Battlefield Absolution: Father William Corby

Father William Corby

Emerging Civil War welcomes back Michael Aubrecht

In times of war, spirituality often counters tragic and catastrophic experiences. Many soldiers pray for both physical and spiritual healing as well as forgiveness for the actions they commit in the name of their cause. Leading soldiers in their religious zeal are men of the cloth who shepherd their flock in the name of their savior. This includes pastors and priests.

According to Catholic doctrine, one of the most important duties that a priest administers is the act of “Last Rites,” which is a form of absolution given to a dying person. In times of war, men will fall without a priest nearby. In order to compensate for this absence, Catholic chaplains performed a universal form of absolution prior to the battle. Much like Protestant peers, Catholics gathered together on the eve of battle. Their ceremony included a ritual absolving them of their sins in the event that they were killed. This Mass was particularly meaningful 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.”

One of the most revered priests following the American Civil War was an Irishman named William Corby. He was born in Detroit on October 2, 1833 to Daniel Corby, a native of King’s County, Ireland, and Elizabeth Corby, a citizen of Canada. Daniel became a prominent real estate dealer and one of the wealthiest landed proprietors in the country. He helped establish many Detroit parishes and aided in building many churches. His son William was educated in 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.

After graduation, Father Corby returned to the school as a faculty member. During the Civil War, he volunteered as a chaplain in the Union Army at the request of Father Edward Sorin, who was the Superior-General of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Father Corby resigned his professorship at Notre Dame and was assigned as chaplain to the 88th New York Volunteer Infantry in the famed Irish Brigade under Thomas Francis Meagher.

The Irish Brigade Attacks at Fredericksburg

For the next three years, Father Corby ministered to the troops with great enthusiasm. His presence as part of a five chaplain rotation was invaluable and a great comfort to those who attended his services. This made him popular with the men.

Known for their glorious (and disastrous) charge at Fredericksburg, the Irish Brigade also made a gallant stand at Gettysburg, where Father Corby has been forever memorialized in a modest statue that stands near the Pennsylvania Monument. He admonished the soldiers to confess their sins in the correct manner at their earliest opportunity. After repenting in the eyes of their Lord, the brigade plunged forward into battle and was met with a massive volley of fire from Confederate forces. At the end of the day, close to two hundred of the men whom Father Corby had blessed were counted as casualties.

Father Corby at Notre Dame

Father Corby resigned in September 1864 and returned to Notre Dame, where he was made vice president. Within a year, he was named president. At the end of his term at Notre Dame in 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.

Father Corby wrote a book of 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.”


Bergen, Doris, The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century. Notre Dame (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004)

Corby, William. Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years with the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac (Scholastic Press, 1894).

Michael Aubrecht is an author, as well as a Civil War Historian. He has written several books including The Civil War in Spotsylvania and Historic Churches of Fredericksburg. Michael lives in historic Fredericksburg.

8 Responses to Battlefield Absolution: Father William Corby

  1. A nicely done article. One small tweak – it’s “Congregation of Holy Cross” because it was founded in the Holy Cross (Sacre Croix) sector of Le Mans. As I posted in a comment the other day the replica statue on campus has always been known by the students as “Fair Catch” Corby – which matches the “First Down Moses” statute by the Library.

  2. Thanks for the additional information John. I wish I would have mentioned that matching monument as well. Most folks are familiar with the Gettysburg statue but not with that one, (including me).

    – Michael Aubrecht

  3. A fine article. Somewhere I have read the GB statue is located where the late 19th Century street car line ran, rather than where Cory actually blessed the Irish Brigade. Is that a false memory on my part?

  4. “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.” How true then and now. Thanks Father Corby and Thanks Michael for a great article. General Sherman has a link to Notre Dame too. And, Knute almost went to LSU, where the slogan would have been: win one for Boudreaux!

    1. Ed: The places Knute “almost” went to are numerous – including Columbia and, of all places, USC. The CSC’s called his bluff, however, and he never left because he knew that his national profile was tied to ND. Sherman’s link was through his wife, whose father (Senator Ewing) knew Father Sorin personally. Ellen and the younger children stayed at Notre Dame during the war and there are some accounts of his daughter Minnie getting into a scrap with a girl from Louisiana on Washington’s birthday. Sherman returned for his family in June, 1865 and gave the commencement address that year.

  5. Thank you Ed. Yes I agree, Such inspiring words that still ring true today. Father Corby speaks to every generation.

    – Michael Aubrecht

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