Absolution at Gettysburg: the story of Fr. William Corby

Absolution at Gettysburg: the story of Fr. William Corby July 2, 2012

A fascinating and timely piece by the good doctor, Pat McNamara:

On the hot afternoon of July 2, 1863, the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, a unit composed predominantly of Catholic immigrants, waited for the order to go into action. It was the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a three-day conflagration that saw over 50,000 casualties between both sides. The previous day, Robert E. Lee’s Confederates had driven the Union troops through the town of Gettysburg onto a hill called Cemetery Ridge. Now, Lee strove to dislodge them from their stronghold and destroy the Union Army.

Just before the Irish Brigade went into the fight, its chaplain, Father William Corby, climbed up onto a boulder to give the men general absolution from their sins. Since there was no time for individual confession, he talked briefly about patriotism, bravery, and penance before pronouncing the formula. About 320 of the brigade’s 530 men fell in the wheat field that day, but the tide was turning in favor of the Union.

There are numerous statues on the Gettysburg battlefield, but only one is dedicated to a chaplain. In 1910, alumni of the University of Notre Dame, where Corby had been president, erected a statue of him giving absolution. The event has also been commemorated in paintings, poems, books, and film. “It’s a symbolic depiction of the bond between Catholic faith and American patriotism at the nation’s supreme moment of crisis,” wrote Civil War historian Lawrence Kohl.  Corby symbolized Catholic commitment to the Union.

Read it all.

Browse Our Archives