The Know Nothing Party Represented the Worst of Protestantism for the Irish Immigrant

The Know Nothing movement was a major concern for the Irish immigrant in 1850’s America. That party combined the worst of the Irish experience with the Protestant faith. In 1850’s America, a large percentage of the immigrant population came to the United States within the prior 10 years. This population was scarred deeply by the Famine. These were early PTSD victims. They had seen hundreds of their neighbors, family and friends die a slow death due to starvation. In the midst of the greatest social calamity in Europe at the time, many landlords made it worse. Some of the English and Anglo-Irish landlords offered help, but only if the Irish Catholic would convert. After two centuries of religion based warfare and discrimination, that request resonated deeply with the Irish Catholics.

Since the 1690’s, the Irish parliament and the English and Anglo-Irish landlords had tried to curtail Catholics. The parliament issued new laws every few years restricting the Catholic faith. The Penal laws, as they are known, affected everything from the quality of a horse a Catholic could own to whether a Catholic could own land. Forget he right to vote. The Parliament issued bounties for priests and bishops. Mass was held in secret. Families were beaten and tied to trees and left to die if they refused to disclose the location of outdoor, secretive Masses. Even today, one can find throughout the countryside “Mass rocks” or hills where Mass was said outdoors in secret locations during the Penal times. The experience of the 1700’s when the Catholic faith was largely outlawed, endures to this day. See Cromwellian Settlement by John Prendergast here.

During the Penal times, if an English man took cattle from an Irish man, or if an English man beat the daughter of an Irish man, the Irish man could not seek remedy in court. He had no remedy. Britian’s overarching political goal was to eventually take land and property from every Irish person and give it to an English or Anglo-Irish person.

The Penal laws started after William of Orange defeated the Jacobite forces in 1691. The Penal laws followed just a few decades after the Cromwellian settlement of the 1650’s. Cromwell had defeated the Irish rebels in 1649. The “New Model Army” was a Puritan army. Oliver Cromwell was Puritan. The government that enforced the settlement of the 1650’s was Puritan. The Puritans hated Roman Catholicism. The Puritans were convinced that Catholics represented the devil incarnate. With the Cromwellian settlement of the 1650’s, many of the leading Catholic Irish families were forced to leave the country and were deprived of their land. The suffering was great and relentless. The Puritans showed little mercy.

So, it is not surprise that upon encountering the Know Nothing movement of the 1850’s. many Irish in the U.S. expected the worst. It was as if the Puritans of the 1650’s and the landlords of the 1840’s had combined into one relentless political party. As one émigré wrote back home to Ireland, if the nativist feeling continued as it was, “an Irishman will not get to live in this country.” By staying in Ireland, he warned, people would at least “be protected from murderers.” That is a strong statement from an immigrant. It was rare indeed for an immigrant to the U.S. to write back home and warn others not to follow him. So, it is not surprising that in 1861, the Irish immigrant will view the former Know Nothings, now Republicans with some suspicion.

David Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of N.C. Press 2001), p. 108.

Irish Immigrants Supported the Democrats

Throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s, the Irish immigrants in the South (and North) supported the Democratic party. The support was almost universal. Emblematic of that support was the newspaper editor, Doctor James Hagan of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Dr. Hagan was from Ireland and he fully embraced the anti-Whig fervor of the Democratic party. In an age when newspaper editors often used over-the-top language, Hagan stood out for his personal attacks on Whigs. He believed Whigism represented anti-nativism. Certainly, many Whig politicians of the day were opposed to immigrants.

Hagan and John C. Calhoun, the famous slavery senator, founded the Vicksburg Sentinel newspaper. In person, Hagan was mannerly and friendly. But, with a pen in his hand, his rhetoric was bitter toward the Whigs. One of the Democratic issues of the day in the 1840’s was a national bank. Democrats opposed the creation of a national bank. In Mississippi, the governor, Alexander McNutt withdrew the charter for the Union bank of Mississippi, due to corruption. For years, the issue raged regarding whether to pay on the bank’s bonds. McNutt opposed payment of the bonds. Dr. Hagan supported him.

In 1841, Hagan approached the editor of the Vicksburg Daily Whig, a Whig newspaper, at a Vicksburg street corner. Edmund Flagg was the editor of the Daily Whig. Flagg believed Hagan was armed and intended to kill him. The Irish editor denied the accusation, but took offense. He challenged Flagg to a duel. Hagan wounded Flagg in the ensuing duel. He wrote soon afterward that, “you should feel little compunction in visiting on the head of the degraded puppy the utmost of our wrath.” Mr. Hagan felt no sympathy for his wounded foe.

A year later, Dr. Hagan went after another well-known Whig politician, Seargeant S. Prentiss, a nationally renowned orator from Mississippi. He described the Whig politico as a “blackguard,” a “rowdy,” and as a “cowardly braggart.” The new Democratic governor in Mississippi, Tilghman Tucker, then almost got into a duel with Prentiss when Prentiss refused to disassociate himself from Hagan’s remarks.

Mr. Hagan regularly attacked the Whigs for holding nativist views. He encouraged immigrants to become naturalized as soon as possible. During the nineteenth century, immigrants to the U.S. were not required to become citizens. In time, his invective caught up with the fiery Irish immigrant. The son of one of his victims, D.W. Adams, physically attacked Dr. Hagan on a Vicksburg street in 1843. They wrestled. Hagan had the young man by the throat. Adams drew his pistol and shot the editor. Hagan died instantly. Tried later, the young Adams was acquitted. The Vicksburg community collected money to erect a monument in Hagan’s honor. But, there is no record of the monument ever being built.

Both parties, the Whigs and the Democrats supported slavery in varying degrees. The Whig party would fold quickly in 1854, to be replaced by the new American (Know Nothing) party. And, still, both parties would support slavery in varying degrees. The Democratic party was supported throughout the South, up to and including 1861. The working man did generally support the Democrats. While the planter class universally supported the Whigs all across the South.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 2001), pp. 97-98.


The Emancipation Proclamation

While in camp, when the men of the Texas Brigade had time to write home, they would ask about the slaves back home. They would ask their family member “to say hello to the Negroes.” If the soldier had a “Negro” with him, he would write home how the enslaved American was doing in camp. Many of the men or their family back home owned some slaves. So, the modern reader might expect some resentment of the Emancipation Proclamation. Pres. Lincoln issued the proclamation in the Spring of 1863, soon after the Battle of Antietam.

In letters of the men and families of the Texas Brigade, they mentioned the Proclamation not much. To the extent they did, it was more about the war possibly ending soon. The men noted to the folks back home that the Union soldiers they talked to were not happy to learn they were now fighting for the “for the freedom of the black.” One soldier wrote home that Indiana and Illinois were considering seceding themselves because of the Proclamation. That belief was probably based on news reports of the time, which were perhaps not completely accurate. But, we now know that no such secession ever happened in those two Northern states.

Brig. General John Gibbon recorded in his memoirs that generals in the Union Army were usually picked for command positions based not on military ability, but based on their views of slavery. For much of the Civil War, the Union Army, he recalled decades after the war, preferred persons who viewed slavery favorably. That is probably less a reflection on slavery and more on generals preferring persons with less zealous personalities. Abolitionists tended to be firebrands.

Another Texas Brigade soldier reported to the folks back home in Texas that he had passed through Virginia and had spoken with a group of 60 Federal prisoners. They were not happy to hear about the Proclamation. They said they were still willing to fight for the union, but not for the black man. The Texas soldiers believed the Emancipation Proclamation would help bring the war to a close. One soldier optimistically predicted the war would not last another six months. They believed the western states would rebel at fighting to end slavery. At the time, states west of Pennsylvania were considered “western.” We now know there were some mutinies among Federal units. But, by and large, they fought on.

What is missing from these letters, whether written by soldiers or by the family, was a concern or resentment about the Proclamation. Either the soldiers did not see the Presidential order as close enough to their daily lives, or more likely, while they cared for blacks on an individual basis, for the black man as a whole, they just did not give him much thought. Perhaps the real inhumanity of slavery was the lack of concern for blacks in general.

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), pp. 143-144; Allen C. Guelzo, “Meade’s Council of War,” Civil War Monitor, Winter, 2018, p. 75 (citing Gibbon, Personal Recollections of the Civil War (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1928), p. 21-22, 242).


Why did the Confederate Texans Fight?

Why did Confederate soldiers serve? Were they fighting for slavery? We cannot survey the Confederates from 1861-1865. But many letters and diaries remain. In some ways, letters and diaries are more accurate than an actual survey. One soldier, Andrew Erskine, was older than many soldiers. He was 36 years old when he enlisted in 1862. He joined long after the initial patriotic rush in 1861. But, he too felt a sense of patriotism. Andrew traveled all the way from Seguin, Texas to Richmond, Virginia to join the Fourth Texas Infantry Regiment, part of the Texas Brigade (soon to become famous as “Hood’s Texas Brigade”). Andrew traveled with his brother, Alexander, who was 33 years old himself, and some two dozen others from Seguin, Texas. The two brothers traveled with neighbors and cousins to join the war effort. They paid their own way simply so they could join the army in Virginia. They believed Virginia to be the likely scene of the significant battles. How right they were.

Not all in their party reached Richmond. One member of their group, R. R. Harriot, dropped off in New Orleans, apparently lured by the sights. How many soldiers today would travel at their own expense to Afghanistan to enlist?

Why did the brothers come? They came from a middle class family near Seguin, Texas. Andrew was the County Clerk for Guadalupe County in 1860. His brother, Alexander, was a farmer in 1860. Neither man owned slaves. In 1860, there were some 1700 slaves in Guadalupe County. 202 persons owned other human beings. Of those 202, 28 percent owned one slave, while another 20 percent owned 2-4 slaves. Neither Erskine brother owned a slave. Alexander had owned slaves as recently as 1857, but no ownership of human beings occurred after that time. Ann, Andrew’s wife, would later inherit some eight slaves in 1863.

Andrew Erskine was motivated by patriotism in 1862. It would have shamed him to be drafted, and if he joined, he wanted to serve with his family and neighbors, with people he knew. Probably reflecting an extended discussion with his wife, he explained in a letter to Ann: “You know I left you and my sweet darling boys and my comfortable home because I deemed it my duty, and because I thought the public expected me to go. I was too proud to remain at home when everybody in the country able to bear arms had left to go in defense of the bleeding and suffering country.”

He added, “I am acting as all good patriots should act and that although it may seem to you hard that I should leave you and my little boys alone, remember that no one could say hereafter to my children, ‘Your father did not aid in gaining the independence of the Southern Confederacy.” Ann’s brother was also in Andrew’s Company D. Alexander was a graduate of the University of Virginia. Certainly, both brothers had choices other than to enlist. Ann had just given birth in January 1862. Their two year old son had recently drowned in the Guadalupe River. Yet, on they came, at their own expense.

In September, 1862, Andrew Erskine would later be killed in the days after the Battle of Antietam Creek. Alexander was wounded in his left arm and twice in his side. Alexander wrote home that Andrew was shot in the temple while making a “terrible” charge on the enemy. Alexander explained to Ann, Andrew’s wife, that he had been too wounded to procure Andrew’s body. But, their commander had assured him that Andrew would be buried. That was no small promise. In those days, many bodies were left on the battlefield due to the exigencies of war. A system to simply recover bodies had not yet been created. Ann’s brother, Thomas I. Johnson, had also been killed in August, 1862 at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He too had served in Hood’s Texas Brigade among his friends and family. Andrew’s father had died back home in Guadalupe County in May, 1862, after a recent cattle drive to New Orleans.

Ann was mother to six sons, aged nine months to thirteen years old. She now had to operate a grist mill, a cotton gin, a ferry, an inn, a farm and a ranch largely on her own. After the war, Alexander remained in Seguin and was active in the Confederate soldier’s association.

Hood’s Texas Brigade, Susannah J. Ural (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), p. 87, 130-131; Slave Transactions in Guadalupe County, Texas, Mark Gretchen (Janaway Publ., Inc. 2009), pp. 37, 38, 227, 241, 260.

Gen. Banks’ Red River Campaign

The Yankees occupied New Orleans and its surrounding environs from April, 1862 until the end of the Civil War. In 1863, Gen. Nathaniel Banks left New Orleans to start an advance toward Shreveport. He followed the Red River, then a busy inland commercial waterway. He was defeated and had to retreat. On the way back, his troops burned and looted their way back south. They burned literally every farm house and plantation between Shreveport and Alexandria. Alexandria, about midway between Baton Rouge and Shreveport was then a prosperous river town. The Unionists appeared to take particular delight in firing the town.

Of course, Gen. Banks issued orders that no looting or burning would occur,. But the orders were not enforced. As one Union soldier would write years later, “We were like the Israelites of old, accompanied by a cloud [of smoke] by day, and a pillar of fire by night.” One resident of Alexandria watched as the invaders poured in, helpless to stop them. The forced their way into every store, every house on Front street. The cases, windows, iron chests, shelves, and more were broken into and smashed. Officers and enlisted alike participated in the melee, grabbing whatever they could carry. The resident, E.R. Blossat watched, helpless to intervene, as two Federal privates grabbed the silver watch from his black servant. He then saw two Marines and a naval officer enter the Second Street home of Mrs. Caleb Taylor, grab the clock off her mantle, wrap it in her quilt and then dart out the door. Two other marines plundered the Episcopal church.

A little boy of four years old, son of a Confederate captain, loudly proclaimed before a crowd of Yankees that he was a rebel. One of the soldiers then wrapped a rope around his neck and drew him up, choking the boy and asked if he was still a rebel. Gasping for breath, the toddler insisted he was indeed still a rebel. He was again drawn up. Some by-standers then insisted the soldier release the boy.

Walter Brian Cisco, War Crimes against Southern Civilians (Gretna, La.: Pelican Publ. 2016), p. 96.

The Catholic church, St. Francis Xavier, it is said, was almost burned during this infamous campaign. It was the only river front building that was not burned. The story is that the priest, Father J.P. Bellier, saw the Federals approaching his church to set it afire. Disguising his voice to impersonate Gen. Banks, he ordered that the church be spared. The soldiers then left the church alone. See waymarking post here.

Twenty two blocks of the river port were burned. See Alexandria historical site here. The Federal troops violated the rules of war.