Father Corby and the Fighting Irish

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Sunday, June 8, 2014 0 comments

by Michael Homula

The only bronze statue on the Gettysburg battlefield dedicated to a chaplain is that of Catholic Priest Father William Corby. His likeness stands on a rock with his left hand on his chest and his right lifted with palm open, giving general absolution to the men of the Irish Brigade, moments before they entered the maelstrom of fighting in and near the Wheatfield on 2 July 1863.

Corby’s father was an Irish immigrant who first came to Montreal in 1824 (where he met and married Corby’s mother) and later moved the family to Detroit in 1826 where William was born in 1833. In 1853, his father sent him and his two younger brothers to the recently founded and struggling University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. At Notre Dame, William Corby entered the priesthood and took his final vows in 1860. The outbreak of Civil War would forever change his life. Students and faculty from the University of Notre Dame would figure significantly in the Civil War. None more than William Corby.

[To learn more about Notre Dame and the Civil War, please read Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory written by Jim Schmidt – a friend of mine]

In the fall of 1861, Father Corby began his chaplain duties by working with another Catholic priest, James Dillon, who was chaplain of the 63rd New York Volunteer Infantry, one of the three regiments that made up the famous Irish Brigade. It was not long until Corby was assigned to the 88th New York as chaplain.

Like any good shepherd, Father Corby knew his flock intimately and well. The men of the 88th New York and the other regiments of the Irish Brigade, appreciated Corby because he so identified with them in daily life and routine of a soldier. Though a chaplain, Corby was every bit a soldier - a warrior for the Lord, if you will. He was unflinching in the midst of a fight, would move to the front with the men and would do his duty even when shot and shell whirred around him. He was fearless, no doubt because of his faith in Christ, and no place on a battlefield was too dangerous or too exposed to enemy fire that he would even remotely consider abandoning those he had the responsibility to minister to.

At Gettysburg, on 2 July 1863 at about 4:00 pm, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attempted a massive and sweeping assault of the Union left flank. The Confederates began to dismantle the Union line, leaving human carnage and death in its wake. As the fighting engulfed what is known as the Wheatfield, the Union line was in grave danger of being flanked and over run. The Irish Brigade would be asked to drive headlong into the bloody field to slow the Confederate advance.

Father Corby stood with the men he served in the Irish Brigade watching and listening to Rebels overrun their brothers in arms. Just before they would advance, he asked Colonel Patrick Kelly for permission to address the men. Climbing onto a large boulder to be clearly seen, Corby looked into the eyes of the men he loved; men who would engage the enemy to their front within minutes with many losing their life. There was no time to hear confessions this day, so he informed the Brigade he would pronounce a general absolution of sins for those who were truly repentant and trusted Christ. He reminded them of the noble cause for which they fought and declared that the Church would turn its back on those who deserted their flag.

Dale Gallon’s painting of Father Corby praying over the Irish Brigade near The Wheatfield

Reciting the Latin words of Catholic absolution he raised his right hand over the columns, and every man fell to his knees. The battle was now raging all around them – to their front was the Wheatfield, to their left was Devil's Den and Little Round Top, to the right, the Peach Orchard. Those who were there said that in those moments, as Corby prayed over the men, all seemed silent. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the Second Corps (to which the Irish Brigade was attached) though not prone to much pomp or religious fervor, was clearly moved by the scene and removed his hat and bowed his head.

The Irish Brigade fought bravely and well that day, slowing the Confederate advance with great cost of life. Control of the field was not decided and that night the screams of wounded and dying men of both armies would haunt veterans for a life time.

[The Irish Brigade Memorial near The Wheatfield at Gettysburg is one of the most beautiful, most photographed and most visited of any on the field.]

While it was never awarded, Corby was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor by the men of the Irish Brigade. Major W. L. D. O'Grady of the 88th New York insisted that Corby deserved the CMOH because he was, "a man whose courage was not surpassed by the bravest soldier of our armies, whose unflinching devotion on the march, in camp and under fire, made him eminent, whose magnificent conduct at Gettysburg has become historical, one of the most picturesque and beautiful incidents of that great drama."

Pastor Corby involved himself in the lives of the men he served. He experienced what they experienced. He walked alongside them in everything they did – including combat. This won for him their love and honored respect. When Corby attended the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg the rugged veterans of the Irish Brigade tearfully embraced their old chaplain. His willingness to share in their hardships had brought spiritual and physical comfort to them in the midst of battle.

Father William Corby would survive the war and serve two terms as President of the University of Notre Dame. On the campus, just outside of Sorin Hall, there is a replica of Corby’s statue at Gettysburg. Given Notre Dame’s reputation as renowned college football program, and a unique American sense of humor, through the year’s students and faculty have affectionately dubbed it as “Fair Catch Corby”. This image is courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives.

Thirty-four years after that fateful day at Gettysburg, at the age of 64, Father Corby died from complications of pneumonia. In a fitting departure from custom, the casket was not carried by priests. Aging Civil War veterans carried his coffin, wrapped in the flag of his old Irish Brigade regiment, and lowered it into the ground as rifle volleys pierced the crisp late December air. The last call of the bugle was trumpeted, and the veterans present sang the words: "Answering to the call of the roll on high, dropping from the ranks as they make reply, filling up the army of the by and by."

When you visit the hallowed ground of Gettysburg you can visit the statue of Father William Corby, stand where the Irish Brigade stood and walk through the Wheatfield where they fought valiantly – many giving the last full measure of devotion to their country. I encourage you to pause and stand quietly and allow your mind to go back to the later afternoon of July 2, 1863. Hear the muffled din of battle while the faithful chaplain prays over the men of the Irish Brigade, and remember the awesome price that was paid by Americans to preserve our cherished freedoms. More importantly, remember what those men did on that field and allow the moment to become an inspiration – renewing our commitment to winning the lost in the battle for men's souls.