Felix Brannigan: The Racist Irish Immigrant Becomes a Defender of Black Freedom

An Irish soldier helps lead African American troops and suppresses the Klan.

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Romanticized painting of a Reconstruction Era Knight of the Ku Klux Klan from a poster for the movie Birth of a Nation.

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Felix Brannigan wrote to his sister that he wanted to leave the army in 1862 when he found that he might soon be serving in alongside of black soldiers. Instead of deserting, he stayed in the ranks and fought to preserve the Union and end slavery. His actions in May, 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville earned him the Medal of Honor. Then he made a move that seemed like a complete reveral of opinion. Branningan decided to seek a position as an officer leading African-American troops.1

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 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.2

The regimental flag of the 127th United States Colored Troops (USCT). Black regimental flags often contained strong political messages. This one declared “We Will Prove Ourselves Men.” Flags were often designed by African American artists.

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.”3

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.4

The regimental flag of the 24th USCT declared “Let Soldiers in War be Sitizens in Peace.” Blacks were not recognized Constitutionally as citizens until the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868.

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 the Charleston, South Carolina, the city where the Civil War had begun with the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861.4

In the last month of the war, April 1865, Brannigan joined the 103rd USCT as a First Lieutenant and 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 adjutant left the army in August 1865.5

The flag of the 22nd USCT is among the most famous of the black regimentals. It depicts an African American soldier bayonetting a Confederate officer. The officers of the Confederate armies were drawn primarily from the uppel classes and included many slaveowners.

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. Brannigan was responsible for the prosecution of the white terrorists.6

The Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1866 by Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennesee. By 1867, it hed taken on the role of a terrorist organization seeking to reestablish white supremacy over the newly free black population in the South. The KKK soon spread to many areas of the former Confederacy. Although never the tightly organized entity that its propaganda depicted, the Klan and other groups like the Knights of the White Camellia and the Redshirts used violence to keep blacks from voting and organizing. Although the modern Klan wears white robes, the origianl Klansmen dressed themselves in an excentric array of robes of all colors. The Klan was eradicated in many parts of the South in the early 1870s by people like Felix Brannigan. This colored photo of a Klan leader was a treasured object held by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In the early 1900s the women of the United Daughters encouraged the veneration of the early Klansmen. In the 1920s, the organizations was revived as a violent secret fraternity that opposed blacks, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and socialists.

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 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

KKK threat to hang whites who worked with blacks. The vicitm on the right represents a Northerner who came South from Ohio.

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.7

The Irish immigrant had made an astounding journey. From an opponent of Emancipation, he had become a leading protector of the full citizenship rights of blacks in Mississippi. While historians have quoted his infamous 1862 letter in dozens of books in which he declared that he would not serve alongside blacks, Brannigan deserves to be remembered for his life, not just for one letter.8

This threat from the KKK to a black leader in Georgia was delivered in 1868. It refers to the Klansmen as the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers returned to earth to maintain control over the black population. Here are excerpts:
“To Jeems, Davie. you. must. be, a good boy… I live in a big rock above the Ford of the Creek. I went from Lincoln County County [sic] during the War I was Killed at Manassus in 1861. I am here now as a Locust in the day Time and. at night I am a Ku Klux sent here to look after you and all the rest of the radicals and make you know your place. I have got my eye on you every day, I am at the Ford of the creek every evening From Sundown till dark I want to meet you there next Saturday tell platt Madison we have, a Box. For him and you. We nail all, radicals up in Boxes and send them away to KKK – there is. 200 000 ded men retured to this country to make you and all the rest of the radicals good Democrats and vote right with the white people.”
Video: Historian Eric Foner discusses violence during the Reconstruction Era

Sources:
1. Felix Brannigan Pension Index Cards; City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Locations 4274-4283. Also see Medal of Honor: Private Felix Brannigan, 74th New York Infantry by Damian Shiels for more background on Brannigan.

Pension file for Felix Brannigan showing his service with the 103rd USCT.

2. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016); Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, by Joseph T. Glatthaar;  Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865, by Noah Andre Trudeau.
3. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016); Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, by Joseph T. Glatthaar;  Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865, by Noah Andre Trudeau; Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, by William A. Dobak. The blog Jubilo sometimes discusses USCT regiments.
4. Felix Brannigan Pension Index Cards; City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of

A letter suggesting the promotion of an officer that was signed by Felix Brannigan. He includes his service in two Black regiments under his name.

Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Locations 4274-4283.
5. Felix Brannigan Pension Index Cards; City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Locations 4274-4283.
6. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Locations 4279-4290.
7. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant: February 1-December 31, 1872 By Ulysses Simpson Grant, John Y. Simon, Ulysses S. Grant Association, Aaron M. Lisec p. 392; City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016) Kindle Locations 4279-4290. Brannigan was accused of wrongdoing in his role of U.S. Attorney, but the Attorney General found the charges unsubstantiated. Current Topics at the Capital March 10, 1875 New York Tribune (New York, New York) Volume: XXXIV Issue: 10589 Page: 1.

8. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder published by Houghton Mifflin Harcour (2016). Although I was familiar with parts of the Felix Brannigan story before, reading Anbinder’s book excited my interest in learning more about this fascinating man. His papers are in the National Archieves and I hope to view them there for a future article.


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