by John Paul Strain
Rev. William Corby, Col. Patrick Kelly, Captain Denis F. Burke - 88th New York Regiment
Weikert Farm - Gettysburg, PA - July 2, 1863
In late June of 1863 a Washington newspaper headline blared out, “Invasion! Rebel Forces in Maryland and Pennsylvania”. President Abraham Lincoln was more than concerned. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with 65,000 soldiers had crossed the Potomac with the intent to destroy the Federal army and march on to Washington. In public President Lincoln had full confidence that his Army of the Potomac would be able to stop Lee’s invasion. However Lincoln had his doubts about the army’s commander, General Hooker. The president needed a leader who had the fortitude and strength of character to lead his army in a desperate fight which could change the course of the war. He had the brave men who would give their all in battle, but he needed a leader who Lincoln said, would not be “outgeneraled” by Lee. Three days before the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln announced to his war cabinet that he had replaced General Hooker with General George Meade whose nickname was the “Old Snapping Turtle”.
The two great armies met at the sleepy little crossroads town of Gettysburg on July 1st. Lead elements of the armies engaged around the town, while the main body of the armies converged into place. President Lincoln was a constant fixture at the telegraph office, receiving dispatches, and updates, as he was poring over a map hung on the wall. For the next couple of days, the fate of the nation seemed to be hanging in the balance as Lincoln paced back and forth across the room, only to rest occasionally on a small couch.
The second day of the battle General Lee attacked with the full force of his army on both flanks of the Federal lines. General Meade’s 2nd Corps, which included the Irish Brigade, was placed on the left center of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. The Irish Brigade had the reputation as one of the best fighting brigades of the army and was led by Col. Patrick Kelly. As the thunder of the fighting grew, and shells burst along Cemetery Ridge, the Irish Brigade was told to prepare them for battle. Father Corby, the spiritual leader and Chaplin of the 88th infantry, had not been able to hold religious services for weeks because of the heavy marching. The reverend asked Col. Kelly if he could address the men. In one of the poignant moments of the day Father Corby gave absolution to the men of the Irish Brigade as they knelt, bowed in prayer. Soon afterward at about 3:00 P.M. the order came, “Move by the left flank.” Caldwell’s Division, including the Irish Brigade marched past George Weikert one story farmhouse and on into the Wheatfield, and the surrounding area where some of the most heavy fighting of the day then took place. During the whirlwind of battle, the 530 men of the Irish Brigade sustained over 200 casualties at the Wheatfield and Stony Hill. Colonel Kelly was the only brigade commander of Caldwell’s division not killed or wounded. Father Corby would spend hours giving the fallen last rights and helping the wounded. President Lincoln would say about his soldiers in the Gettysburg address...”that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion...”
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