Medal of Honor: Private Felix Brannigan, 74th New York Infantry

Felix Brannigan was one of a number of Irishmen who were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions at Chancellorsville. The circumstances behind Brannigan’s award are surely among the more unusual. A comrade would later claim that one of the reason’s Brannigan received the honour was that he was one of two Yankees actually present when Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded, struck by friendly fire on the night of 2nd May, 1863. 

Felix Brannigan is a hard man to locate prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War. Born in Ireland in 1844, it is not known what county he was from or when he emigrated to the United States. A ‘Felix Branagan’ was naturalised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1856 but it is unclear if this is the same individual. Felix was an early volunteer in 1861, enlisting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 22nd April 1861. Unusually his company became part of a New York regiment, the 74th Infantry, one of the units of the famed Excelsior Brigade. (1)

Felix appears to have been a natural leader of men. He mustered in as a Corporal of Company A in July 1861 before becoming First Sergeant in Company K on 14th June 1862. However an indiscretion led to him being returned to the rank of Private, and back to Company A, on 1st October that year. It was here that he found himself when the Battle of Chancellorsville erupted in May 1863. (2)

The 2nd May had seen Stonewall Jackson launch a ferocious attack against the Army of the Potomac’s right flank, which consisted of the Eleventh Corps. Achieving complete surprise, the Rebels swept all before them. As the day drew to a close it fell to other units of the Northern army, including the Excelsior Brigade of the Third Corps, to hold the line. Private Felix Brannigan and his comrades formed part of Major-General Hiram Berry’s Division, and as night fell they were in position to the north of the Orange Plank Road, facing towards the west, and Stonewall Jackson’s victorious Confederates. (3)

Everyone expected the battle to resume with unrelenting fury on the morning of 3rd May. In the darkness of night the men heard firing to their front, and wondered if some of the Eleventh Corps may still be ahead of them. The confused fighting of the day meant that no-one was sure of exactly what they faced. Captain F.E. Tyler of the 74th New York was with his men when Brigadier-General Joseph Revere, who commanded the Excelsior Brigade, rode up. Tyler remembered their conversation:

‘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.’ (4)

The four men in the scouting group, all of whom volunteered for the mission, were Sergeant-Major Eugene P. Jacobson, Private Joseph Gion, Private Gotlieb Luty and Private Felix Brannigan. They decided to split into two groups of two to increase their chances of success. Slipping out of the lines, the men set off through their own pickets and into the thickets and swamps where they had to negotiate enemy pickets before hoping to find out what was in front of them. Felix Brannigan and Gotlieb Luty went together. Luty described what happened next:

‘We had advanced about fifty yards beyond the outposts, and were close to the plank road, when we heard horses coming down. 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.’ (5)

Stonewall Jackson lies mortally wounded. Was Irishman Felix Brannigan present when the famous General was hit? (Currier & Ives)

Stonewall Jackson lies mortally wounded. Was Irishman Felix Brannigan present when the famous General was hit? (Currier & Ives)

Luty was admittedly writing after the war, but if his testimony is to be believed than he and Felix Brannigan were present when Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded by his own troops. The two men appeared to have tried to get back to their own lines at this point, but confused by the woods and darkness actually pressed on in the wrong direction. They came upon a large body of enemy troops which they realised were Jackson’s men, who appeared to be in a position to launch an attack against their line at first light. The Yankees successfully retraced their steps back to their own lines, all the while hearing occasional crashes of musketry as nervous soldiers fired at every perceived danger. All four men had returned by daylight, armed with valuable information as to the enemy’s intentions. (6)

The reconnaissance the men had undertaken had ultimately been ordered by Major-General Berry, the men’s divisional commander. When the expected Rebel attack was about to get underway shortly after 7am on 3rd May, Berry was at the front having just delivered orders to one of his brigades. When he moved to return to his headquarters he was struck by a sharpshooter and wounded. He knew it to be mortal, informing his staff: ‘I am dying, carry me to the rear.’ Berry died that morning at the Chancellor House. It was reported that one of his last instructions was that the four men who had reconnoitered the enemy positions the night before be rewarded for their services. (7)

So it was that Private Felix Brannigan and his three comrades received the Medal of Honor. Brannigan’s award was issued on the 29th June 1866. The citation read: ‘Volunteered on a dangerous mission and brought in valuable information.’ The remainder of the war saw Brannigan’s continued rise. He transferred to the 40th New York in August 1864 but soon decided to take the opportunity to become and officer. In December that year he accepted the position of Second Lieutenant with the 32nd United States Colored Troops, and ended the war as First Lieutenant and Adjutant of the 103rd United States Colored Troops, a position he took up in April 1865. (8)

After the war Felix became an attorney and in the 1870s was practicing in Mississippi; he was living in Jackson in 1875. On 4th January 1877 he married Sarah P. Pegram, with whom he had a daughter. Felix Brannigan died on 10th June 1907 of disease of the kidneys. Unfortunately he did not have a significant estate and could afford only limited life insurance, and so his death left his wife destitute. Efforts were made to secure her an increased pension based on her husband’s wartime service, as by this stage in her life she suffered from impaired sight and was unable to work to support herself and her daughter. Sarah followed her husband to the grave in 1913. Their trials in later life behind them, Felix and Sarah today rest together in Section 3, Grave 1642 of Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. (9)

(1) Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, NY Adjutant General Report; (2) NY Adjutant General Report; (3) Sears 1996: 314; (4) Rodenbough 1893: 29; (5) Beyer & Keydel 1901: 148; (6) Ibid.; (7) Sears 1996: 323; (8) Proft 2002: 807, Felix Brannigan Pension Index Cards; (9) Adjutant-General Letters, Pensions and Increases of Pensions 1908: 17, Find A Grave;

References & Further Reading

Beyer, Walter F. & Keydel, Oscar F. 1901. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won The Medal of Honor, Volume 1

Proft, R.J. (ed.), 2002. United States of America’s Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and their Official Citations, Fourth Edition

Rodenbough, Theophilis F. 1893. Fighting For Honor: A Record of Heroism

Sears, Stephen W. 1996. Chancellorsville

Committee on Pensions 1908. Pensions and Increases of Pensions for Certain Soldiers and Sailors of Civil War, etc. February 24, 1908

Felix Brannigan Pension Index Cards

New York Adjutant General Report Rosters for 40th New York Infantry and 74th New York Infantry

NARA M666. Roll 0241, File 6580. Unbound letters, with their enclosures, received by the Adjutant General, 1871-1880

Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Felix Brannigan Find A Grave Memorial

Civil War Trust Battle of Chancellorsville Page

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

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Categories: Battle of Chancellorsville, Medal of Honor

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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