Thursday, March 28, 2013

Absolution Under Fire: A Moment of Grace at Gettysburg

I'll hang my harp on a willow tree.
I'll off to the wars again:
A peaceful home has no charm for me.
The battlefield no pain

  On July 2, 1863, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia attacked the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg in a devastating flanking attack striking northeast over the Emmitsburg Road. General Daniel Sickles's Third Corps had advanced without orders along that road forming a salient in front of the main Union defensive line, and were attacked from three sides by Lee's army. Witnessing the devastation in the valley before Cemetery Ridge, Union General Winfield Scott Hancock began organizing reinforcements to advance and rescue the Third Corps from annihilation.

  One of those units was the elite Irish Brigade under Colonel Patrick Kelly. The five veteran regiments of this brigade from New York and Massachusetts consisted of almost all Irish immigrants. Among them was Father William Corby, a Catholic priest. As the brigade formed near the wheat field and prepared to advance into the cauldron of battle that lay ahead, Corby recalled, “At this critical moment, I proposed to give a general absolution to our men, as they had absolutely no chance to practice their religious duties during the past two or three weeks, being constantly on the march.”

Father William Corby

  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 the absolution: “Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat . . .” May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and I by his authority absolve you from every bond of excommunication and interdict, as far as I am able, and you have need. Moreover, I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Absolution Under Fire by Paul Wood, c. 1891. Print credit: Snite Museum of Art. 

  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 Major General Hancock removed his hat, and, as far as compatible with the situation, bowed in reverential devotion. That general absolution was intended for all—in quantum possum— not only for our brigade, but for all, North or South, who were susceptible of it and who were about to appear before their Judge.  -- Father William Corby
  The Irish Brigade, with the rest of the 1st Division, advanced into the battle moments later and stopped the Confederate attack by nightfall. Of the 530 men of the Irish Brigade, 200 were killed, wounded, or missing by the day’s end. William Corby survived the war and went on to serve two terms as president of the University of Notre Dame. The school’s Corby Hall is named for him. There is a statue dedicated to Corby at Gettysburg memorializing his general absolution to the Irish Brigade on the second day of the battle. He also wrote Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years with the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac. He passed away in 1897.

Memorial to Father William Corby on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. Photo credit: The Gettysburg Daily

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be per-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound.

Friday, March 8, 2013

George Gordon Meade: The Unsung Hero of Gettysburg

Batteries are all about us; troops are moving into position;
new lines seem to be forming, or old ones extending. Two or three
general officers, with a retinue of staff and orderlies, come galloping
by. Foremost is the spare and somewhat stooped form of the
Commanding General. He is not cheered, indeed he is scarcely
recognized. He is an approved corps General, but he has not yet
vindicated his right to command the Army of the Potomac.

                                                        —Whitelaw Reid, Cincinnati Gazette 

 Major General George Gordon Meade, illustrated by Ron Cole.

  One of the great unsung heroes of Gettysburg is Major General George Gordon Meade.  In the pre-dawn hours of June 28, 1863, a special messenger reached Meade, who was encamped with the army near Frederick, Maryland. So stunned was Meade, in his sleepy mind, that he thought the officer had come to place him under arrest. Instead he was delivered a letter from General Halleck in which Meade was promoted to command the Army of the Potomac with orders to confront Lee as he invaded Pennsylvania. Unknown to anyone, that confrontation was only three days away.

  Although Meade was known for his temper, nicknamed a damned "goggle-eyed snapping turtle" by some on his staff,  he was an inspired choice by Lincoln. Meade was a proven combat leader, one without political ambitions, and Lincoln knew he could count on Meade to defend his home state of Pennsylvania from Lee’s invasion. Where other generals had shown timidity in opposing Lee aggressively, Meade knew his duty was to seek battle. This was well understood by General Lee, a fellow West Pointer and engineer, who found out Meade had taken command about twenty-four hours later. Lee said to his corps commanders, “General Meade will commit no blunder in my front, and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it.”

  Meade also had the confidence of his fellow officers, especially Major Generals John Reynolds and Winfield Scott Hancock. That same trust was returned by Meade giving Reynolds command of the left wing as they advanced towards Gettysburg with authority to act in Meade's stead on the battlefield.  When word of Reynold's death reached Meade, he turned to Hancock to take command of the field and confront Lee until the situation developed. By the time Meade arrived on the battlefield before dawn on July 2, his army was in possession of the high ground from Culp's Hill, along Cemetery Ridge to the Round Tops. Hancock's presence had been a major factor in rallying the survivors of the First Corps and placing reinforcements into line along Cemetery Ridge.

  On the night of June 30, just before the battle, he wrote his wife: “All is going on well. I think I have relieved Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and that Lee has now come to the conclusion that he must attend to other matters. I continue well, but much oppressed with a sense of responsibility and the magnitude of the great interests entrusted to me . . . Pray for me and beseech our heavenly Father to permit me to be an instrument to save my country and advance a just cause.” 

 Commanders of the Army of the Potomac, Gouverneur K. Warren, William H. French, George G. Meade, Henry J. Hunt, Andrew A. Humphreys, and George Sykes in September 1863.

  Meade should be remembered as one of the great Civil War generals. He was one of the few combat leaders who appreciated changes in technology and tactics that made frontal assaults a tragic waste of human lives. At Gettysburg, when the country needed fighting leader, Meade was there. His trust in his subordinates, his careful movement and deployment of vast numbers of men, guns, and supplies to Gettysburg, and his foresight in sensing Lee would attack his center line on July 3, were all marks of a great general. He was one of the few Union generals to face Robert E. Lee in open battle and to defeat him. 

Look for my new book on Gettysburg for teens this June from Sky Pony Press: Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon, and Indiebound.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Great Authors: Erich Maria Remarque Part One

Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit?...   
You can drink and forget and be glad,   
And people won’t say that you’re mad;   
For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country   
And no one will worry a bit.

                                      --Siegfried Sassoon

  Every writer has somewhere a small collection of cherished books--authors whose influence runs deep. I firmly believe that books find their way into our lives at certain times to inspire us. One of the life changing times that put me on the path to studying history was in the 8th grade. I was living in Stockholm at the time, attending The International School learning history from Mrs. Carol Adamson. She was a kindly and learned woman who cared deeply about her convictions against war. I'll never forget her.

  She read us a passage from Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.  I still remember the passage (see below). Decades later I still regard that novel as one of the greatest books ever written. Remarque served on the western front with the German army and later became a teacher. He wrote his epic novel in 1927. The Nazis banned his book and would have arrested Remarque but he was living in Switzerland. His sister Elfriede was arrested and tried by the Nazis in 1943 for opposing the war. Found guilty by one of Hitler's "People's Courts" she was executed. Remarque and his wife emigrated to the United States in 1947 and became citizens although he returned to Switzerland in 1949 where he spent the rest of his life. 

Remarque in Davos, Switzerland, 1929.

"Erich Maria Remarque is in many ways the quintessential twentieth-century man. Caught between the intense nineteenth-century nationalism of his youth and the dissolution and despair brought on by World War I, Remarque embodies the psychological and existential dilemmas of his generation." 

                                                                                       --Marvin J.Taylor, New York University.

  In this  passage, the story's central character, Paul Baumer is recovering from wounds received on the battlefield and is assigned to a hospital behind the lines. I wonder how many young men (and women) who have suffered in our recent wars feel exactly the same way?

On the next floor below are the abdominal and spine cases, head wounds and double amputations. On the right side of the wing are the jaw wounds, gas cases, nose, ear, and neck wounds. On the left the blind and the lung wounds, pelvis wounds, wounds in the joints, wounds in the kidneys, wounds in the testicles, wounds in the intestines. Here a man realizes for the first time in how many places a man can get hit...

And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing;--it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

...To be Continued...