On July 2nd 1863, 147 years ago today, the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac were preparing to go into action on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. With the Federal Third Corps being pushed back by the Confederates, the Irish were ordered to fall in and take arms. Only minutes remained before the Brigade was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the battle. Father William Corby, the Brigade’s Chaplain, took the opportunity to move to a large rock in front of the men to offer them general absolution, in what was to become one of the most famous incidents in the history of the Irish Brigade.

Father Corby at Gettysburg (Memoirs of Chaplain Life)

Father Corby at Gettysburg (Memoirs of Chaplain Life)

Major St. Clair Mulholland, who commanded the 116th Pennsylvania and was present at Gettysburg, describes what happened: ‘Father Corby stood on a large rock in front of the brigade. Addressing the men, he explained what he was about to do, saying that each one could receive the benefit of the absolution by making a sincere Act of Contrition and firmly resolving to embrace the first opportunity of confessing his sins, urging them to do their duty, and reminding them of the high and sacred nature of their trust as soldiers and the noble object for which they fought. 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…the scene was more than impressive, it was awe inspiring. Near by stood a brilliant throng of officers who had gathered to witness this very unusual occurence, and while there was profound silence in the ranks of the Second Corps, yet over to the left, out by the peach orchard and Little Round Top, where Weed and Vincent and Hazlitt were dying, the roar of the battle rose and swelled and re-echoed through the woods, making music more sublime than ever sounded through cathedral aisle. The act seemed to be in harmony with the surroundings. I do not think there was a man in the brigade who did not offer-up a heart-felt prayer. For some, it was their last; they knelt there in their grave clothes. In less than half an hour many of them were numbered with the dead of July 2. Who can doubt their prayers were good? What was wanting in the eloquence of the priest to move them to repentence was supplied in the incidents of the fight. That heart would be incorrigible, indeed, that the scream of a Whitworth bolt, adding to Father Corby’s touching appeal, would not move to contrition.’

Father Corby has also left us an account of his feelings as he addressed the men: ‘In performing this ceremony I faced the army. My eye covered thousands of officers and men. I noticed that all, Catholic and non-Catholic, officers and private soldiers showed a profound respect, wishing at this fatal crisis to receive every benefit of divine grace that could be imparted through the instrumentality of the Church Ministry. Even Maj.-Gen. Hancock removed his hat, and, as far as compatibile with this situation, bowed in reverential devotion. That general absolution was intended for all- in quantum possum- not only for our brigade, but for all, North and South, who were susceptible of it and who were about to appear before their Judge. Let us hope that many thousands of souls, purified by hardships, fasting, prayer, and blood met a favorable sentence on the ever memorable battlefield of Gettysburg.

Following the absolution, the Irish Brigade advanced into the now infamous ‘Wheatfield’ at Gettysburg. By the end of the day, 198 of the Brigade’s 530 men had become casualties. In 1910 a statue of Father Corby was placed on the battlefield to commemorate this event.

Further Reading

Corby, William (edited by Lawrence Kohl) 1992. Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years in the Irish Brigade with the Army of the Potomac (1st Edition 1893)