Battle of Gettysburg 150th Anniversary Address

Gettysburg National Military Park 
Gettysburg, PA 

June 22, 2013

Fr. William Corby, C.S.C., whose image is before us, served faithfully as an army chaplain throughout the Civil War.  His is the only statue on this field of battle erected to man who had no weapon. He earned a reputation for bravery without firing a gun.  He stood for mercy in the midst of war. He became famous for his role in this epic battle, yet he was, in the words of Fr. James Dillon, C.S.C., “a man of gentle and quiet manners.” He still has a lot to teach us.

The story of that day, July 2, 1863, is well known and still told.  Fr. Corby was a Union Army chaplain attached to the Irish Brigade from New York whose members were self-consciously committed to demonstrating Irish Catholic patriotism in America.  In several battles before Gettysburg they were assigned the worst of the fighting.  While distinguishing itself for tenacity and bravery in battle, the brigade suffered heavy casualties and made its way here at just a fraction of its original strength.  The men arrived on the second day of the battle, after a thirteen mile march from their previous encampment.  As the Confederate artillery opened fire and the Union forces prepared to charge, Fr. Corby asked the commanding officer, Col. Patrick Kelly, for permission to address the troops.  Fr. Corby climbed the rock before us and looked about.  

Let us imagine that scene here 150 years ago as we listen to Fr. Corby’s own account of it:  

“My eye covered thousands of officers and men.  I noticed that all, Catholic and non-Catholic, officers and private soldiers, showed a profound respect, wishing to receive at this fatal crisis every benefit of divine grace . . . .  [My] general absolution was intended for all . . . not only for the brigade, but for all, North and South, who were susceptible to it and who were about to appear before their Judge.” (Memoirs of Chaplain Life, 183-4)

As he pronounced the words of absolution, an observer noted that every man, whatever his religion, fell on his knees and bowed his head. 

Fr. Corby’s sacramental invocation of God’s mercy for all was a reflection of his faith in God who is Father of all, loves all, has mercy on all.  And this statue is a reminder to us not only of this momentous battle of a distant war, but of the call on us to embrace  the same faith:  to recognize the deeper bonds that unite us no matter how dire the conflicts that divide us.

That gift was characteristic of Fr. Corby.  

A few weeks after delivering his blessing on this site on July 2, 1863, he was with the Irish Brigade in Virginia near the town of Warrenton, pursuing Lee’s army.  He discovered with some surprise that the town had a Catholic church erected by a local family named Semmes. Several members of the Semmes family played prominent roles in the war -- most on the Confederate side, but some fought for the Union.  Corby was welcomed by a leading Catholic woman and member of that family, Mary Matilda Jenkins Semmes, a widow and mother in her sixties.  Fr. Corby wrote of her:

“I found her to be a very dignified and intelligent lady, [with] strong secession proclivities. She had charge of the church, and gave me a small altar stone and also baked some altar breads for me, and, although she thought I was on the ‘wrong side,’ as she expressed it, we parted good friends, united in holy Faith which no war can disrupt, and against which ‘even the gates of hell cannot prevail.’"

“I have ever since cherished an esteem for the family, and have had the pleasure of meeting several members.”

Fr. Corby likely did not know that one of Mrs. Semmes’ relatives, Brigadier General Paul Jones Semmes, commanded the Georgia Brigade that fought against the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg.  General Semmes was fatally wounded in the battle, falling within hours of Father Corby’s absolution.

Fr. Corby returned here in 1888 to mark the 25th anniversary of the battle.  With him were survivors of the Irish Brigade who pitched tents on the field, just as they had done twenty-five years earlier.  This reunion allowed Corby to spend time with men he had not seen since the end of the war.  

The veterans asked him to speak to the Brigade.  Corby later wrote of the moment:

“I was urged to address the multitude at the Anniversary Mass service. . . . At first I got on reasonably well, until, looking over those assembled, the surviving members of our illustrious and numerous band . . . I happened to make this statement, ‘Here is what is left of us; where are the others?’ 

….I filled up very unexpectedly and could not speak for several minutes. I had struck a very tender chord. The celebrant, although eleven years older than I, wept like a child, and the brave old warriors before me who had stood the shock of many battles also wept. We were on the spot where many of the ‘others’ had fallen; heroes whom we had helped to carry out of our ranks.”

Having seen so much killing, ministered to so many wounded, comforted so many dying, and spoken to so many families who lost those they loved, he knew the terrible horrors of war.  “There are times when war cannot be avoided,” he wrote. “But it should be resorted to only after all other means have been tried, tried again, and in vain.”

Conflict is an unavoidable part of our national life.  Sometimes our disagreements are limited in scope and relevance.   But sometimes they involve our deepest principles and our vision of what our nation should be.  

We cannot say of the violence and death that occurred here that the two sides fought over something small.  This was a battle over a profound moral principle.  

Slavery was unconscionable and indefensible.  As the conscience of the nation awakened, slavery could not survive.  But did it have to end like this: with so much death and suffering – not only in military defeat, but in the burning of homes and farms, the killing of crops and livestock, the destruction of mills and railroads that led to poverty that would last a century and wounds that would last even longer?  

And if there was a better path, what was it?   

Perhaps we can find some hint of an answer in Fr. Corby.  He was a man of clear convictions.  He was dedicated to action.  Yet he could also recognize the deeper bonds that unite us with those on the other side.  He was a proud member of the Union Army, but he respected and befriended those who supported the Confederacy.  He called on his soldiers to do their duty before battle, but he prayed for the enemy and called down God’s mercy on them.  He served throughout the war, yet he regretted war and urged the exploration of all other means to resolved disputes.  If others had Corby’s moral imagination, I believe, the brutal and bitter resolution of this conflict could have been avoided.

Today, thank God, we are not on the verge of any civil war.    Too often, though, conflicts among us quickly turn into a stare-down and a stand-off; rhetoric becomes harsh and personal.  In the midst of a close election or a political clash, members of one group talk about seceding; members of another group talk about moving to Canada.  Those who work with opponents to seek a constructive resolution are seen as “giving up or giving in”.  

If instead we embrace the example of Fr. Corby, we can be sure of our convictions, but nevertheless acknowledge what is honorable in those who disagree.  We can fight for our cause, and still cultivate personal relationships with the other side.  It is only in relationship, in dialogue that answers can emerge that might resolve conflicts in ways beyond hostility, violence and war.  

This is the message of the silent dead of Gettysburg:  there must be a better way to resolve our conflicts than the one that played out on this battlefield and in this war.  Fr. Corby’s invocation of God’s mercy on all challenges us to seek that better way.  

Let us strive to be heroes in fighting for our convictions while maintaining the deeper bonds that keep us together.  Let us look for common causes despite our differences.  Let us address those differences in ways that draw us together, not push us apart.  

There is a better path than the one that led America to this battle.  Let us find it and walk it – inspired by Fr. Corby and others like him who lived to show us the way.