Felix Brannigan: The Irish Soldier Wins the Medal of Honor Instead of Deserting

Brannigan said he would not serve with African Americans.

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Battle of Chancellorsville.

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Felix Brannigan made it into the history books with his July 1862 letter declaring that he did not want to serve in a Union Army that enlisted black men.1

When Brannigan said he would not fight beside “n*ggers,” he was wrong. He did not follow the lead of others who opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. Some white soldiers deserted the army when they found out that black troops were going to be enlisted. Officers resigned their commissions. More simply let their enlistments expire in 1864 and went home. Felix Brannigan did none of these things. He would fight bravely until the end of the war and continue to serve in the army that occupied the South. He would not only serve beside blacks, he would lead them.2

Civil War Medal of Honor

A test of Brannigan’s commitment to a Union victory in the war came several months after Lincoln authorized the recruiting of black troops. On May 2, 1863, the Irish soldier was part of the Army of the Potomac on a day when it suffered one of its greatest setbacks. His courage that day would win him the Medal of Honor.3

The battle along the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers in Virginia began promisingly for the Union Army. With nearly twice as many men as the Confederates defending the river crossings, the Union army moved quickly to the south side of the river. The Union commander, Major General Joseph Hooker, then stopped moving forward, even though he had outmaneuvered his Confederate opponent Robert E. Lee in the opening phase of the battle. Then a surprise attack by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson threw the Union Army into disarray and threatened it with destruction.4

Brannigan was with his regiment, the 74th New York Volunteer Infantry, as night fell. The Union’s generals tried to determine what the Confederates had planned, but their knowledge of even the most basic dispositions of the enemy army was deficient. Captain F.E. Tyler of the 74th New York recalled later that the commander of the Excelsior Brigade, Brigadier-General Joseph Revere, to which the 74th was attached, rode up. Tyler wrote later that:

“He then told it me it was of the utmost importance to know what was in front, and ordered me to pick out some trusty men and send them out to get the best information they could. I went to my old company (A), and called for Felix Brannigan, who had been with me all during the war, and whom I knew from long experience to be a cool, courageous, intelligent soldier. I told him what I wanted, gave him my ideas as to how to get out of the lines and what to do, and suggested the other men who he should take along.”5

Sergeant-Major Eugene P. Jacobson

Brannigan volunteered to accept the mission and he took three other men along with him who also volunteered. Sergeant-Major Eugene P. Jacobson, whose 22nd birthday was the next day, was one of the men chosen. He was a German-speaking immigrant from Prussia. Private Joseph Gion was an immigrant who came from Alsace-Lorraine, France. He, like Felix Brannigan, had enlisted in Pittsburgh. Private Gotlieb Luty, from Berne, Switzerland, filled out the patrol.6

Years later, Luty recalled the dangerous scouting mission. “We divided into two squads,” he wrote, “Brannigan and I going together, the others taking a different direction.” Brannigan and Luty picked their way through the darkness, when they encountered an unwelcome sound. “We had advanced about fifty yards beyond the outposts,” Luty wrote, “and were close to the plank road when we heard horses coming down.” The horsemen had to be Confederates. Luty described what happened next: “We concluded to hide and await developments. A party of horsemen rode to within fifteen yards of us and we discovered by listening to their conversation that it was a body of rebels. Suddenly the firing commenced from all sides at once. There was only one round, and just as the firing ceased, we heard them say that ‘the General’ was shot. The reconnoitering party consisted of General Jackson and his staff.”7

The wounding of Stonewall Jackson.

Brannigan and Luty were in one of the most dangerous spots in America that night, but in the darkness they got lost and instead of making their way back to their own lines, Luty wrote “we lost our way and got among the rebels.” It was only the excitement among the Confederates after they shot Jackson that saved the two immigrants, as Luty wrote “in the confusion, we quickly withdrew.”8

Stonewall Jackson rode past the 18th North Carolina, near where Brannigan’s patrol from the 74th New York was scouting. The red arrow show’s where Jackson was shot.

Brannigan and Luty made it back to their own lines around three in the morning. The patrol brought back valuable intelligence, specifically that the Confederates were preparing to attack after daylight. All four immigrants on the patrol received the Medal of Honor. In the words of the citation given to Luty, they had “bravely advanced to the enemy’s line under heavy fire and brought back valuable information.” Brannigan’s citation said simply that he had “volunteered on a dangerous service and brought in valuable information.” Stonewall died a week after being wounded. His demise left the Confederacy without the services of one of its greatest generals.9

Brannigan had shown physical courage in his brave actions at Chancellorsville. He would soon show moral courage in protecting the right of black men to serve as soldiers and to exercise the rights of citizens.10

Video: The Wounding of Stonewall Jackson

Sources: 

  1. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Locations 4259-4261

2. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Locations 4259-4261

3. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Locations 4259-4261

4. The Chancellorsville Campaign by Darius Couch in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 154-171;The Successes and Failures of Chancellorville by Alfred Pleasanton in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 172-182; The Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville by O.O. Howard in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 189-202; Stonewall Jackson’s Last Battle by James Power Smith in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 203-214; Hooker’s Comments on Chancellorsville by S. Bates in Battles in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 214-223; Hooker’s Appointment and Removal by Charles Benjamin in Battles and Leaders Vol. III pp. 239-243; The Civil War in the East: Struggle, Stalemate, and Victory by Brooks D. Simpson published by Praeger (2011); Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007); Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears published by Mariner Books (1996); Chancellorsville: The Souls of the Brave by Ernest Furgeson published by Knopf (1993).

5. Fighting For Honor: A Record of Heroism by Theophillis Rodenbough (1893) p. 29 found initially in Irish in the American Civil War. I used the transcription by Damian Shiels with his permission.

6. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor by Walter Beyer and Oscar Keydel (1901) p. 147; Jacobson bio; Gion citation.

7. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor by Walter Beyer and Oscar Keydel (1901) p. 147  Irish in the American Civil War. I used the transcription by Damian Shiels with his permission. Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend by James Robertson published by MacMillan pp. 728-738.

8. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor by Walter Beyer and Oscar Keydel (1901) p. 147  Irish in the American Civil War. I used the transcription by Damian Shiels with his permission.

9. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor by Walter Beyer and Oscar Keydel (1901) p. 147  Irish in the American Civil War. I used the transcription by Damian Shiels with his permission. Medal of Honor Citations.

10. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Locations 4259-4261

 


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