Absolution Before Victory
by Mort Kunstler
Irish Brigade at Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862
As one of the most renowned units of the American Civil War, the Irish Brigade served in the 1st Division of the Second Corps in the Army of the Potomac. Many military historians consider its performance under fire to be extraordinary and some even argue that it was the bravest division of the entire Union Army. As a testament to its sacrifice, the 2nd Corps lost more men during the Civil War than any other unit in the Federal army. A large percentage of that number was left on the fields following the Battle of Antietam in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
The massive number of casualties sustained by the 2nd Corps was not surprising, as the task that was given to the Irish Brigade during the Battle of Antietam was a formidable one. Around mid-morning on September 17, 1862 the Irish were set to move against a position that would later be referred to as ”Bloody Lane.” Over time, thousands of wagons had turned this once—serene road into a deadly defensive fortification. The Confederate officer occupying the road declared boldly that his men were going to stay there until the sun went down or victory was won.
As is often the case in war, the anticipated loss of men for this advance was eclipsed by the tactical need to occupy the position. Most of the Irish Brigade ranks were made up of practicing Catholics, so the act of last rites was an absolute necessity for this assault. With their beloved commander, General Thomas Meagher, riding among them, the brigade chaplain, Father William Corby, quickly rode along the line, offering a hasty absolution.
Although priests and chaplains routinely held religious services on the mornings before battle, the act of consecrating troops who were already engaged in battle was remarkable. Father Corby’s presence was an invaluable comfort to all who were about to fall on the killing fields of Sharpsburg. As the brigade stepped off, Confederate artillery opened fire on them and Irishmen began to drop beside the bodies of those brigades that had preceded them. Amazingly, the Irish Brigade would repeat this act of devotion and courage during equally desperate charges at the battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Each time, Father Corby was there, offering spiritual strength through absolution.
|14 5/8" x 30"
|14" x 29"
|17" x 35"
|22" x 45"