The Second Irish (Tiffany) Colors

In the autumn of 1861, Rev. William Corby, C.S.C. joined the 88th Regiment of New York as a chaplain in the predominantly Catholic Irish Brigade in the Civil War. Rev. James Dillon, C.S.C., brother to Patrick – another future Notre Dame president, was attached to the 63rd New York regiment, also part of the Irish Brigade. Throughout the entire Civil War, the Irish Brigade was never without at least one priest.

Of all the priests, brothers, and sisters of the Congregation of Holy Cross who served in the Civil War, Fr. Corby is the best-known. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Fr. Corby granted absolution to the troops immediately before they marched into combat, and many ultimately to their deaths. The absolution was later immortalized by Paul Wood’s Absolution Under Fire, currently hanging in the Snite Museum of Art, and by twin statues of Fr. Corby on Notre Dame’s campus and at Gettysburg.

Statue of Rev. William Corby with a bandaged hand, c1930s-1940s.


Long after the Civil War, the veterans still held tight to their war stories. Like his compatriots, Fr. Corby kept in touch with other members of his brigade and attended reunions. Additionally, he helped organize the Notre Dame G.A.R. post (nationally noted for being the only one comprised solely of priests and brothers), penned Memoirs of Chaplain Life (1893), and sought artifacts for the museum at Notre Dame.

W.L.D. O’Grady, a former captain with the 88th, unsuccessfully worked to collect all of the known Irish Brigade flags and bring them to Notre Dame. He saw Notre Dame as a good central location in the United States, even though the 69th New York National Guard Armory would be a more natural home. The unstated reason was most likely political: perhaps O’Grady didn’t want the flags in the hands of New York’s Democratic political machine. Owner of one of the flags was James D. Brady, a Virginia Republican member of the United States House of Representatives. Brady was sympathy to O’Grady’s cause, and in 1896 he donated to Fr. Corby the Second Irish (Tiffany) Colors of the 63rd New York Regiment.

GARC: Restored Irish Brigade flag (Second Irish (Tiffany) Colors), 2000.

Brady had intended to visit Notre Dame in order to make a formal presentation of the flag, but his schedule prevented him from doing so in 1896. A year after the flag had arrived at Notre Dame, it must have been clear that Brady was never going to make the trip. James F. Edwards, curator of Notre Dame’s Bishops Memorial Hall, acknowledged the gift to the museum in a monthly circular of donations with no special notice or fanfare.

For many years, the Second Irish Colors was on prominent display in Main Building and was relocated to Lemonnier Library (now Bond Hall) when it opened in 1917. From there it moved to the old ROTC building (now West Lake Hall), to the Snite Museum of Art, and to Pasquerilla Hall Center (the newer ROTC building). Finally in 1998, the flag was accessioned into the collections of the University Archives as an important piece of Notre Dame history.

GDIS 45/60: The Second Irish (Tiffany) Colors on display in the Wightman Art Gallery, c1930s-1940s. Typed caption on the reverse: “The battle flag of the Irish Brigade which was presented to the University of Notre Dame by Gen. James D. Brady. It rests in the Wightman memorial art gallery of the University of Notre Dame.”

The silk embroidered flag was in rough shape even back in 1896; its tears and holes were falsely assumed to be evidence of the ravages of war. In reality, this particular flag made by Tiffany & Co. was never carried into battle. It was commissioned by prominent New York merchants and was delivered to the Irish Brigade the day after the brigade had lost half of its men at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. The banquet for the presentation of the new colors went on as planned, but ended early on account of renewed Confederate cannon fire.

The soldiers purportedly declined to carry the new colors into battle because the brigade was so depleted that it risked capture. A more likely explanation is that the soldiers preferred to follow a flag presented by the Democrat New York City government rather than one from American-born citizens of the city. General Thomas Meagher took it back to New York City where it was displayed for banquets, parades, and other patriotic events for the remainder of the war. As the last colonel of the 63rd regiment, James Brady took possession of the flag at the end of the Civil War.

Through the generosity of Jack and Kay Gibbons, conservation and restoration work began on the flag in February 2000. The enormous undertaking was completed that September and the flag, mounted and framed for preservation, was first displayed in Notre Dame’s Eck Visitors Center, then on exhibit at South Bend’s History Museum. Due to its delicate nature, the flag must spend years resting in storage after it has been on display for an extended period. However, the Second Irish (Tiffany) Colors of the 63rd New York Regiment is always available for serious scholars to view.

For more information about the Second Irish Colors and the conservation process, please see Blue for the Union and Green for Ireland: The Civil War Flags of the 63rd New York Volunteers, Irish Brigade (, by Peter J. Lysy, archivist at the University of Notre Dame.

Rev. William Corby at Gettysburg

Notre Dame’s military ties pre-date the Civil War, so when war broke out between the North and the South, Notre Dame inevitably became involved in the conflict.  Students and alumni joined the ranks, on both sides of the fighting.  Members of the Congregation of Holy Cross also volunteered, but in more peaceable jobs of chaplains and nurses.  Rev. William Corby was one of those priest who left his position at Notre Dame and joined up with the predominately Catholic Irish Brigade in 1861.  Corby spent the next three years as chaplain for the New York regiment.

Notre Dame’s Civil War Chaplains with two officers from the Irish Brigade at the Union Army camp at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, Summer 1862. Sitting: Captain J. J. McCormick; James Dillon, CSC; and William Corby, CSC. Standing: Patrick Dillon, CSC, and Dr. Philip O’Hanlon. Photo by Alexander Gardner, official photographer of the Army. Original glass negative is housed in the Library of Congress.

On July 1, 1863, the Irish Brigade marched into Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  They spent much of the next day  getting their armament into position near Cemetery Hill.  Corby notes in his memoirs that he could see the Confederate lines a mile away, also preparing for battle.  Around 4pm, the conflict became heated.  Corby recounts, “The Third Corps were pressed back, and at this critical moment I proposed to give a general absolution to our men, as they had absolutely no chance to practise [sic] their religious duties during the past two or three weeks, being constantly on the march”  [Corby, page 181].

Portrait of Rev. William Corby, CSC, 1863
Portrait of Rev. William Corby, CSC, 1863

Colonel St. Clair Mulholland was attached with the Irish Brigade and later gave this account of Corby’s famous absolution [Originally published in the Philadelphia Times, reprinted in Scholastic, April 3, 1880, pages 470-471]:

There is yet a few minutes to spare before starting, and the time is occupied in one of the most impressive religious ceremonies I have ever witnessed.  The Irish Brigade, which had been commanded formerly by General Thomas Francis Meagher, and whose green flag had been unfurled in every battle in which the Army of the Potomac had been engaged from the first Bull Run to Appomattox, was now commanded by Colonel Patrick Kelly, of the Eighty-eighth New York, and formed a part of this division. The brigade stood in columns of regiments closed in mass.  As the large majority of its members were Catholics, the Chaplain of the brigade Rev. William Corby, CSC, proposed to give a general absolution to all the men before going into the fight.  While this is customary in the armies of Catholic countries of Europe, it was perhaps the first time it was ever witnessed on this continent…  Father Corby stood upon a large rock in front of the brigade, addressing the men; he explained what he was about to do, saying that each one would receive the benefit of the absolution by making a sincere Act of Contrition, and firmly resolving to embrace the first opportunity of confessing his sins, urging them to do their duty well, and reminding them of the high and sacred nature of their trust as soldiers and the noble object for which they fought.  The brigade was standing at “Order arms,” and as he closed his address, every man fell on his knees, with head bowed down. Then, stretching his right hand towards the brigade, Father Corby pronounced the words of absolution.  The scene was more than impressive, it was awe-inspiring.  Near by, stood General Hancock, surrounded by a brilliant throng of officers, who had gathered to witness this very unusual occurrence and while there was profound silence in the ranks of the Second Corps, yet over to the left, out by the peach orchard and Little Round Top, where Weed, and Vincent, and Haslett were dying, the roar of the battle rose and swelled and reechoed through the woods.  The act seemed to be in harmony with all the  surroundings.  I do not think there was a man in the brigade who did not offer up a heartfelt prayer.  For some it was their last; they knelt there in their grave-clothes — in less than half an hour many of them were numbered with the dead of July 2.

Paul Wood’s Absolution under Fire at the Snite Museum of Art

Corby continued, “That general absolution was intended for all  in quantum possum  not only for our brigade, but for all, North or South, who were susceptible of it and who were about to appear before their Judge.”   A non-Catholic officer approached Corby after the Battle of Gettysburg and echoed Mulholland’s sentiments about the absolution:  that it was one of the most powerful prayers he had ever heard [Corby, page 184-185].

Rev. William Corby, CSC, statue at Gettysburg, c1910s "Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat, et ego, auctoritate ipsius, vos absolvo ab omni vinculo, excommunicationis interdicti, in quantum possum et vos indigetis deinde ego absolvo vos , a pecatis vestris, in nomini Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen" [Corby, page 183]
Rev. William Corby, CSC, statue at Gettysburg, c1910s
“Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat, et ego, auctoritate ipsius, vos absolvo ab omni vinculo, excommunicationis interdicti, in quantum possum et vos indigetis deinde ego absolvo vos, a pecatis vestris, in nomini Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen” [Corby, page 183]
 The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, with casualties exceeding 57,000.  Fr. Corby’s absolution of the troops stayed deeply in the imagination of the survivors for years to come.  After the war, Mulholland remained a friend of Notre Dame until his death.  In 1900, Professor Jimmy Edwards invited Mulholland to Notre Dame’s Commencement Exercises.  Mulholland regretted that he was unable to attend because he had just spent a week with veterans at Gettysburg.  He was surprised to find them still talking about the absolution:  “Instead of being forgotten it is becoming more widely known” [CEDW XI-2-c].

Corby’s famous absolution has since been immortalized, among other places, in Paul Wood’s Absolution under Fire (1891) at the Snite Museum of Art and in statues on the Gettysburg Battlefield (1910) and on Notre Dame’s campus (1911).


Memoirs of Chaplain Life
by Rev. William Corby
Scholastic, April 3, 1880
CEDW XI-2-c:  St. Clair Mulholland to Jimmy Edwards, 06/08/1900
GPHR 45/3024