Irish Immigrants Mixed About Slavery

The Irish immigrants in the South wrote letters home. Some of those letters are maintained at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. The PRNI is a wonderful resource for folks tracing their family. It is also a wonderful source of ante-bellum records. One such letter at PRONI was written by William Elderry of Lynchburg, Virginia. He wrote to his family in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim. In a letter dated May 31, 1854, he sought to justify slavery by referring to the Bible:

“The Bible recognizes slavery. The institution existed among the Jews in the

day of our savior, did he who continually reproach sin ever say anything against

slavery.”

He mentioned the well-know Irish editor, then in the North, John Mitchel, and commented:

“Sometime ago I subscribed to The Citizen, a paper published and edited by

John Mitchell in New York. The first charge I see brought against him for his

truculent defence of slavery. How little they know of what they are talking of,

coming from New York and defending slavery is very much like going to Rome

and fighting with the Pope. He has, of course, made himself unpopular with

northern people in the United States.”

John Mitchel was likely the famous John Mitchel who was one of the United Irishmen in 1848. He was sentenced by the English courts to transportation. He was sent to Australia., escaped and came to the U.S. He landed at San Francisco and then New York City. During the Civil War, he edited a newspaper in Richmond, Virginia, supporting the South.

Yet, another Irishman in the South, R. Campbell of Georgia wrote a letter to John Campbell of Belfast on Jan. 10, 1860. It was published in the state’s Daily Chronicle and Sentinel newspaper and was signed a Georgia “Patriot.” He strongly condemned slavery, saying it was unconstitutional and against the laws of man. “No freeman, whatever be his color, can be sold into slavery by the power of any human tribunal.” The South at the time was quite defensive about this “peculiar institution.” It is remarkable that someone, especially an Irish immigrant, would speak openly against slavery and that such a letter would be published in a Georgia newspaper. Perhaps, speaking against slavery in ante-bellum South was not as difficult as we might think today.

Brett Irwin, “Irish Voices from the American Civil War,” History Ireland, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec, 2015), vol. 23.

 

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