In Ages Past
Absolution at Gettysburg: Father William Corby, C.S.C.
He was also present on the firing line through most of the Army of the Potomac's major battles, ministering to the wounded and the dying. The priest, as Corby saw it, was a "go-between, exercising, as best he could, the offices of Christian charity in numerous ways." It was hard work, but in his memoirs he wrote,
I recall a poor soldier who was accidentally shot through the left lung. I happened to be nearby, had just time to hear his confession, and he breathed his last. All the aforesaid labors, trials, and fastings were well rewarded by the chance given to save that one soul.
He believed the sacraments gave soldiers "new courage." "In our darkest hours and during our longest marches, the Holy Sacrifice made us feel that we had God with us to guide us and assist us to live well," he wrote. "And, if need were, to die well."
After seeing service in some of the war's hardest battles during three years with the Irish Brigade, Father Corby returned to Notre Dame in the fall of 1864. He served twice as president of the university, taught there, and stayed there for most of his remaining years. But the war had been a defining moment in his life.
At Notre Dame he established a veterans' post for ex-soldiers on the faculty. In 1893, he published Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years with the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac. He wrote it, in part, to counteract a resurgent anti-Catholicism, and partly to encourage Catholics. Corby died on December 28, 1897. His coffin was wrapped in a regimental flag and followed by a group of veterans. A volley was fired over the grave, and a bugler played Taps. In his memoir, he wrote,
Oh you of a younger generation, think what it cost your 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.
Note: Those interested in further reading should consult an excellent book by James M. Schmidt, Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.