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.


  1. Very nice article. May I ask where you got the photo of Father Corby?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thank you. I might have pulled it off Wikipedia. We had permission to reprint Paul Wood's print from the Snite Museum of Art for the book which was very kind of them. Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years In the Irish Brigade with the Army of the Potomac is Father Corby's memoir. Highly recommended.