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Father Corby’s History

John E. Carey


The Rev. William Corby, chaplain of the famed Irish Brigade, was nominated for the Medal of Honor wrote a moving and yet humorous book, and distributed the Word of God to soldiers going into battle.

Corby wrote about his Civil War experiences in "Memoirs of a Chaplains Life," recently republished by Fordham University Press. The book was rediscovered University of Alabama history professor, Lawrence Frederick Kohl. He brings Corby's words alive in our century and fills in several details of the priest's life.

At the start of the Civil War, Edward Sorin, first president of the University of Notre Dame recognized the importance of helping the Union cause and knew the Irish could either choose to support the Union or suffer the blame of not contributing. He urged his clergymen to minister to the men under arms and the Irish Brigade in particular.

Corby and six other priests of Holy Cross order, a third of the order's members in the United States, eventually joined up. But Corby was the first Catholic priest with the Army of the Potomac. He chose to serve the Irish Brigade extended his ministry to the entire Army because of the paucity of serving clergy, especially among Catholics, in the early stages of the war.

Corby and other chaplains at the start of the war received no pay and held no rank. Later, Washington recognized the importance of chaplains and offered each an officer's commission and pay. The Corby family sent the young priest to war on a fine horse that others, less impressively mounted, frequently "borrowed" so they might present a more stately appearance. The bearded 28 year-old chaplain tells of being mistaken for a general because of mount and fine clothes. Then after a dusty forced march, he mused: "How hath my greatness fallen in one night.... Last night I was taken for a General; this morning I am taken for a loafer."

Death, of course, was a daily consequence of life in the Army of the Potomac during Corby's three years with the troops. The priest was a witness to many men about to meet their God. His supreme respect for the sanctity of life stands out in his memoirs. After the gruesome 1862 battle at Antietam, Corby wrote:
"The field presented a sickening sight the day after the battle on September 18, 1862 [Gen. Thomas Francis] Meagher's brigade did its duty as a military body and received the highest commendation from Gen. McClelland and from many historians since”.
Gen. McClellan, in a long report of its charge and other actions during the battle, says, among many other words of praise: 'The Irish Brigade sustained its well earned reputation."'

In "The Irish Brigade" written in 1969, Paul Jones describes Corby at Antietam, riding along the ranks beside Meagher, encouraging the men and giving general absolution. Corby's was a personal ministry, and he was chaplain to the brigade, not just to the Catholics. As often as possible in the field, he would improvise an altar to offer the sacrifice of the Mass for the soldiers: This re-creation of Christ's Last Supper must have had indelible significance among men who were facing death.

One of Corby's most memorable acts was on the second day at Gettysburg, which he modestly did not describe but for which he set the scene in his book: "And now, the two great armies are confronting each other.... At about four o'clock the Confederates commenced firing, and one hundred and twenty cannon from their side belched forth from their fiery throats missiles of death into our lines...The proportions of the pending crash seemed so great, as the armies eye each other, that even veterans who had often 'smelled powder' quailed at the thought of the final conflict. The Third Corps were pressed back, and at this critical moment I proposed to give a general absolution."

Maj. Gen. St. Clair Mulholland described the scene: "Now help is called for, and Hancock tells Caldwell to have his men ready... The Irish Brigade whose green flag has been unfurled in every battle in which the Army of the Potomac has been engaged from Bull Run to Appomattox, formed a part of this division... The Chaplain of this brigade, Rev. William Corby, proposed to give a general absolution to all the men before going into the fight. While this is customary in the armies of Catholic countries in Europe, it was perhaps the first time it was ever witnessed on this continent.

Father Corby stood on a large rock in front of the brigade. " 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:
'Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat."'

At another time during the Civil War, Corby was asked by men of the brigade to appeal on behalf of a condemned man. The priest worked is way up the chain of command seeking clemency. Eventually he reached the White House and made his case to President Lincoln. Lincoln, often criticized by generals for his leniency gave Corby a note: "I will pardon, if McClellan will pardon." McClellan told Corby the man must hang: Discipline had to be maintained.

Recalled to Notre Dame near the end of the war, Corby served his university and his nation for the rest of his life. He was a vice president at Notre Dame in 1865 and when the Rev. Patrick Dillon died the next year, Corby, at age 33, became the third president of the university.

In 1872, the head of his order in the United States asked Corby to move to Sacred Heart College in Watertown, Wis., to put it on a firm financial foundation, which he did. In 1877, he was summoned back to Notre Dame for a second time to lead it. On April 23, 1879, Notre Dame was nearly destroyed by a severe fire. Corby set about raising the money to rebuild. The classrooms were reopened the following autumn, and the priest was called the "Second Founder of Notre Dame." In 1886, he was elected provincial general of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

The men who had so appreciated his wartime ministry, the veterans of the Irish Brigade, nominated Corby for the Medal of Honor in 1893. By then, many of the more influential men who had known him in the Civil War, such as Meagher, were dead. But there still were many who remembered his devotion and courage.

Maj. W.L.D. O'Grady wrote that "Father Corby was known as the 'Fighting Chaplain"' and that "no spot was too dangerous or too much exposed to the fire of the enemy" for the Irish Brigade's priest.

Although Corby was not awarded a Medal of Honor, the brigade veterans presented him with a chalice, the sacred cup used in the sacrament of Mass. It was among his most cherished possessions. A statue of Corby blessing the troops at Gettysburg is among the monuments at the battlefield, and a copy of the statue stands in front of the aging Corby Hall at Notre Dame.

John E Cary, a retired Navy commander, graduated from Notre Dame in 1976. His mother, Marie Corby Carey, is a niece of the Irish brigade's chaplain.