American Civil War Home Chatroom Transcript (Oct. 29, 2006) "For God and Country: The Role of Religion in the Civil War": an online chat with author Michael Aubrecht (continued)


10/29/2006 9:44 pm (et) MAubrecht: Next up: FATHER CORBY, PRIEST OF THE IRISH BRIGADE:

10/29/2006 9:44 pm (et) MAubrecht: As a former Catholic - turned Presbyterian, this subject is a familiar favorite of mine. Those of you that attended last year's muster at Gettysburg must surely remember the famous Pennsylvania Monument. You may have also noticed a much smaller statue - about 100 or so yards away - on the interior side of the road - opposite the battlefield. The simple sculpture depicts the likeness of a stately, bearded man, holding the Good Book in one hand, and raising his other in an absolution gesture. This is the Statue of Father Corby, the Catholic chaplain (or priest) of the famous Irish Brigade and later, the president of Notre Dame University.

10/29/2006 9:45 pm (et) MAubrecht: Now for those of you that are not familiar with Catholic doctrine, one of the most important duties that a priest administers is the act of "Last Rights," which is a form of absolution that is given to a dying person. In time of war, this provides a huge problem as men obviously fall on the battlefield without having a priest nearby.

10/29/2006 9:45 pm (et) MAubrecht: In order to "compensate" for this absence, Catholic chaplains would perform a "universal" form of this prior to the battle. Much like their Protestant peers, the Catholics would gather together on the eve of (or hours before) an anticipated engagement, but their ceremony would include a "Last Rights" that would "cover them" in the case that they were killed.

10/29/2006 9:46 pm (et) MAubrecht: This "Mass" was extremely important to brigades that were made up of immigrants such as the Irish and German contingencies. Perhaps the most famous of these was "The Irish Brigade," who "deployed" with Father William Corby. On "The American Civil War" website, they describe his invaluable service: "For many Civil War soldiers, both North and South, religion served to provide hope and meaning given what they endured during this bloody, violent conflict. When possible, men of the church would take an active role in lending such to the troops both during times of idleness and of combat."

10/29/2006 9:47 pm (et) MAubrecht: They add, "The Reverend Father William Corby, chaplain to the Union's Irish Brigade among others, extended general absolution to all soldiers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He was also known to administer last rights to the dying on the field while under fire. Prior to the conflict in the Wheatfield on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, he offered general absolution to the Irish Brigade. Despite the loss of 506 of their men during that day's battle, one soldier stated that, because of Father Corby, "He felt as strong as a lion after that and felt no fear although his comrade was shot down beside him." Not the only example of heroism by people of the clergy, Chaplain William Hoge ignored the Union Blockade to bring Bibles to Southern soldiers."

10/29/2006 9:48 pm (et) MAubrecht: Father Corby was born in Detroit on October 2, 1833 to Daniel, a native of King's County, Ireland and Elizabeth, a citizen of Canada. Daniel became a prominent real estate dealer and one of the wealthiest landed proprietors in the country. He helped to found many Detroit parishes and aided in the building of many churches. His son William was educated in the common schools until he was sixteen and then joined his father's business for four years. Realizing that William had a calling to the priesthood and a desire to go to college, Daniel sent him and his two younger brothers to the ten year old "university" of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The Congregation of the Holy Cross staffed the school then, as now.

10/29/2006 9:49 pm (et) MAubrecht: After graduation, Corby returned to the school as a faculty member. During the Civil War, he volunteered his services as a chaplain in the Union Army at the request of Father Sorin, who was the Superior-General of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Corby resigned his professorship at Notre Dame and was assigned as chaplain to the 88th New York Volunteer Infantry in the famed Irish Brigade of Thomas Francis Meagher. It has been written that he boarded the train with a song on his lips - singing "I'll hang my harp on a willow tree. I'm off to the wars again: A peaceful home has no charm for me. The battlefield no pain"

10/29/2006 9:50 pm (et) MAubrecht: For the next three years, Father Corby ministered to the troops with great enthusiasm. This made him popular with the men. According to the Catholic Cultural Society, "Chaplains, like officers, won the common soldiers' respect with their bravery under fire. Father Corby's willingness to share the hardships of the men with a light-hearted attitude and his calm heroism in bringing spiritual and physical comfort to men in the thick of the fighting won him the esteem and the friendship of the men he served. Frequently under fire, Corby moved among casualties on the field, giving assistance to the wounded and absolution to the dying. For days after the battles, he inhabited the field hospitals to bring comfort to men in pain."

10/29/2006 9:50 pm (et) MAubrecht: Known for their glorious (and disastrous) charge here at Fredericksburg, the Irish Brigade also made a gallant stand at Gettysburg, where their priest has been forever memorialized. The CCS recalls this as the defining moment for BOTH the brigade and their chaplain: "Before the Brigade engaged the Confederate soldiers at a wheat field just south of Gettysburg, Father William Corby, in a singular event that lives in the history of the Civil War, addressed the troops. Placing his purple stole around his neck, Corby climbed atop a large boulder and offered absolution to the entire unit, a ceremony never before performed in America. Kohl, editor of Corby's memoirs, tells us that Father Corby sternly reminded the soldiers of their duties, warning that the Church would deny Christian burial to any who wavered and did not uphold the flag. The members of the Brigade were admonished to confess their sins in the correct manner at their earliest opportunity."

10/29/2006 9:52 pm (et) MAubrecht: With their sins forgiven, the Irish Brigade plunged into battle and they were met with a massive volley of fire from the Confederate soldiers. At the end of the day, 198 of the men whom Father Corby had blessed had been killed. A tragedy? Yes. But it was dulled by the fact that the departed heroes had been absolved and blessed prior to the engagement. This surely made the family and friends of the dead, a little less sad, knowing that their loved ones were to be accepted into the Kingdom. Therefore (IMO) Father Corby's presence was invaluable and a great comfort to all who attended his services. He is perhaps, the most famous and revered Catholic priest of the entire Civil War.

10/29/2006 9:53 pm (et) MAubrecht: After the war, in 1865, Father Corby returned to Notre Dame where he was made vice president. Within a year, Corby was named president. At the end of his term at Notre Dame 1872, Father Corby was sent to Sacred Heart College. He returned to Notre Dame as president in 1877 where he became known as the "Second Founder of Notre Dame" for his successful effort to rebuild the campus following a fire. Later he became Assistant General for the worldwide order.

10/29/2006 9:53 pm (et) MAubrecht: Father Corby wrote a book of his recollections, entitled "Memoirs of Chaplain Life." He stated, "Oh, you of a younger generation, think of what it cost our forefathers to save our glorious inheritance of union and liberty! If you let it slip from your hands you will deserve to be branded as ungrateful cowards and undutiful sons. But, no! You will not fail to cherish the prize-- it is too sacred a trust-- too dearly purchased."

10/29/2006 9:54 pm (et) MAubrecht: He died in 1897, and as he was being buried, surviving veterans of the Grand Army Of The Republic are said to have sang this song: "Answering the call of roll on high. Dropping from the ranks as they make reply. Filling up the army of the by and by." Are there any questions or comments on the great Father Corby? XXXXXXXXX

10/29/2006 9:54 pm (et) Basecat: ? comment here.

10/29/2006 9:54 pm (et) amhistoryguy: ?

10/29/2006 9:54 pm (et) MAubrecht: base, comment? then am...

10/29/2006 9:55 pm (et) NJRebel: ?

10/29/2006 9:56 pm (et) Basecat: As one who has been to the campus of Notre Dame, Father Corby is still highly remembered there. Not sure if all know, but an exact replica of the statue at Gettysburg stands there on the campus as well. Folks may talk about Touchdown Jesus, but when I think of Notre Dame, I think of Father Corby.

10/29/2006 9:57 pm (et) MAubrecht: Thanks Steve. I did not know that. am? - then NJ...

10/29/2006 9:57 pm (et) amhistoryguy: A duplicate of the Father Corby statue at Gettysburg, stands at Notre Dame, often referred to lovingly as "Fair Catch Corby."

10/29/2006 9:58 pm (et) Basecat: :) Had forgotten the nickname amhg..:)

10/29/2006 9:58 pm (et) NJRebel: Not so much a question here Michael but a general comment about your earlier reference to the Last Rites and what Corby did... IIRC it is referred to as a Conditional General Absolution...........

10/29/2006 9:59 pm (et) MAubrecht: Yes you are correct. They still do that today. I have spoken about this process with a couple U.S. Marine Chaplains here at Quantico.

10/29/2006 10:00 pm (et) MAubrecht: In Iraq, they often hold a brief ceremony w/ Catholic troops before patrols.

10/29/2006 10:00 pm (et) NJRebel: For your info Michael...also a former Catholic here, but now Methodist......Are you aware of the Troiani painting showing Corby at Antietam?

10/29/2006 10:00 pm (et) MAubrecht: I believe that Corby was the first, but this practice has been adapted in every war since then.

10/29/2006 10:00 pm (et) ks: ? more RC commentary

10/29/2006 10:01 pm (et) MAubrecht: I'm sure that you remember the Catholic Chaplain scenes in films like "Saving Private Ryan and "Band Of Brothers." Yes ks?

10/29/2006 10:01 pm (et) ks: Roman Catholic commentary on the "Last Rights"...That's a term not used much these days. The sacrament of anointing a critically ill or weak person, with prayers for recovery and an act of penance or confession, The "Anointing of the Sick" is what takes places now. It replaced the sacramental rite of Extreme Unction in 1972.

10/29/2006 10:02 pm (et) MAubrecht: Thanks ks. I think in terms of military deployments, they use the terms "blessing" and/or "anointing" - not "last rights" - too negative I would assume?

10/29/2006 10:03 pm (et) ks: Probably

10/29/2006 10:03 pm (et) NJRebel: ? re Corby....

10/29/2006 10:03 pm (et) MAubrecht: Yes NJ…

10/29/2006 10:04 pm (et) NJRebel: Are you familiar with the Troiani painting of the Irish Brigade at Antietam? Corby is right there in front blessing/absolving the men of the Brigade with Meagher in the left back foreground?

10/29/2006 10:05 pm (et) MAubrecht: Yes I have seen that piece. He is excellent. BTW: I have 2 of Mort Kunstler's prints hanging downstairs in my dining room.

10/29/2006 10:05 pm (et) bluelady: I must be off. This is all very interesting and will catch the rest and what I missed in the scroll.

10/29/2006 10:05 pm (et) MAubrecht: It's getting a tad late, I have one shorter topic and then we'll do the TRIVIA CONTEST and I'll stay on to discuss anything that you want…

10/29/2006 10:05 pm (et) bluelady: logs off.

10/29/2006 10:06 pm (et) NJRebel: What I find interesting about that painting is that Corby is doing what he is doing under Confederate fire....