Herb Juliano

Herb's Archive this month is the story of Father Corby at Gettysburg.



Campus Life

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The following is the story of that stirring moment at Gettysburg taken from the preface of Lawrence Kohl’s (ed.) edition of Memoirs of Chaplain Life- Three years with the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac. 

In the summer of 1863 the Irish Brigade was no longer the impressive force it had once been. Nearly two years of war had worn its thousands down to a small band of seasoned veterans. Because of their fighting reputation they had always been where the action was hottest: at Fair Oaks, Gaines Mill, and Savage Station on the Peninsula; in the Bloody Lane at Antietam; before the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg. Now, late in the afternoon of July 2nd, they were once again poised to launch themselves against the Confederates, this time in a wheatfield just south of the small crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The men stood at order arms, nervously awaiting Colonel Patrick Kelly's order to advance.

Suddenly, Father William Corby, their chaplain, turned to the colonel and asked for permission to address the men. Receiving it, he hurriedly reached into his pocket and pulled out a purple stole which he placed around his neck. Then he climbed up on a large boulder so the troops might see him. As he gazed out over the dense columns his first concern was for the souls of these men, men who at that moment stood so close to eternity. There was no time for private confession, so he told the brigade that he would pronounce a general absolution of sins for those who were sincerely contrite and who would resolve to make a confession at their first opportunity. But as he reminded the soldiers of their duty to God, he did not forget their duty to country. He also 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. Finally, he stretched his right hand into the air and began to recite the Latin words of the absolution.

As he did so, every man in the brigade, Catholic and non- Catholic alike, fell to his knees. Though the battle raged around them-off to the left by Devil's Den and the Round Tops, over to the right in the Peach Orchard-for just a moment, on this part of the field time seemed to stand still. The entire Second Corps fell silent as they watched Father Corby pray over the kneeling regiments. Major General Hancock, mounted nearby with his staff officers, was clearly moved himself by the scene; he took off his hat and reverentially bowed his head. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, this special moment was over. As they rose to their feet the penitants became soldiers once again, the columns were reformed, and the brigade began its advance into the wheatfield.

There was nothing particularly unusual in Father Corby's concern for the men's souls as they went into battle, nor in their sincere response to his pronouncements. Yet the circumstances of the moment--the imminence of danger, the significance of the battle, the respectful reaction of the thousands who looked on--contrived to make it a celebrated event in Civil War history. Many who witnessed it would never forget it, and many who did not would nevertheless celebrate it for its symbolic depiction of the bond between Catholic faith and American patriotism at the nation's supreme moment of crisis. Over the years it would become the subject of poems, sculptures, and an impressive painting.

In this celebration of the larger significance of the event, however, it is easy to overlook the man at the center of it. There was a great deal more to William Corby than this absolution at Gettysburg. For three long years he ministered to the men of the Irish Brigade, enduring their hardships, sharing their dangers, and serving their spiritual needs. For a lifetime he served his religious community and the Roman Catholic Church as priest, professor, and university president. Corby’s splendid moment on a bolder in Gettysburg’s wheatfield was not distinctive, but representative, in a life of devotion to his faith and to the people he served.

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