The Rev. William Corby, American priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and Union Army chaplain in the American Civil War attached to the Irish Brigade, is born in Detroit, Michigan on October 2, 1833. He serves twice as president of the University of Notre Dame.
Corby is born to Daniel Corby, an Irish immigrant, and his wife Elizabeth, a Canadian. He attends public school until age 16, then joins his father’s real estate business. In 1853, he enrolls in the 10-year-old college of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and begins study for the priesthood three years later. Following ordination, he teaches at Notre Dame and serves as a local parish priest.
Corby leaves his position at Notre Dame and joins the predominately Catholic Irish Brigade in 1861. He spends the next three years as chaplain of the 88th New York Volunteer Infantry, which is one of the five original regiments in the Irish Brigade. He is perhaps best known for giving general absolution to the Irish Brigade on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the Brigade’s original 3,000 men, only about 500 remain. Of the men Corby absolves that day, 27 are killed, 109 are wounded, and 62 are listed as missing. The scene of Corby blessing the troops is depicted in the 1891 painting Absolution under Fire by Paul Wood, and dramatized in the 1993 film Gettysburg. His memoir of the Irish Brigade becomes a best-seller.
Following his service in the Civil War, Corby returns to Notre Dame and serves as its vice-president (1865–1866) and twice as its president (1866–1872, 1877-1881). Under his first administration, enrollment at Notre Dame increases to more than 500 students. In 1869 he opens the law school, which offers a two-year course of study, and in 1871 he begins construction of Sacred Heart Church, today the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame. The institution is still small, and he teaches in the classroom and knows most students and faculty members. In 1869, the entire student body and the faculty present him with the gift of a black horse and, when he leaves the presidency three years later, they present him with a matching carriage.
Corby becomes president again following the short term of Fr. Patrick Colovin. When he returns to the presidency, Notre Dame has not yet become a significant academic institution. His presidency sees the April 1879 fire that destroys the old Main Building of the school. He sends all students home and promises that they will return to a “bigger and better Notre Dame.” He overcomes the $200,000 fire loss and rebuilds the Main Building, which now stands with its “Golden Dome.” During his administration, he also constructs Washington Hall, in which he takes much pride, and starts the construction of St. Edward’s Hall for the minims program.
In addition to his presidency, Corby is also serving as the Holy Cross Provincial, when Rev. Edward Sorin, who had become Superior General of the Congregation, writes to him to tell him that he will have to relinquish one of his positions. He wants to remain president but is overruled by Sorin. Famous throughout the U.S. Catholic world as chaplain for the Irish Brigade, known as the “Fighting Irish,” it may be that the nickname followed Corby back to Notre Dame, where it stuck.
A statue by Samuel Murray, depicting Corby with right hand raised in the gesture of blessing, stands upon the same boulder at the Gettysburg Battlefield on which the priest stood while blessing the troops that second morning of the battle. It is the first statue of a non-general erected on the Gettysburg Battlefield, and is dedicated in 1910.
Corby is widely remembered among military chaplains and celebrated by Irish American fraternal organizations. Corby Hall at Notre Dame is named for him, and a copy of the Gettysburg statue stands outside the building. An organization of Notre Dame alumni is named The William Corby Society.
(Pictured: Statue of Father William Corby by Samuel Murray, Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)