With all of our CW-blogger friends commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam this week, here is my contribution to the mix via my latest piece written for Mort Kunstler’s new painting “Absolution Before Victory.” (Painting details)
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.
Mort Künstler’s Comments:
With the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam approaching, I decided to take the opportunity to paint the Irish Brigade. Although I had previously painted the famous “Fighting 69th” twice, I still believe there is more to their story.
The first Irish Brigade-themed painting I did was titled “Raise the Colors and Follow Me.” This piece depicted the unit with its commander General Thomas Meagher, who led the charge on the Sunken Road. I also painted Hancock the Superb, which depicted the Irish Brigade following that costly attack. After suffering terrible casualties, the 69th was forced to withdraw to a reserve position. General Meagher and General Israel Richardson, commander of the 1st Division of the 2nd Corps, were both wounded. General Winfield Scott Hancock, now in charge of the Division, rode along the lines to assess the situation and take command. Both of these paintings captured the courage and sacrifice of these brave Irishmen.
In looking for new subject matter, I suddenly realized that instead of painting another battle scene, I could depict the brigade prior to the battle. This scene would enable me to complete a trio of paintings: before, during, and after the Battle of Antietam; an unforgettable single day that produced the most casualties of any battle in American history.
My research began by reviewing some of the many books I had read on Antietam. I wanted to capture an important moment of exuberance just before the fight, a moment that would have been typical of the behavior of this famous brigade. In reading the autobiography of Father William Corby, the chaplain of the Irish Brigade and future president of Notre Dame, I finally found my moment. In his memoirs Father Corby states, “I gave rein to my horse and let him go at full gallop ‘til I reached the front of the Brigade, and passing along the line told the men to make an Act of Contrition. As they were coming toward me ‘double quick’ I had time only to wheel my horse for an instant toward them and give my poor men a hasty absolution and rode on with General Meagher into the battle.”
The center of attention in the painting is created by the exuberant action of General Meagher and Father Corby. For a dramatic effect, I deliberately limited the indication of bright sunlight to only the flags. The small white flag is a guidon for the 69th New York State Volunteers, the famous Fighting 69th. The green regimental flag adds a colorful accent and helps set the overall greenish mood to the painting. This also conveys an Emerald Isle feeling. When revisiting the battlefield to do research for this painting, I chose to paint this spot on the farm road in order to include the Roulette farmhouse and barn. Both are depicted in the far background, just under the raised arm of Father Corby.
One of the most difficult challenges I faced was how to create interest in the masses of soldiers who are mainly seen from the back view. As hands can be just as expressive as faces, I used the upraised hands and hats with their ornaments to help solve this problem, as well as maintain the overall mood of exhilaration and excitement. The completed painting is a tribute, not only to the valor of the men of the Irish Brigade, but also to their unwavering faith and conviction. There is a lot of story to tell here, and I hope I have succeeded in doing so in an interesting, accurate, and faithful manner.