This month is Black History Month in the United States. To mark that occasion, I wanted to once again explore an aspect of the often-fraught relationship between Irish-Americans and African-Americans during the Civil War era. It is a topic we return to regularly on the site (e.g. see here, here, here and here). The concept for this post arose from a recent discovery I made during my work on the letters of Irish soldiers contained within the Widows & Dependents Pension Files. Among the correspondence I identified was that of a Limerick man in the 10th Illinois Cavalry, which vividly demonstrate his views on African-Americans soldiers both before and after the 1863 Battle of Milliken’s Bend, in which black troops participated. Any examination of the 10th Illinois Cavalry quickly highlights the racial-conflict that occurred during the unit’s stationing at Milliken’s Bend. One particularly unsavory violent rampage by a soldier of the regiment stands out in the historic analysis; it was perpetrated by another Irishman, John O’Brien from Co. Cork. In an effort to explore, and begin to assess, the potential origins of his aggressive attitude towards African-Americans, I decided to examine his background, his emigration and his ante-bellum experiences to see what questions it might raise about his subsequent actions. It should be noted that this post contains unfiltered contemporary quotations that contain extremely racist language and sentiments, which may cause offense to some readers.
On 19th February 1863, 23-year-old Private Dan Dillon, from Ballyegran, Co. Limerick, wrote home to his mother. Dan was then serving in Company D of the 10th Illinois Cavalry, and was growing increasingly frustrated at the irregularity of his pay. In venting his frustration, he also offered his opinion regarding emancipation, and the prospect that he and his comrades might soon have to fight beside African-American soldiers:
Dear mother I mane to in form you that the war will be soon be at an end and we will all have a chance to go home without deserting the[y] ar[e] only giving us 2 months pay insted of 8 months and the cry is amongh the troops down here that if the[y] dont pay us more regular than what the[y] are the[y] will lay there arms down and left the damned abelinesets [abolitionists] and nigers fight themselves and see what the[y] can do there is great dissatifaction among the troops here for the half of them wont fight to free negroes nor fight with them if ever the[y] put a negro in the field with our armey every Black son of a Bich of them will get killed as soon & sure as the[y] come there sow the[y] stand a poor shoe [chance?] if ever the[y] get among the illinoise Boys of there lives (1)
Dan Dillon left little room for doubt about his views. His was an opinion shared by large numbers of Union troops, and by large numbers of Irish emigrants. Many, if not most, of the men in the 10th Illinois Cavalry would have agreed with him. Indeed, the unit itself developed something of a reputation with respect to their attitudes towards African-Americans, feelings which became heightened when elements of the regiment were stationed at Milliken’s Bend in Louisiana. In May 1863, during Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, it was decided that an “African Brigade” was to be formed there, largely drawn from former slaves who occupied the contraband camps located at the post. Already there had been problems between the white troops quartered there and the African-Americans; the latter, living in awful conditions, were regularly subjected to abuse- both physical and verbal- from the Union troops, many of whom were described as having “vicious and degraded” attitudes towards the former slaves. While the majority of white soldiers eventually moved on towards Vicksburg, the men of the 10th Illinois Cavalry stayed at Milliken’s Bend. Apparently many of them voiced their displeasure at appearing to form part of the “Negro Brigade.” A major incident seemed almost inevitable, and when it occurred, it was an Irishman of the 10th Illinois who was at its centre. (2)
On Saturday, 30th May 1863, two troopers of the 10th Illinois Cavalry drank themselves into a near stupor in one of the sutler’s tents. When they had their fill they stumbled out into the afternoon sun and made their way towards the area where the African-Americans were camped. Passing through the base of the newly formed 1st Mississippi Volunteer Infantry (African Descent), they came across Private Henry Lee of that regiment, who had been tied to a tree as punishment for a misdemeanour. Shouting “what is this damned nigger doing tied up here”, one of the men successfully landed a kick in the prisoner’s stomach. The two then staggered on towards a shack, where Lizzie Briggs and her 10-year-old daughter were staying with another freedwoman and a boy of around twelve or fourteen. Upon entering the hut, one of the soldier’s tried to lead the young girl away, but was so weakened by his drunken state that he was unable to wrest the girl from Lizzie’s grip. He apparently then picked up a hatchet, roaring “You damned niggers think you are free, and you are not as well off as you were with the Secesh! If you say a word I’ll mash your damned mouth!”. Turning next on the boy, the men rained down kicks on him, with the main instigator going so far as to grind his heel into the child’s eye, destroying it. The two then focused on the other woman occupying the shack; they attempted to strip her clothes away and rape her, but she successfully escaped. The savage rampage only came to an end when help was fetched, and an officer of the 57th Ohio succeeded in arresting one of the men. His name was John O’Brien. (3)
Allegedly John O’Brien had been the chief perpetrator; it was supposedly him who had tried to lead the girl away, and him who had assaulted the young boy. The incident gained notoriety not for his actions, but for those of Colonel Isaac Shepard, the abolitionist officer who was responsible for the recruitment of the 1st Mississippi (African Descent). Sickened by the constant assaults on the African-Americans for whom he was responsible, Shepard decided to make an example of O’Brien. He had the man restrained, and ordered a number of black soldiers to whip him with some berry bush branches. By all accounts the injuries inflicted on the Irishman was not serious- rather Shepard had wanted to make an example of him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the realities of race relations in 1863, the case became potentially incendiary not because of O’Brien’s shocking actions, but due to the punishment meted out on him- having a white man whipped by black soldiers. An Inquiry resulted, and was out of necessity closely followed by Ulysses S. Grant. Although Shepard was cleared, it was felt necessary to avoid publication of the details, lest both white and black troops become incensed. Indeed, no further actions appear to have been taken against O’Brien. It is not the focus of this post to explore the inquiry or its fallout; those interesting in learning more can check out the Further Reading section below. Rather, I want to focus specifically on John O’Brien, the man who carried out the brutal assault. What can we learn of his background and history, and what questions, if any, do they raise for us when seeking to gain a better understanding of Irish racism towards African-Americans in the 1860s? (4)
Only one soldier served in the 10th Illinois Cavalry under the name John O’Brien. The Illinois Muster Roll Database records that he initially enlisted aged 22 in Springfield, Illinois in October 1861. An Irish-born farmer, he first mustered into Company F, but was transferred to Company A in January 1862. The Milliken’s Bend affair did not prevent him from staying on in the army; he re-enlisted as a veteran volunteer in January 1864 and served through to the war’s conclusion. Following the war the soldier went to live in Ballston Spa, New York. There he settled down, married and had a family. He and his wife Bridget would eventually have five children, Edward, William, Lizzie, August and John. The 1890 Veterans Schedule confirms his service as a private in Company A of the 10th Illinois Cavalry from June 1861 to April 1865, and his residency in Ballston Spa. By 1930 the widower was living with his daughter Lizzie; the old veteran eventually passed away on 3rd December 1930. However, it is in John O’Brien’s ante-bellum experiences that we are most interested here, and for that we must turn to his pension file, revealing some of the story of his life prior to the service which brought him to Milliken’s Bend in 1863. (5)
John O’Brien was born in the east of Co. Cork in 1839. His baptism is recorded in Ladysbridge on 8th February that year. Given the apparent depths of racism he displayed in 1863, it might be expected that John had left Ireland at a young age, growing to manhood in an Irish-American community where opinions with respect to race were more likely to be to the fore. But this was not the case. Indeed, less than four years prior to his assault at Milliken’s Bend, it is highly possible that John O’Brien had never seen a black person in his life. In his pension file, O’Brien stated that he had lived in Cork City until May 1859, when he emigrated to Milton in New York, a location he likely chose as he already knew Irish people there. The fact that O’Brien was an adult upon his emigration raises a question that interests me perhaps more than any other with respect to Irish and African-American race relations in 1860s America. To what extent did Irish emigrants arrive in the United States with pre-conceived racist concepts about African-Americans, and to what extent was such racism learnt behaviour, based on exposure to prevailing views in established Irish-American communities in the United States? (6)
Perhaps there is something to be gleaned from John O’Brien’s experiences following his initial immigration into America. He had only been in New York for a few months before he moved to Richmond, Virginia, heading to that city around 1st December 1859. He spent about 7 months labouring there before moving to Cairo, Illinois, but within three months he was off to the Deep South, taking a job in Grenada, Mississippi. He stayed there until February 1861 (the month after the State’s secession) when he went to Springfield, Illinois, the location of his enlistment. It is impossible to know the mind of John O’Brien from the scanty details left to us. Had he begun to form opinions about African-Americans prior to leaving Ireland? Were they influenced by the Irish-American community he initially settled in around Milton? To what extent did his experiences in the South, both in Richmond and Grenada, impact on his views surrounding how African-Americans could be treated? These of course are questions to which there can be no definitive answer, and such traits are often formed through a combination of experience, but it is nonetheless instructive to consider them. (7)
It is not known how John O’Brien’s attitudes or outlooks altered after 1863, if indeed they ever did. But what of our Limerick letter writer Dan Dillon? Only days after the John O’Brien incident, on 6th June 1863, the 10th Illinois were part of a force sent out with elements of the African brigade to reconnoiter towards Richmond. Even with the prospect of battle in the offing, the cavalrymen displayed little but contempt for their African-American comrades. An unnamed Irishman in the unit reportedly commented that you would “be a damned fool to try to make soldiers out ah niggers”, while another member of the regiment said that “any one ought to know a nigger wont fight; they’re running now , before they seen a reb.” The exchanges that day were to presage a larger engagement to follow, but the Illinoisans did lose a number of their men captured. On 7th June the Battle of Milliken’s Bend took place, when Confederate forces attacked the post. The fighting that followed was occasionally hand to hand, as the Rebels tried to push the Union soldiers back onto the river. They were eventually forced to withdraw, not least as a result of the performance of the African-American soldiers in their first major combat. Their actions demonstrated that the disparaging comments of the 10th Illinois cavalrymen the previous day had been proved incorrect. Whether their bravery had any material impact on the views of those white troopers is difficult to judge, but Dan Dillon certainly struck a different tone when discussing black soldiers in his next letter home, written in mid June:
Dear mother I would write to you yesterday but I was out in a skout and did not get back untill today and did not have time to write before now we have plenty to do hear now and is in duty every day and had a fight at Millikens Bend the 5th of this month and lost fifty of our men and twenty five and our Lieutenant taken priseners and one hundred negros killed and a great maney of them wounded and the rebles ran a great many of them into the river and drowned them but the negroes killed 75 of them and made them run back as quick as the[y] could go and the blacks fought like hell but the rebles was two strong for them the[y] was 4 to our wane but we made them run like cowerds and holer mercy and the[y] got little of it from us and the negroes you may be sure and we are gowing to richmond tomorrow to have another fight there the[y] say there is ten thousant of the rebles there and expect a big fight in that place but I hope we will get out of it safe with the help of god (8)
Less than four months had passed since Dan Dillon had trumpeted that any attempt to have his unit serve with African-American troops would result in every “black son of a bitch of them” being killed by the men of his regiment. Now he was prepared to admit that the “blacks fought like hell” and had made the Rebels run. It is difficult not to see this change of attitude as the beginnings of a grudging respect for their service, whatever his views on race. One wonders if Dan Dillon’s experiences would have fundamentally changed his outlook on African-Americans in the years to come. That remains an unknowable, as within two months the young Limerick man would be dead, killed in action in a skirmish at Bayou Meto, Louisiana on 27th August 1863. (9)
Daniel Dillon and John O’Brien both held views towards African-Americans that we find abhorrent today, yet those views were far from uncommon among many white Americans, including Irish-Americans. There are many recorded historical instances where named Irish emigrants engaged in racially motivated violence and commentary. It is fascinating to consider the age at emigration of Irish-born people involved in such incidents, and the length of time they had been “in country” at the time. What is it that would drive someone from rural Ireland, with no experience of African-American people, to display such virulent racism within a short time of arriving in their new home? It is a topic I hope to return to examine again on the site, looking at the Irish both North and South. In the meantime, I am interested to hear readers thoughts and opinions on the question.
*Very special thanks to my good friend Jackie Budell, who provided assistance without which this post would not have been possible.
** None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.
(1) Daniel Dillon Dependent Mother’s Pension File. Dillon dated this letter 19th February 1862, but its content and other letters in the file suggest this was erroneous, and it should have been dated 1863; (2) Ballard 2013a: 70-72, Henson Slay 2009: 81-82; (3) Henson Slay 2009: 73-76, Ballard 2013a: 71-72, Barnickel 2013b; (4) Ballard 2013a: 73, Ballard 2013b, Barnickel 22013b; (5) Illinois Muster Roll Database, 1890 Veterans Schedule, 1870 Census, 1880 Census, 1900 Census, 1930 Census; (6) John O’Brien Pension File; (7) Ibid.; (8) Henson Slay 2009: 89, Dobak 2011, Daniel Dillon Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (9) Daniel Dillon Dependent Mother’s Pension File;
References & Further Reading
Daniel Dillon Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC88094.
John O’Brien Pension File SC266425.
Special Schedules of the Eleventh Census (1890) Enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M123, 118 rolls); Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.[Accessed via Ancestry.com].
1870 U.S. census, population schedules. NARA microfilm publication M593, 1,761 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. [Accessed via Ancestry.com].
Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. (NARA microfilm publication T9, 1,454 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C. [Accessed via Ancestry.com].
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1900. T623, 1854 rolls. [Accessed via Ancestry.com].
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls. [Accessed via Ancestry.com].
Ballard, Michael B. 2013a. Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege.
Ballard, Michael B. 2013b. Grant and the Forgotten Court of Inquiry.
Barnickel, Linda 2013a. Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory.
Barnickel, Linda 2013b. 10th Illinois Cavalry at War with Isaac Shepard.
Dobak, William A. 2011. Freedom By the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops 1862-1867.
Henson Slay, David 2009. New Masters of the Mississippi: The United States Colored Troops of the Middle Mississippi Valley.