Felix Brannigan: An Irish Soldier’s Racism and Redemption

A Civil War immigrant's bigotry against black soldiers and the beginnings of his change of heart.

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1995
The very idea of black soldiers was depicted as absurd by this cartoonist for the LOndon magazine Punch in 1863.

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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 to illustrate the bigotry of Irish immigrants.1

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. The Excelsior Brigade was the brainchild of Democratic polician Dan Sickles. It recruited heavily from the immigrant neighborhoods of New York City and Brooklyn and included many Democrats who wanted to put down the Southern rebellion but who cared little for freeing the slaves.2

The first major battle the 74th New York was engaged in was at Williamsburg in Virginia on May 5, 1862. The regiment suffered heavy losses in this opening phase of the Peninsula Campaign. The Union Army of the Potomac under Major General George McClellan had been transported by ship from Washington to the Virginia Peninsula to try to capture Richmond. The army would fight more than half-a-dozen battles in two months. After Confederate commander Joe Johnston was wounded on May 31 at the Battle of Seven Pines. Robert E. Lee took over command, stopped the Union advance at the end of June in the Seven Days Battles, and emerged as the premier Confederate military leader. 

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.3

This recruiting poster from Maine was printed after McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac was stymied in its push to capture Richmond. Heavy casualties in the May and June, 1862 battles outside of the Confederate capital at Richmond discouraged enlistments by white Northerners. Lincoln and other Republicans leaders gave increased consideration to emancipation of the slaves in the South and the recruitment of blacks into the army. Prior to this time, blacks were banned from serving.

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.”4

Brannigan’s remarks have lived for more than a century and a half as emblematic of Irish bigotry, but his racism was hardly unique among Northern men in the army, no matter where they had been born.5

Henry Livermore Abbott, the descendent of an old New England family, whose ancestors had fought in the American Revolution was the Harvard-educated major of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He wrote that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation “is of course received with universal distust…” He was particularly dismissive of the section of the proclamation that commanded Union officers to “recognize and maintain the freedom” of slaves that they encountered. “You may be sure that we shan’t do anything of the kind,” he wrote to his aunt.6

Wounded men at an aid station after the battle of Gaines’ Mill in June, 1862. The wounded were at Savage’s Station which would be the scene of a battle the next day. Deaths and maimings were quickly sapping the army of its strength and blacks were seen as one of the few sources of new recruits.

Nor was racism 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.”7

Historian Tyler Anbinder argues that while Brannigan did express racist views in 1862, that this immigrant deserves to be remembered for more than the two famous sentences he wrote to his sister. Brannigan would go on to win the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery and lead some of the first black men to serve in the army. He would later help prosecute whites after the war who tried to deprive freed slaves of their right to vote. That more compex Irish story will be told in the next installment of The Immigrants’ Civil War.8

Resources:

Felix Brannigan’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery

Sources:

1. In City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Location 12752 Note 3 lists several books quoting Brannigan’s racist scribblings. I knew of Brannigan years ago, but I did not become interested in his full story until reading ?Anbinder’s excellent book last year.
2. Felix Brannigan Pension File and Service Index; New York in the War of the Rebellion, 3rd ed. by Frederick Phisterer published by J. B. Lyon Company (1912).
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. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Locations 4263-4266
5. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Location 4262-4280
6. Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era edited by John David Smith UNC Press 2002 p. 6
7. Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era edited by John David Smith UNC Press 2002 p. 6. Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondance of William T. Sherman 1860-1865 edited by Brooks Simpson p. 797
8. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Location 4262-4290


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