On 17th May 1864, Colonel Richard Byrnes of the 28th Massachusetts Infantry paid an early morning visit to Father William Corby, Chaplain of the Irish Brigade. A regular army officer before the war, the strict disciplinarian had been appointed to command of the 28th in the autumn of 1862. Now, on the bloody battlefield of Spotsylvania Court House, the Cavan native confided in Corby. The veteran officer was sure this day would be his last. As he put it to the Chaplain, he felt he was about to get his ‘discharge.’ (1)
Richard asked Father Corby to hear his confession, and afterwards handed the priest a slip of paper. It contained instructions on what he wanted done with his effects following his death. He also asked that the following letter be delivered:
May 17, 1864.
My Dear Ellen,
I am well. No fighting yesterday; but we expect some to-day. Put your trust and confidence in God. Ask His Blessing. Kiss my poor little children for me. You must not give up in despair- all will yet be well. My regiment has suffered much in officers and men. I am in good health and spirits. I am content. I fear nothing, thank Heaven, but my sins. Do not let your spirits sink; we will meet again. I will write you soon again; but we are going to move just now. Good-by, good-by; and that a kind and just God may look to you and your children is my fervent prayer.
Richard Byrnes handed the pencil-written letter to Corby, asking him to send to his wife if, as he expected, he fell in the coming battle. But Richard did not die on 17th May. He survived Spotsylvania to take command of the Irish Brigade in time for their next battle, at Cold Harbor, Virginia. Here, just over two weeks after his feeling of impending death, Richard Byrnes was mortally wounded. He was transported to Washington, where Ellen was able to see him before he died a few days later. The correspondence he had handed to Father Corby remained in the Chaplain’s possession- although the foreboding felt by Richard Byrnes had ultimately proved well founded, the need for the letter’s delivery was overtaken by events. (3)
(1) Corby 1893: 237-8 (2) Ibid. (3) Ibid.
References & Further Reading
Corby, William 1893. Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years in the Irish Brigade with the Army of the Potomac