Catholics In America – Chaplain for the Irish Brigade during the Civil War

My father, who turns 60 today, is an enormous Civil War buff (I’m not sure what exactly he does with all those bullets and bayonets from battlefields that take up rooms in his home and shorehouse). Yet, as a thoughtful gesture toward a meeting of interests one Christmas, the former federal agent-turned-amateur archeologist gave me, his aspiring theologian son, a framed picture of a priest saying Mass surrounded by kneeling Union soldiers for my office. Chaplains such as the one depicted are certainly heroes in the annals of American history.

The most famous of these figures is Rev. William Corby, a Holy Cross priest who agreed to serve as a chaplain for the famed Irish Brigade during the Civil War. He taught, encouraged and ministered to the soldiers as they struggled to keep the country together and to survive the atrocities of the bloodiest battles ever to take place on our soil. A book of his letters has been compiled by University of Alabama professor, Lawrence Frederick Kohl, and published by my editors at Fordham University Press.

Corby was an inspiring personality, not just to Catholic soldiers but to all those engaged in what the combatants viewed as a just and righteous cause. Today at Gettysburg there is a statue memorializing the general absolution he offered to scores of men on bended knee about to perish in the violence. While this had been common practice for centuries in Catholic Europe, it was perhaps the first time such a scene had been witnessed on these shores.

The chaplain’s writings give a penetrating if frightening glimpse of the tragic realities of the day. “Many fervent prayers were said and holy vows pronounced, especially on the nights of the first and second [of July, 1863]. The proportions of the pending crash seemed so great, as the armies eyed each other, that even veterans who had often ‘smelled powder’ quailed at the thought of the final conflict….[A] soldier of his regiment knelt near him while the general absolution was being given….Twenty minutes later that poor soldier was a corpse!”

Father Corby survived the war, which was quite a feat considering the solidarity he exhibited with those under his care and the perilous situations into which he volunteered to remain

After the war, he returned to his beloved Notre Dame and became the university’s third president. A copy of the famed Gettysburg statue currently stands outside of Corby Hall on the campus at South Bend. As difficult as it is for a rival Boston College alumnus to admit, that is a rather inspiring commemoration. Thankfully, it isn’t too close to the football stadium.

Figures like William Corby help us remember that what it means to be Catholic and what it means to be American are in no way antithetical, but can rather be deeply interwoven and integrated within personal lives and narratives. The separation of church and state, a wonderful and crucial development in the history of this country (one set up in large part to defend the rights of believers from an overbearing state, not the other way around), ought not to result in some sort of an intellectual schizophrenia. Deep faith and commitment to the ideals of freedom, independence and religious liberty can and do coexist not only in famous historical personages, but in the minds and hearts of countless unrecognized heroes in our nation’s past and present.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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