Accused of being Abolitionists

Perhaps the worst accusation made against the Know Nothing party, in the mind of the average Southerner, native born or not, was that the Know Nothing party secretly supported abolitionism. As a secret organization, with secret handshakes and the like, it was easy for outsiders to view Know Nothings with suspicion. In the South, abolitionists were seen as evangelical extremists. For the average Irish Catholic, extreme Protestantism awoke their greatest fears. The accusation of supporting abolition of slavery hurt the Know Nothings more than the anti-Irish prejudice.

Father Patrick Lynch, also a slave holder, wrote an article entitled, “The Secret Sect.” He argued that the blatant Americanism so prevalent in the North was wedded to abolitionism. By “Americanism,” he meant the anti-immigrant fervor. He argued that Irish Catholics were loyal to the South and its institutions, while the American Party was not. Fr. Lynch lived in Charleston, and was one of the first native born priests in America. Abolitionists were indeed quite evangelical. They were often seen as fanatics. In truth, the Know Nothings tried to remain neutral on slavery. In a time when the slavery divide was increasingly pronounced, neutrality itself raised suspicion. The nascent Republican party became more attractive. Many Northern Know Nothings joined the Republican party by 1860. Southern Know Nothings were then left with a party seen as un-patriotic. The Democrat party gained even more members.

And, in the process, the Irish became more secure in their Irishness.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 79-80, 119-120.

Know Nothings in the South

The greatest challenge to Irish and German immigrants in the 1850’s was the rise of the American party, known as Know Nothings. The American Party succeeded to the Whig Party. Most Know Nothings were former Whig Party members. So, most Democrat Party members instinctively opposed the Know Nothing movement. This was especially true in the South where the Democrat Party was strongest.

They were known as “Know Nothings.” They started as a secret society, with secret handshakes, passwords and the whole nine yards. They were instructed to answer when asked about the society, “I know nothing.” See Smithsonian article for more about the Know Nothings.

In Virginia, Henry Wise, future Confederate Congressman and future Confederate general, ran for governor in 1855 against Know Nothing Thomas Flournoy. Flournoy was a strong candidate. But, Mr. Wise overcame the challenge. Years later, Gov. Wise would say that Know-Nothingism was “the most impious and unprincipled affiliation by bad means for bad ends.” He compared the struggle of Irish Catholics in Ireland against the Protestant ascendancy to the struggle in America against Know Nothingism. Gov. Wise also believed the Know Nothings sought a “fanatical and sectional demolition of slavery.” In the South, as in many parts of the North, Abolitionists were viewed as fanatics.

Know Nothings opposed German and Irish immigrants. Yet, they were even more concerned about any breach of the union. They were staunch unionists.

Some former Southern Whigs were appalled at Know Nothingism. In Georgia, former Congressman Alexander H. Stephens, the future Confederate Vice-President, and former Senator Robert Toombs, who was also a future Confederate general, strongly opposed Know Nothingism. Some former Whigs joined the American party, but minimized the nativist plank. Former Whig Senator John MacPherson Berrien of Savannah, Georgia, joined the American party to “promote Unionism rather than nativism and anti-Catholicism.”

In the North, the Know Nothings found considerable success. But, in the South, not as much. They elected several Congressmen, but only two Senators, Sam Houston of Texas and John Bell of Tennessee. They elected a few state representatives, but did not gain control of any state legislatures. In large part, the lack of Southern success was due to the Democrats who would not abandon the Irish immigrants. In Alabama, the Know Nothings tried to institute a plan to exclude “foreign paupers.” The plan failed due to Democratic opposition.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 110-112.

Bleached Bones From Shiloh to Corinth

As the Civil War progressed, only the Union army developed even a rudimentary system for recovering those killed during battle. The Federal issued an order that each commander would be responsible for burying its dead. Gathering and burying the dead had never been done before the U.S. Civil War. It was just not something armies had had done here or in Europe. Even with this order, the Union forces often buried their dead quickly in graves which were quickly undone.

The Confederate Army had no such order. So, after the war, there were thousands and thousands of Southern bones lying beneath the sun unburied and unremembered. In the North, the federal government had started collecting and burying veterans in 1862. In that year, the federals set up the first veteran burial ground. Prior to 1861, fallen soldiers would have been buried at the post cemetery or in some quick grave on the prairie. But, by 1862, that simple system was quickly overwhelmed. The federal government responded by creating what we know today as national cemeteries for veterans. By 1865, there were some 30 national cemeteries for federal veterans. See NPS website here.

Confederate dead were left where they fell. The remains might be moved aside to gather the remains of a federal soldier, but not buried. So, advertisements appeared in the newspapers seeking funds for recovering the bones of their deceased loves ones, like this ad:

“The Shiloh Burial Association, formed for the purpose of purchasing a portion of the field, where the gallant Johnson fell, for interring the Confederate dead, whose bones lie bleaching from Shiloh to Corinth, have issued an appeal to the people. The object is to obtain two hundred acres of this sacred soil, fell the timber, make a fence, and plant Osage Orange for a hedge. Contributions may be sent to S.D. Lee at Columbus, or Maj. Upshaw at Holly Springs.”

West Baton Rouge Sugar, Nov. 24, 1866, p. 2, col. 5

S.D. Lee was Stephen D. Lee, who served in the Confederate Army and who graduated from West Point. He was not related to Gen. Robert E. Lee. He lived in Columbus, Mississippi after the war. The statement about the bones refers to the thousands of dead from the many battles up and down the Mississippi River valley, from Shiloh, Tennessee down to Corinth, Mississippi and still further south. Mr. Lee helped create the Vicksburg National Park Association which later lead to the creation of the Vicksburg Battlefield Park. Stephen D. Lee died after giving a talk to Union veterans from Wisconsin and Iowa, regiments which he faced during the war. He was very active in planning and organizing veteran reunions.

Only in the early 1950’s, when the number of remaining Confederate veterans could be counted on one hand, were national cemeteries opened to Confederate veterans.

The Irish Strike Back in New Orleans

In the 1858 city elections, the Irish combined with the French Creoles. Also joined by some former American party members, the three groups formed a “Vigilance Committee” of almost 50 people. They posted bills printed by John Maginnis, the Irish newspaper publisher of the True Delta. The bill informed New Orleanians that “After years of disorder, outrage, and unchecked assassination,” the committee was unwilling to “bow down in unresisting submission to a set of ruffians, or to abandon the city in which their business, their social sympathies and their affections cluster.” The committee recruited 500 men, mostly Irish, for the armed wing of the committee. They took over the state arsenal, obtained muskets and artillery pieces. They took over municipal buildings. They occupied Jackson Square in the heart of the French Creole section. They marched about the city in a show of strength.

The Know Nothings responded by forming their own armed vigilantes. The Know Nothings gathered in Lafayette Square in the American section of the city. It seemed certain that civil war would erupt. But, only three Irishmen and one German were injured, when they were fired upon by their own men when they returned to Jackson Square from a mission uptown. Cooler heads prevailed. The American party mayor, Gerald Stith, kept control of his group. The 1858 elections passed without excessive violence. The relative calm helped heal some of the ethnic divisions for the Irish. This election marked the end of violence by the nativists.

See more about the Vigilance Committee here.

In the 1860 election, the American party ran a stevedore, John T. Monroe who sought working class and Irish support. Soon the U.S. Civil War started and the Irish became a reliable partner in the war effort.

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 95-96.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 118-119.

Know Nothing Violence in New Orleans

Political violence, unfortunately, is not new in America. In the 1850’s, political violence was far too common.

Know Nothings

In the 1856 Presidential election, the Know Nothings nominated Millard Fillmore for President and Andrew Jackson Donelson, nephew to former Pres. Andrew Jackson. The ticket failed miserably. They won just one state, Maryland. From that election, the Know Nothings started to decline. Most Southerners voted for the Democrat, James J. Buchanan.

But, at the city level, the Know Nothings were winning mayoral elections in Richmond, Memphis, Mobile and New Orleans. In Mobile, a traditional Whig city, the Know Nothings embraced the anti-Catholic plank. But, in New Orleans, with a long tradition of Catholicism, they minimized the anti-Catholic fervor. Indeed, in New Orleans, many of the leading Know Nothings were French Creoles, ostensibly Catholic, but native born for generations.


In Mobile, some ruffians attacked a Jesuit priest who was returning from Spring Hill College, a Jesuit college, to Mobile. The Priest barely escaped with his life. The Sisters of Charity operated a hospital, as they did in many cities. The Mobile Know Nothings accused the sisters of advocating “sectarian principles” at the hospital by removing Protestant bibles and preventing Protestant ministers from praying with the sick. When the city council appointed new commissioners to the hospital, the sisters all resigned. The council also passed new ordinances appointing electoral inspectors who would regulate the foreign vote.

New Orleans

In New Orleans, with the largest Irish population, could be found the most virulent anti-Irish fervor. In March, 1854, persons opposed to French Creole and Irish influence formed an “Independent party.” In a largely Catholic City, the Independents accepted Catholicism, but focused on immigrants. Independent thugs clashed with City officials, and policemen, many of whom were Irish. Bloody fights would erupt when the Independents would challenge a vote. At one precinct in the Creole First Municipality (roughly equivalent to today’s French Quarter), they attacked several policemen, including the police chief, Stephen O’Leary. Chief O’Leary survived. But, two Irish policemen were killed.

In the First Municipality, of the 150 policemen, 98 were Irish born.

Irish v. Irish

In New Orleans, there developed a distinction between the old Irish immigrants and the new. The newspaper publisher, J.C. Prendergast, was critical of the new immigrant. He saw in them a backward, extremely poor representative of the Emerald Isle. J.C. Prendergast was one of the “old” Irish immigrants. He lived in the working class area known as the Third Municipality district.

Orestes Brownson, the New England intellectual and writer, visited New Orleans in the 1850’s. He wrote several articles about the city. He generally praised the Irish immigrants. But, he described the poor Irish immigrants as hanging loosely on the skirts of the Irish as “a miserable rabble, unlike anything which the country has ever known of native growth – a noisy, drinking and brawling rabble.” The good Irish, said the writer, would support a radical, such as John Mitchel, if the radical was Irish. The Irish, he said, would not conceal their vices, but make them public.

Yet, some observers found the Irish to be hard-working and happy. They worked for the lowest wages, yet remained generally happy. That showed they lacked concern for material disadvantages, it was claimed. They were seen as dirty. The only water they valued was Holy Water.

Critics knew the Irish were susceptible to national flattery. Politicians, wrote Mr. Brownson, knew to appeal to Irish voters by praising Ireland. A related concern was the tendency of the Irish to find a national connection to any public person. Any person of public prominence had some Irish connection in Irish eyes, further exposing them to ridicule.

Violence Increases

In the September, 1854 election, the violence was even worse. The Independents kept up a chatter all Summer. So, the Irish formed bands of patrols, seeking to protect St. Patrick’s Church and the nearby St. Mary’s Street market. Riots erupted which lasted ten days. The Independents saw themselves as “Regulators.” They would march about and shoot up Irish coffee houses (which actually sold everything but coffee). Their motto was “Shoot yourself an Irishman.”

In the 1854 New Orleans election, the Know Nothings gained every city office, except the mayor’s office and three judicial posts. In response to this overwhelming victory, thousands then flocked to the now open banner of Know Nothingism.

Violent clashes broke out between the Irish and Know Nothings in the working class Third Municipality district. By the November, 1854 election, the Irish vote had been curtailed. In the 1855 election, the Know Nothings took control of the city council. After the 1854 and 1855 elections, the Know Nothings acquired control of the police force in New Orleans.

Know Nothings Win

In the June, 1856 election, the Know Nothings won in a landslide. Pro-American party newspapers crowed that the Irish were afraid to vote. “Thugging” became the order of the day. Know Nothings would attack without provocation. Even prominent citizens would be attacked. Dennis Corcoran, an Irish born journalist, was attacked as he left the St. Charles hotel. Fr. Mullon, the widely respected pastor at St. Patrick’s wrote a friend in Maryland that the health of the city was good, except it is an “abandoned” city. Know Nothings, nightly assassinations, blasphemous representations at theaters, all constituted the reality, said the Irish born priest.

In this way, the nativists came to dominate the police force and the “street scarpers.” Losing these public jobs was a blow to the Irish community. The Irish were also forced out of public schools and replaced by native teachers. In some districts, Irish children comprised half the enrollment. Parents complained their children were taunted as “Paddies” by the new teachers.

But, the worm would soon turn.

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 89-94

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 113-115.

Battle at the Escambia River

Algernon Sidney Badger was a shop clerk in Milton, Massachusetts before the war. With talent and drive, he had risen to a Captain of union Cavalry. In 1865, as the war was drawing to a close, Capt. Badger’s squadron was sent toward Mobile, Alabama, in preparation for the attack on that Confederate city. They ran into the remnants of two dismounted Alabama cavalry regiments. It was near the end of the war and the Confederates were in pitiable condition. Capt. Badger’s squadron was part of the 1st Louisiana Federal cavalry, comprised of mostly Negro enlisted soldiers.

The First Louisiana Cavalry was raised in New Orleans during the Yankee occupation. It had seen much action. It served in the smaller battles in South Louisiana as well as in the Red River campaign of 1863. As a cavalry unit, it was heavily involved in the burning and pillaging of the Southern farms and plantation, and most infamously, of the burning of Shreveport and Alexandria in 1863. I previously wrote about the Red River campaign here.

The past two years had seen meager rations and poor supplies for the Confederates. The Federals were far stronger and fitter. But, still, the Confederates, recalling the fate of Alexandria and Shreveport, sought to protect their homes. The Federals charged. The Alabamians broke and ran. Discarding everything that might impede their escape, they tossed rifles, shirts and equipment. In retreating they came upon the Escambia River bridge which had been burned. Seeing no hope for escape, several rode their horses over the high bluffs into the swollen river to certain death. They preferred death to surrender.

That day, Capt. Badger’s men captured many Confederates who preferred to live, one general and one set of colors. This was a battle that stayed with the young Capt. Badger for the rest of his life.

Justin A. Nystrom, New Orleans: After the Warr, Vol. 9 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press 2010), p. 37