On July 2, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was entering it’s pivotal second day. The Confederates were pushing on both flanks of the Union Line. An unauthorized advance by Union General Sickles exposed a salient in the Federal line which the Confederates were quick to seize upon. One of the areas of fiercest fighting has come down to history as “the Wheat Field”. Union Commander George Meade ordered the area to be reinforced in a desperate attempt to prevent a Confederate breakthrough; among those units that where to enter this maelstrom was the Irish Brigade.
The Irish Brigade was a brigade in name only. Originally composed of 5 regiments and 3000 men, the brigade’s heroism at the battles of Fair Oaks, Seven Days, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville had reduced its total numbers now to less than a single regiment of 600 men. Once again the Brigade was going to where the fighting was thickest and with victory or defeat hanging in the balance.
As the Brigade prepared to move off, their Chaplin Fr. William Corby C.S.C hastily mounted a boulder wearing his purple stole and said he would offer the men absolution. As one, the men of the brigade knelt and lowered their flags as Fr. Corby pronounced the
The entire surrounding second corps of the Army of the Potomac, irrespective of their own faith, fell silent as they watched this scene, even General Hancock, commanding the II Corps, removed his hat and bowed his head. As Fr. Corby’s last words faded away, the veterans of Irish Brigade moved off to battle, 198, about a third of their depleted number, never to return.
Witnesses described it as the most moving moment of the war.
Fr. Corby absolution at Gettysburg is commemorated with a statue at Gettysburg at the spot where it occurred and an identical copy in front of Corby Hall at Notre Dame.
Neil F. Cosgrove, Historian