Fr. Corby at Gettysburg

Gettysburg Wm

The harried pace of warfare meant men went long stretches with little time to exercise their religious duties. So it was for the Irish Brigade in late June 1863. The unit was constantly on the move into July, when it eventually made its way to Gettysburg. The Brigade established a position on Cemetery Hill. On the second day of the battle, the conflict began to press in on them. Noting there was little time to hear confession, Fr. Corby suggested to the commanding officer, Colonel Patrick Kelly, that he offer a general absolution for the men. This was fairly common among the Catholic armies of Europe, but it was exceedingly rare in the United States, if it had been done at all up to that point. Colonel St. Clair Mulholland, who was with the unit, recounted the scene in a piece that appeared in the Notre Dame Scholastic in 1880:

“Father Corby stood upon a large rock in front of the brigade, addressing the men; he explained what he was about to do, saying that each one would 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 well, 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,” and as he closed his address, every man fell on his knees, with head bowed down. Then, stretching his right hand towards the brigade, Father Corby pronounced the words of absolution. The scene was more than impressive, it was awe-inspiring. Nearby stood General Hancock, surrounded by a brilliant throng of officers, who had gathered to witness this very unusual occurrence and while there was profound silence in the ranks of the Second Corps, yet over to the left, out by the peach orchard and Little Round Top, where Weed, and Vincent, and Haslett were dying, the roar of the battle rose and swelled and reechoed through the woods. The act seemed to be in harmony with all the surroundings. I do not think there was a man in the brigade who did not offer up a heartfelt prayer. For some it was their last; they knelt there in their grave-clothes—in less than half an hour many of them were numbered with the dead of July 2.”

Fr. Corby would later write in his memoirs: “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.”