A Notre Dame Priest at Gettysburg
Updated: Jul 2
By: Phil Houk of Fighting Irish Preview
This year marks the the 158th anniversary of the three day battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The battle was a pivotal Union victory in the fight to end slavery. Over the three days Union and Confederate forces suffered over 50,000 casualties. More than 7,000 lives were lost.
Around noon on July 2, 1863, at a battlefield called "The Wheatfield", a remarkable and unique event occurred amidst the bloody three-day carnage of Gettysburg. A much beloved Chaplain, who went on to serve as President of the University of Notre Dame was at the epicenter of that event.
Father William Corby, who was a Notre Dame Professor before the war, was among seven Notre Dame Priests who served the Union Army. Corby spent three years as the Chaplain for the legendary Irish Brigade, the 88th New York Infantry.
On that July 2nd date, Corby, just 29 years old at the time, recognized the extreme gravity of the events unfolding around him. As the Irish Brigade was about to be sent into battle, he climbed on a large rock and summoned the troops to gather about him and kneel. The position was within yards of some of the most brutal fighting of the entire Civil War. Besides “The Wheatfield”, battles on Little Round Top, and at "The Peach Orchard" also raged in close proximity.
With no time to hear the confessions of the men, Father Corby spoke the words of general absolution to the soldiers, an extraordinary measure under Catholic doctrine reserved for only the most emergent of circumstances, "Our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you, by his authority from every bond, excommunication, interdict, and in so far as I can and then I will absolve you, from your sins, in the name, of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.” Despite the cannon and musket fire all around, a profound sense of solemnity fell upon the assembly.
Father Corby went on to remind the troops of their duty to the Union cause, and he exhorted them not to waver as they upheld their flag.
Officers later reported they had never seen such an inspiring scene.
In close order, the men were sent to the rescue of the crumbling Union flank. Within moments and in vicious fighting, a third of the soldiers become casualties. 27 died, 109 were wounded and 62 were reported as missing.
The attack of "The Fighting Irish" brigade was not in vain as it bought precious time for the Union. As the afternoon of July 2nd inched into night, the Union was able to reorganize and reinforce its lines.
On July 3rd, the reinforced Union troops routed Pickett’s Charge and overall won a resounding military victory.
Father Corby’s inspiring event was immortalized in the 1891 painting Absolution Under Fire by Paul Wood and in the 1993 film, Gettysburg. The painting resides in the Snite Museum of Art on the Notre Dame campus.
Absolution under Fire by Paul Wood, 1891, depicts Father Corby's general absolution
A monument stands at the site of Father Corby's inspired act and an identical one, colloquially known as "Fair Catch Corby" stands on the University of Notre Dame Campus.
"Fair Catch Corby" a statute identical to the one at Gettysburg stands on the ND campus.
After the war Father Corby returned to South Bend, and in 1866 became President of the University, a position he held for a total of 10 years. During his tenure he oversaw the construction of The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and the Main Building, also known as “The Golden Dome”. Later while in “retirement” he oversaw the construction of the famous Grotto.
In 1893 Father Corby’s book, Memoirs of Chaplain Life, became a bestseller. In it he said of the general absolution he offered at Gettysburg, ”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."
Corby, died in 1897 at the age of 64.