On July 1, 1863, the Sixth Wisconsin Regiment arrived in Gettysburg. A battle between a large Confederate force and a Union cavalry division had been waged for hours when the Wisconsin men became one of the first Northern infantry units to enter the battle. The Sixth Wisconsin was a regiment in one of the toughest outfits in either army, the “Iron Brigade.”1
While the Irish Brigade is the most famous immigrant unit of the Civil War, four out of five immigrants who served in the Union army were members of mixed, or “non-ethnic”, regiments. “Western” units like the Sixth Wisconsin were filled with the foreign-born of many nations. These men were often sprinkled throughout the ranks, although German-speakers would typically be concentrated in mono-lingual companies of about a hundred men where they could interact in their native language. This is the story of one immigrant who enlisted right after the war broke out and who was among the first to fall at Gettysburg. 2
James Patrick Sullivan was little more than a baby when his parents immigrated to Wisconsin from Ireland. Cheap land and the lack of a rigid class system attracted German, Scandinavian, and Irish immigrants to what was still a territory. Wisconsin became a state when Sullivan was five years old. By the time the Civil War broke out, Census records show that one-in-fifteen people in Wisconsin had been born in Ireland. some 35% of Wisconsinites were immigrants.3
Three weeks after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, Sullivan enlisted in the army. Only 17 years old, Sullivan was a farm boy. He later wrote that he joined the army “to do what I could for the country.” His new regiment included Company F of Germans and Company D of Irish, but Sullivan served in a mixed company of immigrants and native-born.4
Flag of the 6th Wisconsin
In those days, the principles of democracy were not abandoned when a man became a soldier. The men of the new regiment elected many of their officers, among them some immigrants. Dissention set in when an apparent purge led to the removal of Irish-born officers. There were hard feelings between some immigrants and the regiment’s commander.5
The native-born officers sometimes became the objects of humor for the Irish soldiers in the regiment. For example, when an officer criticized the men for being slow, Thomas Flynn wondered out loud if the captain was afraid “we’d miss a chance to be kilt.” The same Irish soldier satirized the “attempts at ready-made piety” of his “Puritan” company commander, Rufus Dawes, with his own mock blessing of the company’s meal: “Now I sit me in my seat and pray for something good to eat. And if this damn stuff my stomach brake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”6
Rufus Dawes could not have been more different from Sullivan and Flynn. Descended from William Dawes, who had helped Paul Revere spread the news in 1775 that the “British were coming” to Lexington and Concord, Rufus was the sort of old-line Protestant whom Irish immigrants suspected of Know Nothing sympathies. His position in the Anglo establishment was secured not only by his New England ancestors, but, later, by his son who was elected Vice President of the United States and who won the Nobel Peace Prize.7
In spite of his alleged “Puritanism,” Dawes was an open man who learned to respect the many immigrants who made up the Sixth. For example, in recalling the early days of training his men, Dawes wrote that Company F;
[was] made up of Germans from Milwaukee, had two of the most highly qualified officers whom I met in all my service, Lieutenant Schumacher and Lieutenant Werner von Bachelle… It was to me an instructive pleasure to watch them drill their company. The influence of this splendid company, …was marked in stimulating others [by] their performance. Both of these gallant men and model soldiers were killed in battle for their adopted country.
Captain Hauser, the commander of the regiments mostly German Company H, was a Swiss-trained officer who had served with Garibaldi in Italy. Dawes called Hauser a “stalwart soldier”.8
Dawes also proved to be a steady sympathizer with the immigrants in his company. When his “young Irish Lieutenant” John Crane was among several immigrant officers “arbitrarily driven out of the regiment,” Dawes wrote that he was “indignant about it” but found himself “unable to prevent it.” He complained in a letter home that “The Irish Company ‘D’ was entirely stripped of its officers” and that there “was much bitter feeling in the regiment over these matters.” Native-born officers replaced them. According to Dawes, “This appointment of strangers to command of the company, and disregard of their natural and reasonable preference as to nationality, made bad feeling among the men of that company.” Dawes understood that immigrants had as much right to choose who led them as any other men.9
The 6th Wisconsin did not only include men from many nations, it was also one of the first regiments to have “colored” soldiers enlist. Two brothers from a black settlement in Wisconsin joined the 6th in 1861. One was killed in battle and the other returned home at the end of the war. They were, according to one of their officers “faithful soldiers, each of them receiving wounds in battle.”10
The very young soldier James P. Sullivan
Young Private James Sullivan was called “Mickey” by his comrades. While we don’t know the source of the nickname, Irish immigrants were often derisively referred to as “Micks” because their names often began with “Mc”, meaning “son of” in Irish. Mickey may have been taking the sting out of an ethnic slur by adopting it and adapting it for his own use.11
Mickey the boy soldier was badly wounded at the Battle of South Mountainin 1862, having a toe amputated to save his foot. After being cared for by Catholic nursing nuns, he was discharged from the army and sent home, but he reenlisted as soon as he was able to walk without too much pain. Years later, Rufus Dawes would remember Sullivan coming back repeatedly from wounds and hardships to stand with his regiment and he described him as a man whom “nothing discouraged.”12
By the end of the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg, as he lay bleeding, Mickey Sullivan must have wondered if he should have stayed retired.
Video: Historian Gary Gallagher on the First Day at Gettysburg (Second in Series)
1. The Iron Brigade: A Military History by Alan T. Nolan published by Indiana University Press (1961)
2. The Iron Brigade: A Military History by Alan T. Nolan published by Indiana University Press (1961)
3. An Irishman in the Iron Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) pp. 11-12.
4. An Irishman in the Iron Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) p. 18.
5. An Irishman in the Iron Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) p. 23-25.
6. An Irishman in the Iron Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993) p. 23, 25, 34.
7. The Iron Brigade: A Military History by Alan T. Nolan published by Indiana University Press (1961)
8. Service with the 6th Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes p. 13.
9. In his memoirs, Dawes wrote that “The Irish Company, ‘D,’ …had been stripped of its Irish officers.” Service with the 6th Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes p. 26-28
10. The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory kindle location 3008
11. An Irishman in the Iron Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan ed. by William Beaudot & Lance Herdegen pub. by Fordham University Press (1993)
12. Service with the 6th Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes p. 314.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites