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Lessons from Gettysburg, the Fighting Irish, and Memorial Day

By Sal Valeriano

This past St. Patrick’s Day, I did not partake in the typical revelry associated with the feast of Ireland’s (and engineering’s) patron, as the annual ROTC staff ride called me to the fields and farms of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in search of another Irishman. The Gettysburg battlefield is littered with cannons, monuments, statues, and plaques, marking one unit’s movement from this hill to that hill, interpreting the conflict and causes for modern visitors, and paying mute testimony to the sacrifice and suffering that took place here “four score” and seventy-five years ago. One marker here stands out from the rest— a priest, standing on a boulder, with his right hand outstretched in a sign of benediction. His name is Father William Corby, chaplain of the 88th New York Infantry, and on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, he and his men were in a placed in a dangerous spot. Disobeying orders, another Union general had moved his forces forward and out of the center of the Union line, creating a gaping hole that was now being filled with Confederates- a hole the 88th New York was being asked to close.

Fr. Corby where he gave his general absolution.

Before his men were tossed into the maelstrom in the wheat field below that had demolished scores of regiments, Northern and Southern, Fr. Corby perched himself atop a boulder, and, knowing he could never hear the individual confessions of all his men before many of them would die, asked his commanding officer to call the regiment to attention, and began to make the Sign of the Cross. Corby explained to his men that he was giving a general absolution, one of the first recorded in American history, told them to make a good individual confession when they had chance, to make a solemn act of contrition, and, as Protestant and Catholic, private and general alike bowed their heads in reverence, absolved them, giving them as penance a command to do their duty to their God, their country, and one another. Fr. Corby stepped down, the officers called their men to attention, and streamed ahead into the bloody fight.

Fr. Corby’s act was remarkable, both for its bravery and its novelty in an American society largely biased against Catholicism. In the decades prior to the war, thousands of Catholic Irish and German immigrants, much like the ones who would found both St. Bernard’s and St. Vincent’s, fled famine, poverty, and warfare in Europe for new lives in the United States. These immigrants were viewed with hostility and suspicion by most Americans, as they represented competition for employment, and many believed that Catholicism was opposed to “traditional American values” and that Catholics would pledge allegiance to their birth nations or the pope before the flag. Entire political movements sprung up in the years prior to the war with the sole purpose of banning Catholic immigration and worship in the United States. It was in this culture that Fr. Corby left his teaching position at a small college in South Bend, IN, in 1861 and joined the Union army with thousands of other Catholics, who sought, among many other things, to prove that they were just as loyal and patriotic Americans as the rest.

Catholics served with distinction on both sides, officers and enlisted alike. In the Northern armies, entire regiments and brigades were formed up with predominantly Catholic troops, like Fr. Corby’s Irish Brigade and other Irish, German, Polish, and Italian units. Union generals like Phillip Sheridan, Grant’s famous cavalryman, William Tecumseh Sherman, and William Rosecrans (all from Ohio!) all professed the faith. Rosecrans, a convert to Catholicism, wore a crucifix on his watch chain and would go into battle with a rosary in his pocket. (The general, who would often stay up half the night debating theology with his staff around a campfire, converted his brother Sylvester, who would later serve as the first bishop of the Diocese of Columbus.) Catholics served for the Confederacy as well, most notably generals P.T. Beauregard, who fired the first shots of the war on Fort Sumter, and James Longstreet, who would spend his post war career campaigning for civil rights for freed slaves and reconciliation between the North and South. Catholics served as noncombatants as well, as churches and convents were turned into hospitals for injured or sick soldiers. The Daughters of Charity, founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, MD, and dozens of other religious orders treated the sick and dying. Indeed, nuns were the first caretakers of soldiers on both sides, opening hospitals before both the Red Cross and US Army. One feisty nun would even dress General Sherman down in front of his men when drunken soldiers damaged her South Carolina convent!

Daughters of Charity aiding at Gettysburg


By now, I’m sure some of you are saying, “Ok, but what does this have to do with me?” None of us will be called to fight rebels in a field somewhere, but in our spiritual lives, the position the Irish Brigade was in on July 2nd often seems painfully familiar. The 88th NY was fighting an army that had fought — and beaten them — many times, in a position they were in because of the arrogance and pride of a general, for a cause that, if they lost this battle, seemed doomed, in a country that their faith and values seemed alien too. I don’t know about you, but that describes my spiritual life at times — to keep losing to recurring sins because I’m too proud to admit I need help, at a place where I feel like giving up entirely, in a world that sees nothing wrong with or encourages the very things I’m trying to avoid. So what do we do? The story of the Irish Brigade gives some guidance. First, as one Union commander told his soldiers “Fight! Fight like the devil!”- your enemy will be, “prowl[ing] around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Second, in the words of Fr. Corby, do your duty to each other. Seek out strong, Christian community, “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25). Encourage, support, and when needed, lovingly correct one another. Lastly, take hope. Though it did not seem like it in the moment at the Battle of Gettysburg, many veterans of the war and historians today view the Civil War’s result as a foregone conclusion, that a Union victory, and a victory of freedom over slavery, was inevitable. So too is the result of our war, the final victory of the freedom of Christ over the slavery of sin and death, Easter Sunday our Appomattox.  We know how the story ends- —it is up to us do decide, like so many people had to do when Fort Sumter was fired on in 1861, which side of the fight we’ll be on.

Fr. Corby would survive the war and return to Notre Dame, where he would serve as the university’s president for 10 years. When it came time to name the Notre Dame football team in the years after Corby’s tenure, the school chose to honor Fr. Corby and his comrades in the 88th New York by adopting their nickname- “the Fighting Irish”.  Yet the legacy of Fr. Corby, the Irish Brigade, and the thousands of other Catholics who did their duty to their country extends far beyond the gridiron — their bravery and sacrifice, an example that would be followed by countless others in America’s conflicts since the Civil War, helped cement freedom of religion and Catholicism’s gradual acceptance and place in American culture. The fallen of the Civil War, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, have also etched out a place on our calendars- Memorial Day. What began as small, unofficial remembrance of the passing of comrades and loved ones evolved into “Decoration Day”, where tombs and monuments were covered with flowers, to the modern holiday we celebrate today. This Memorial Day weekend, take some time away from the beach and barbecues to say a prayer in remembrance and thanksgiving of the “Fighting Irish” and those who demonstrated “no greater love” (from John 15:13).

St Patrick, pray for us!

St Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!

St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us!

The author and the rest of the 42nd OVB, University of Akron Army ROTC at the Irish Brigade Monument in Gettysburg



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