . . We forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”At Chancellorsville, an unknown writer described the attack of the Irish Brigade:

“With Meagher at its head the brigade marched as coolly and steadily as if on parade. As we marched through the wood shot and shell were poured like hail upon us. When the General reached the end of the road he turned the head of the column and deployed into the woods. . . . Though the men were falling on every side, he boldly rode on . . .”

After Chancellorsville, Meagher intended to return to New York on a recruiting effort to refill his decimated ranks. Army leaders, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Gen. Henry Halleck, did not agree. They needed Meagher and his men in the field. The hot-tempered Meagher resigned over the dispute, and the Irish Brigade continued toward Gettysburg without him. It was an impetuous act, but not completely out of character for Meagher.

Meagher sat out the war from May 1863 until he was reinstated at the end of 1864. He actively campaigned for President Abraham Lincoln and Vice President Andrew Johnson during the 1864 election. His military glory days were over, however.

After the war ended and Lincoln’s death, Johnson appointed Meagher as secretary of the Montana Territory. Gov. Sidney Edgerton had been using personal funds to run the territory. Upon Meagher’s arrival, the governor departed for the East, never to return. Meagher served as acting governor through 1866 and into summer 1867.

In July 1867, Meagher fell from a riverboat during the night and drowned. His body was never recovered. Historians debate his death as an accident that befell either a drunken man or a man seriously impaired by illness.

A magnificent equestrian statue stands as a tribute to Meagher in Montana, far from any Civil War battlefield. He gave the nation the Irish Brigade – a unit filled with men who accredited themselves admirably throughout the Civil War.
Thomas Meagher statue - State Capitol

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee noted his respect for the Irish who served on both sides of the conflict: “The Irish soldier fights not so much for lucre as through the reckless love of adventure, and fights, moreover, with a chivalrous devotion to the cause he espouses.”

John E. Carey is a writer in Virginia. He is a descendant of the Corby family.

Saint Patrick’s Day: Recalling Irish Union Soldiers in the American Civil War

August 30, 2008

Union’s luck with the Irish 

By John E. Carey
The Washington Times
March 17, 2007

Why did Irish immigrants enlist in the Army of the Potomac in such large numbers? According to the man who raised and equipped the Irish Brigade, Thomas Francis Meagher, “Duty and patriotism alike prompt me to it. The Republic that is the mainstay of human freedom, the world over, that gave us asylum and an honorable career, is threatened.
“It is the duty of every liberty-loving citizen to prevent such a calamity at all hazards. Above all it is the duty of us Irish citizens, who aspire to establish a similar form of government in our native land,” Meagher said.
The Irishmen carried green flags into battle alongside the Stars and Stripes. The distinctive flags were adorned with the harp of Erin embroidered in gold, “with a sunburst above it and a wreath of shamrock below. Underneath, on a crimson scroll, in Irish characters, was the motto, ‘They shall never retreat from the charges of lances.’ “
In Indiana, a French priest named Edward Sorin felt very much like Meagher.
Sorin, first president of the University of Notre Dame, recognized the importance of helping the Union cause and knew the Irish could choose to support the Union or suffer the blame of not contributing. He went first to one of his favorites, his protege, the Rev. William Corby. He urged Corby and then all his Irish clergymen to minister to the men under arms and to serve the Irish Brigade in particular.
Corby and six other priests of the Holy Cross order, a third of the order’s members in the United States, eventually joined up, but Corby was the first Catholic priest with the Army of the Potomac. He chose to serve the Irish Brigade but extended his ministry to the entire Army because of the paucity of serving clergy, especially among Catholics, in the early stages of the war.
Corby and other chaplains at the start of the war received no pay and held no rank. Later, Washington recognized the importance of chaplains and offered each an officer’s commission and pay.
The nuns from the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College community also went to war. The nuns became nurses in the Western theater, and some helped staff the first Navy hospital ship, the USS Red Rover, a specially configured medical ship operating in the Mississippi River and Western theater.
At the Mound City, Ill., military hospital, Dr. John Brinton called most female volunteers “terrible, irritable and unhappy.” The work was tough, disgusting and fatiguing. Brinton heard about the Catholic nuns and asked if any could assist him.
“In answer to my request to the Catholic authorities of South Bend, Indiana, a number of sisters were sent down to act as nurses in the hospital. Those sent were from a teaching and not a nursing order, but in a short time they adapted themselves admirably to their new duties,” Brinton said.
The Irish Brigade — and all Irish on both sides during the Civil War — earned reputations as fighters.
They also earned reputations as drinkers.

St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish Brigade was the stuff of military legend.
Meagher made St. Patrick’s Day an event talked about by the entire Army of the Potomac. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, when commanding the Army of the Potomac, was the honored guest at one celebration. Festivities began on the eve of the holiday, with the night of March 16 devoted to music and song.
At dawn on March 17, according to Meagher’s biographer, Michael Cavanagh, preparations were made for Roman Catholic Mass. “A new and elegant vestment had been purchased by the men for their beloved chaplain, Rev. William Corby,” he wrote.
After Mass, the brigade challenged units of the Army of the Potomac to athletic contests, followed by food and drink.
The teetotaling provost marshal of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. Marsena Patrick, wrote on that St. Patrick’s Day, “In accordance with a Special request from Hooker, I agreed to go over & witness some of the festivities at the Head Quarters of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. We brought up in the midst of a grand steeple chase, from which the crowd soon adjourned to drink punch at Meagher’s Head Quarters — Everybody got tight & I found it was no place for me — so I came home.”
St. Patrick’s Day, always a highly celebrated Civil War day of revelry, remains a special day for Irishmen the world over.
    John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

Father William Corby of the Irish Brigade

August 30, 2008

By John E, Carey

The Rev. William Corby, chaplain of the famed Irish Brigade, was nominated for the Medal of Honor, wrote a moving and yet humorous book, and distributed the Word of God to soldiers going into battle. After the war he became a two-time university president and a leader of his religious community.

Corby wrote about his Civil War experiences in “Memoirs of a Chaplains Life,” first published in 1893 and republished by Fordham University Press in 1992. The book was rediscovered by University of Alabama history professor Lawrence Frederick Kohl. He brings Corby’s words alive in our century and fills in several details of the priest’s life.
"Fair-Catch Corby" Gettysburg Statue of Father William Corby offering last rites to the Irish Brigade; a copy of this statue is on the campus of Notre Dame University

Statue of Father William Corby.  Gettysburgh National Military Park.
On Memorial day, soldiers put the flag on the graves of the fallen….

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Edward Sorin, first president of the University of Notre Dame recognized the importance of helping the Union cause and knew the Irish could either choose to support the Union or suffer the blame of not contributing. He urged his clergymen to minister to the men under arms and the Irish Brigade in particular.

Corby and six other priests of Holy Cross order, a third of the order’s members in the United States, eventually joined up. But Corby was the first Catholic priest with the Army of the Potomac. He chose to serve the Irish Brigade extended his ministry to the entire Army because of the paucity of serving clergy, especially among Catholics, in the early stages of the war.

Corby and other chaplains at the start of the war received no pay and held no rank. Later, Washington recognized the importance of chaplains and offered each an officer’s commission and pay. The Corby family sent the young priest to war on a fine horse that others, less impressively mounted, frequently “borrowed” so they might present a more stately appearance. The bearded 28 year-old chaplain tells of being mistaken for a general because of mount and fine clothes. Then after a dusty forced march, he mused: “How hath my greatness fallen in one night…. Last night I was taken for a General; this morning I am taken for a loafer.”

Death, of course, was a daily consequence of life in the Army of the Potomac during Corby’s three years with the troops. The priest was a witness to many men about to meet their God. His supreme respect for the sanctity of life stands out in his memoirs. After the gruesome 1862 battle at Antietam, Corby wrote:

“The field presented a sickening sight the day after the battle on September 18, 1862 [Gen. Thomas Francis] Meagher’s brigade did its duty as a military body and received the highest commendation from Gen. McClelland and from many historians since”.


Gen. McClellan, in a long report of its charge and other actions during the battle, says, among many other words of praise: ‘The Irish Brigade sustained its well earned reputation.”‘

In “The Irish Brigade” written in 1969, Paul Jones describes Corby at Antietam, riding along the ranks beside Meagher, encouraging the men and giving general absolution from horseback.

Corby’s was a personal ministry, and he was chaplain to the brigade, not just to the Catholics. As often as possible in the field, he would improvise an altar to offer the sacrifice of the Mass for the soldiers: This re-creation of Christ’s Last Supper must have had indelible significance among men who were facing death.

General Absolution at Gettysburg

One of Corby’s most memorable acts was on the second day at Gettysburg, which he modestly did not describe but for which he set the scene in his book: “And now, the two great armies are confronting each other…. At about four o’clock the Confederates commenced firing, and one hundred and twenty cannon from their side belched forth from their fiery throats missiles of death into our lines…The proportions of the pending crash seemed so great, as the armies eye each other, that even veterans who had often ’smelled powder’ quailed at the thought of the final conflict. The Third Corps were pressed back, and at this critical moment I proposed to give a general absolution.”

Maj. Gen. St. Clair Mulholland described the scene: “Now help is called for, and Hancock tells Caldwell to have his men ready… The Irish Brigade whose green flag has been unfurled in every battle in which the Army of the Potomac has been engaged from Bull Run to Appomattox, formed a part of this division… The Chaplain of this brigade, Rev. William Corby, proposed to give a general absolution to all the men before going into the fight. While this is customary in the armies of Catholic countries in Europe, it was perhaps the first time it was ever witnessed on this continent.

Father Corby stood on a large rock in front of the brigade. “The brigade was standing at order arms!’ As he closed his address, every man, Catholic and non-Catholic, fell on his knees with his head bowed down. Then stretching his right hand toward the Brigade, Father Corby pronounced the words of absolution:
‘Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat.”‘

Mulholland wrote, “The scene was more than impressive. It was awe inspiring.”

Another eye-witness, General Samuel K. Zook (He led the Third Brigade belonging to Brigadier-General John C. Caldwell’s First Division, part of Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps), turned to his aide, James D. Brady and said, “My God! Brady, that was the most impressive sight I have ever witnessed.”

Corby Pleads for Condemned Man

At another time during the Civil War, Corby was asked by men of the brigade to appeal on behalf of a condemned man. The priest worked is way up the chain of command seeking clemency. Eventually he reached the White House and made his case to President Lincoln. Lincoln, often criticized by generals for his leniency gave Corby a note: “I will pardon, if McClellan will pardon.” McClellan told Corby the man must hang: Discipline had to be maintained.

Recalled to Notre Dame near the end of the war, Corby served his university and his nation for the rest of his life. He was a vice president at Notre Dame in 1865 and when the Rev. Patrick Dillon died the next year, Corby, at age 33, became the third president of the university.

In 1872, the head of his religious order in the United States asked Corby to move to Sacred Heart College in Watertown, Wis., to put it on a firm financial foundation, which he did. In 1877, he was summoned back to Notre Dame for a second time to lead it. On April 23, 1879, Notre Dame was nearly destroyed by a severe fire. Corby set about raising the money to rebuild. The classrooms were reopened the following autumn, and the priest was called the “Second Founder of Notre Dame.” In 1886, he was elected provincial general of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

The men who had so appreciated his wartime ministry, the veterans of the Irish Brigade, nominated Corby for the Medal of Honor in 1893. By then, many of the more influential men who had known him in the Civil War, such as Meagher, were dead. But there still were many who remembered his devotion and courage.Maj. W.L.D. O’Grady wrote that “Father Corby was known as the ‘Fighting Chaplain”‘ and that “no spot was too dangerous or too much exposed to the fire of the enemy” for the Irish Brigade’s priest.”

But Corby did not consider himself a hero – just a servant of God doing his duty.

Corby was, most of all, a practical man. Thus he used his powers to provide a battlefield absolution to scores of troops on at least two occasions that we can document: at Antietam and Gettysburg. Anther example of Corby’s practicality was recorded by William Eastman, a Congregational minister from New York

Understanding the importance Catholics placed upon the sacraments, especially confession and the last rights, Eastman sought out a Catholic chaplain just after a battle, as men lay wounded and dying on the field. He came upon Father Corby and urged him to return to give the sacraments to a man that had specifically requested a Catholic priest. Corby said, “There are fifty right here whose souls may be passing.” Eastman, dumbfounded, said, “Then what shall we do?” Corby answered: “Tell him to confess to you.” Corby explained, “And tell him that I said so and that whatever you say to him or do for him is right.”

Father William Corby: man of practicality.

Although Corby was not awarded a Medal of Honor, the brigade veterans presented him with a chalice, the sacred cup used in the sacrament of Mass. It was among his most cherished possessions. A statue of Corby blessing the troops at Gettysburg is among the monuments at the battlefield, and a copy of the statue stands in front of the aging Corby Hall at Notre Dame.

John E Cary, a retired Navy commander, graduated from Notre Dame in 1976. His mother, Marie Corby Carey, is a niece of the Irish brigade’s chaplain.

Notre Dame, Ind Jan 4 1879 To – Col John B Bachelder, Chelsea, Mass
Dear Sir – I rec’d a letter from St Clair Mulholland, late Brevt Maj Gen – an old friend – asking me to write up a few outlines of the general absolution given at Gettysburg PA. Enclosed please find said lines which in the past few minutes I have hastily scratched off. I kept no notes of my army life & had to depend entirely on my memory for the rude sketch I have given you. To praise the Brigade or to say anything of my own career in the army I leave to some person who has more time & ability than I. Most of our Brigade were from New York City & there are a number of officers there who knew me well.

I will simply say here that I was with the “Army of the Potomac” – in all the principal battles – except the 1st Bull Run.
You may use as much or as little of what I send as you may see fit. I gave facts only – but poorly put together.

Very Respectfully Yours, W Corby CSC

PS Would be glad to have a few copies of your history when published.
Scene of a Religious Character on the Historic Battlefield of Gettysburg
Several days prior to this battle, the “Army of the Potomac” under the command of Genl Meade was continually on the march. The day before the battle, the 2d Army Corps left Frederick City MD about 5 in the morning & halted at 12 (midnight) to rest during the balance of the night on the cold wet ground, and next morning opened fire on the enemy with artillery. The enemy responded in full numbers. Shells were bursting thick & fast all morning over the 2d Army Corps until finally all the troops were drawn up in line of battle.

The men were ordered to “prime” & now everything was ready for the word “advance.” At this moment, the Very Rev W Corby CSC, Chaplain of the Irish Brigade (the only priest then in the Army of the Potomac – now President of Notre Dame University, Indiana), stepped in front of the battle line & addressed the men & officers (in substance) as follows.

“My Dear Christian Friends! In consideration of the want of time for each one to confess his sins in due order as required for the reception of the sacrament of Penance, I will give you general absolution. But, my dear friends, while we stand here & in the presence of Eternity, so to speak, with a well-armed force in front & with missiles of death in the form of shells bursting over our heads, we must humble ourselves before the great Creator of all men & acknowledge our great unworthiness & conceive a heartfelt sorrow for the sins by which we have ungratefully offended the Divine Author of all good things. Him Whom we ought to love, we have despised by sinning against his laws. Him Whom we should have honored by lives of virtue, we have dishonored by sin.”

“We stand in debt to our great Lord & Master. He loves us but we, by sin, have forfeited that love. Now, to receive a full pardon for our sins & regain the favor of God, do not think it is sufficient to get the priest’s absolution. It is true as a minister of God he has recd the power to pronounce your sins absolved. ‘Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven’ – John 20, 23 – by virtue of this power given the Apostles & their lawful successors, the priest acts. But the absolution – pronounced by the priest or by St Peter himself – would be worthless unless the penitent conceives a true sorrow for his sins. Which sorrow should include a firm determination never more to willfully offend & to do all in his power to atone for the past sins. Therefore, my dear friends, in the solemn presence of Eternity, excite in your minds a deep sorrow for all the sins, negligences, & transgressions of your past lives.
‘Rend your hearts & not your garments,’ & I the consecrated minister of God will give you general absolution.”

At this moment, all fell on their knees & recited an act of contrition. Officers mounted waiting to advance removed their hats, and then the Chaplain, in solemn fervent tones pronounced the words of Absolution. A few minutes after, all were plunged into the dense smoke of battle.

A more impressive scene, perhaps, never took place on any battlefield. It was indeed so earnest & truly sublime that non-Catholics prostrated themselves in humble adoration of the true God while they felt that perhaps in less than half an hour their eyes would open to see into the Ocean of Eternity.

Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat, et ego, auctoritate ispsius, vos absolvo ab omni vinculo, excommunicationis interdicti, in quantum possum et vos indigetis deinde ego absolvo vos, a pecatis vestris, in nomini Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.

Fr. William Corby