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.
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