ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog
June is Immigrant Heritage Month, and no American military conflict was more impacted by immigrants than the American Civil War. Roughly a quarter of the United States forces were immigrants, giving the Union a decided manpower advantage over the Confederacy. This month I want to talk about an immigrant who came to America before the Civil War, served in the United States Army, and continued to serve his adopted country after the war.
When Felix Brannigan wrote to his sister in the summer of 1862 he probably did not think that anyone outside of his immediate family circle would see his soldier’s letter home. Brannigan was part of the Union Army of the Potomac that had failed days earlier to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. The Irish immigrant had heard that a series of Union defeats was pushing President Lincoln towards the emancipation of the slaves. Brannigan denounced this possibility in the most racist language possible in what he assumed was a private note to his loved one. He could not know that it would be reprinted more than a dozen times in history books.
Felix Brannigan was an early volunteer in the Union army. He joined the army in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 22, 1861. Although he signed-up for the army in Pennsylvania, his unit was incorporated into the 74th New York Volunteer Infantry, part of New York’s Excelsior Brigade.
Brannigan was white-hot with hatred for the Southern aristocrats who had led the secession movement as well as for native-born New Yorkers who failed to enlist in the army to save their country. Brannigan wrote that “It makes even a foreigners blood boil to look at the apathy” of men unwilling to risk their lives to preserve “a country which is looked upon by the oppressed of all nations as a haven of liberty.” He insisted that the Union would win the war if the men of the North enlisted en masse.
While Brannigan wanted white Northerners to join him in the army, he had no desire to have black men serve with him. “We don’t want to fight side and side by the n*gger,” he wrote. “We think we are too superior a race for that.” He wrote to his sister that he would “let the n*ggers be sent here to use the pick and shovel” to perform the hard manual labor “in the broiling sun” of building fortifications. This, he wrote, would allow white men now engaged in such work to pick up the “soldiers tool-the gun and bayonett.”
Racism was not confined to lower ranking officers and men. William T. Sherman, who may have freed as many slaves as any general in the Union army, wrote in 1864 that “I like n*ggers well enough as n*ggers, but when fools & idiots try & make n*ggers better than ourselves I have an opinion.” While he said that the South was being punished for its “injustice” towards blacks, he warned that there “is no reason why we should go to the other extreme.” [Sources]
While Felix expressed the most extreme opposition to serving with Blacks, the announcement from Washington that African Americans would be enlisted did not lead him to desert. In fact, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery at Chancellorsville. Then he made a move that seemed like a complete reversal of opinion. Brannigan decided to seek a position as an officer leading African-American troops. [Sources]
Immigrants appear to have been more likely to request a commission as an officer in the newly organized regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The army had not allowed black men to enlist in large numbers until 1863. When they were finally admitted to service they were placed in segregated regiments in which all the enlisted men were Black and all of the officers were white. With 180,000 Blacks entering the army in just two years, new officers were needed immediately.
Some immigrants joined the black units because they supported the emancipation of slaves and saw the new regiments as legions of liberation. This was a particularly common reason among Germans, whose liberalism impelled them to end slavery. German immigrant Francis Lieber expressed the emotional reaction of German liberals to black enlistments. When he saw a black regiment presented with its flag in New York City a year after the July 1863 Draft Riots, he wrote to his friend Senator Charles Sumner that: “There were drawn up in line over a thousand armed negroes, where but yesterday they were literally hunted down like rats. It was one of the greatest days of our history.”
Other immigrants believed that, whatever the merits of Emancipation, now that it was an accomplished fact, black troops would add needed firepower to a Union army decimated by combat losses. Still other immigrants sought commissions in the Colored Troops because they faced discrimination in advancement in non-ethnic white regiments. Some native-born men simply did not want to be under the command of a “foreigner,” making it difficult for immigrants to get ahead. Joining a USCT regiment at a time when thousands of new officers were needed to command black soldiers was a road to promotion.
Whatever the reason Felix Brannigan had, by Christmas of 1864 he was a Second Lieutenant in the 32nd United States Colored Troops. This regiment was stationed along the Carolina coast when he joined it. Two months later, it occupied Charleston, South Carolina, the city where the Civil War had begun with the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861.
In the last month of the war, April 1865, Brannigan joined the 103rd USCT as Adjutant. The regiment had been organized only weeks before Brannigan was assigned to it. The 103rd was made up almost entirely of former slaves and free blacks from South Carolina. Its mission, in the first few months after the war, was to liberate blacks still held as slaves two and a half years after Emancipation and guard against guerrilla activity by whites hoping to reestablish control over the black population. The immigrant officer left the army in August 1865.
After the war, Brannigan studied law and became an attorney. In 1868 he finally became a United States Citizen. In the 1870s, he returned to the South to help uphold the civil rights of freed slaves who had only been constitutionally recognized as United States Citizens since 1868. Brannigan served in the United States Attorney’s office in Mississippi at a time when the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups were assassinating anyone who defended the rights of African Americans.
The outgoing U.S. Attorney for Jackson, Mississippi, E. Phillip Jacobson wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant on April 16, 1873 that he should consider Felix Brannigan as his replacement. Brannigan, he wrote, was “most entitled to your consideration.” The Irish lawyer was serving as Jacobson’s assistant and was “fully familiar” with the duties of the United States Attorney. He had been Assistant U.S. Attorney for a year and a half, and Jacobson wrote “I am able, from personal observation, to testify to his gallantry.” According to Jacobson, “Mr. Brannigan has enjoyed the confidence of the Government ever since in various official situations and is well known to the Solicitor of the Treasury…” The young soldier whose gallantry had won him the Medal of Honor on the battlefield was now hailed for the same trait as a lawyer administering justice in Reconstruction Mississippi. [Sources]