John Mitchel, Twice a Rebel

One of the remarkable persons in Irish history was John Mitchel. He was born in northern Ireland in 1815, son of Unitarian clergyman. His father had been a United Irishman, meaning he supported the rebellion in 1798. John attended Trinity University in Dublin. He practiced as a solicitor until he became editor of the Nation, a newspaper in Dublin. He supported the repeal movement, which advocated repealing the union between Ireland and Britain. He became one of those young men who surrounded the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. Mr. O’Connell’s overarching goal was to repeal the union, so Ireland would once again have its own parliament.

In 1846, Mitchel, Thomas Meagher, and others, separated themselves from Mr. O’Connell, believing his more peaceful methods were too slow.  They formed the Irish Confederation. Soon, Mitchel withdrew from that group, as well. He started a new newspaper, the United Irishmen. Issuing flaming rhetoric, he advocated violent change in Ireland. He called for a holy war to wipe the English name from the Irish isle. Within weeks, he was arrested. He was sentenced to 14 years transportation – meaning he would be exiled to the Australian colony.

Soon, Thomas Meagher and other members of Young Ireland were also sentenced to Australia. They were allowed to live in the community on parole. Meagher, Mitchel and the other Young Irelanders became fast friends. With help from a friend from New York, Mitchel escaped and came to the U.S. He arrived in New York to a hero’s welcome. Bands played, crowds cheered, the Napper Tandy Light Artillery gave him a 31-gun salute. Within weeks, however, Mr. Mitchel offended his hosts. Mr. Mitchel never shrunk from controversy. He alienated the Irish born Archbishop, John Hughes for his support of the papacy’s temporal powers. He grievously offended abolitionists with his open support of slavery. Abolitionists tended to be Evangelical and puritan, which was antithetical to his Presbyterian views. And, many Abolitionists tended to be nativists who disliked the Irish. A friend suggested he be more judicious with his public pronouncements. He responded, “they might as well whistle jigs to a milestone.” Milestones were (and still are) those stones on English and Irish roadways marking the distance traveled.

Mr. Mitchel visited the South. He found their views on slavery consistent with his. He settled in Tennessee in 1855 and bought a farm. By 1857, he and his family were living in Knoxville, where Mitchel started a newspaper and earned money giving lectures. Mitchel’s views on slavery strengthened. He believed the Negro race was inferior, as did many so-called learned men of the day. He believed slavery was good for the slaves, as much for society in general. He started a newspaper advocating slavery and seeking to re-open the African slave trade. Even in the South at the time, most educated Southerners opposed the African slave trade on moral grounds. Some Southern newspapers denounced him and his views. They believed he was playing into the hands of the northern abolitionists. Mitchel believed the North was trying to impose its views on the South, just as England imposed its views on the Irish.

Mitchel went to Europe in 1859, thinking a breach between England and France might help Ireland. That hope did not materialize. He stayed in Paris. As the states began to secede in 1861, he approved. When war broke out in May, 1861, his two oldest sons enlisted. Mitchel returned to American in 1862 with his youngest son, Willie. Willie also wanted to join the Confederate cause.

They crossed over near Baltimore, evading Federal patrol boats. Willie immediately joined the First Virginia Infantry with one of his brothers, James. Mr. Mitchel himself tried to enlist, but was turned away due to near-sightedness. He did serve with an ambulance unit and performed occasional guard duty. John Mitchel then became the editor of the Richmond Daily Enquirer. He wrote scathing editorials of the Emancipation Proclamation and about Lincoln. He believed the proclamation would incite slaves to rebel, which would get them killed. He denounced Lincoln as the common enemy of “both black and white.”

When some generals, such as Robert E. Lee and Patrick Cleburne (another native of Ireland) supported making slaves soldiers in return for their freedom, Mitchel opposed the move. He noted, ironically we would say today, that if blacks could serve as soldiers, then Southern society had been wrong about slavery from the start. “Duh,” we might add today.

Mitchel’s old friend, Thomas Francis Meagher, became commander of the famed New York 69th Regiment, the Irish Brigade. At the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, the Federal 69th Regiment faced off against the 1st Virginia Regiment with Willie and his brother, James. John Mitchel visited his sons and cursed his inability to participate. The Irish Brigade advanced over and over, lead often by Meagher himself, and were mown down. The 1st Virginia fell under Gen. Pickett. Pickett wrote his wife that as he watched their green flag advance again and again, “his heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin . . . My darling, we forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up along our lines.” Meagher watched as some 90% of his brigade was killed or wounded.

In subsequent battles, Willie Mitchel was killed. The 1st Virginia under Gen. Pickett was there at the Battle of Gettysburg and suffered its own horrendous charge. Willie died bravely, seizing the colors as its bearer was about to fall. Although wounded, he carried the Regimental flag forward until he was cut down himself. John Mitchel wrote that Willie died in honorable company and could have asked for no more an enviable fate. Upon learning that a son of John Mitchel had fallen, Irish soldiers on the Union side made particular effort to look for his body, but did not locate it.

As the war dragged on, Mitchel became increasingly disillusioned with Jefferson Davis’ leadership, as did many Southerners. Moving to a second newspaper in 1863, Mitchel became a regular critic of Jeff Davis. He also wrote for some Irish newspapers. In a letter to the Nation in Dublin, he applauded the bravery of Irish soldiers fighting for the Union army. But, he added, they were dupes, fooled by false promises of land in the South and said they were fighting for a government that despised them.

As U.S. Grant assumed control of the Federal army, casualties mounted. John Mitchel’s ambulance unit saw carnage and horror. He observed the horror, but noted that he never saw cowardice and found delight as people were roused in this way, determined to meet their fate. He denounced Grant as a butcher willing to sacrifice four Federal soldiers to kill one Confederate.

In 1864, John Mitchel learned that his eldest son, John, was killed at Ft. Sumter. James was now the only son still alive and he had lost an arm. Probably to spare the family further grief, James was transferred to a staff post in Richmond.

After the war, James moved to New York and become a city fire marshal. His son, James Purroy Mitchel will be elected mayor of New York in 1913.

When Lee surrenders, Mitchel will be one of those die-hards who refuse to admit the war is over. He evacuates to Danville, Georgia with some members of the Confederate government. After the last Confederate force surrendered in May, 1864, Mitchel returned to New York, where he thought he could earn a living. Many New Yorkers insisted John Mitchel be arrested. Some claimed Mitchel had advocated mis-treatment of Union prisoners. Mitchel responded by denouncing the harsh conditions in which Jeff Davis was then being kept. He was arrested in June for an allegedly seditious article he had written.

His prison cell was damp, which made his asthma much worse. The food was not edible and he could not exercise. He could not write. The prison doctor warned that Mitchel’s prison conditions were not improved, he would die. The authorities relented and let him walk, have materials with which to write, and gave him better food. Mitchel was now stooped, haggard and looked much older than his 50 years. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis praised him as a gallant gentlemen. Many leading Irish-Americans and Fenian veterans from the Union army complained about his treatment. He was released in October, 1865. His lawyers told him that he if said anything offensive, he would likely be arrested, again. They recommended that he move to Europe until passions cooled in the U.S. John Mitchel responded that he had now been imprisoned for expressing his views by the two states in the western world that most prided themselves on progressive and liberal ideals. “They are both in the wrong; but then, if I am able to put them in the wrong, they are able to put me in the dungeon.”

To get him out of the U.S., the Fenians made him their financial agent in Paris. In the remaining ten years of his life, he was more subdued and contemplative. He acknowledged that his support of the Confederacy, while a good cause, had cost him two sons, for a country that was not theirs. Like many Irish rebels, he gave the best part of his life to the cause of another country. Shortly before his death in 1875, he was elected to Parliament from his old home town in northern Ireland, without opposition.

Today, John Mitchel is often the forgotten revolutionary. His views lead directly to the Fenian movement, which in turn lead to the IRA in 1916. But, his views on slavery have become hard to swallow in a country, where the Irish Catholics themselves were enslaved at times. See here for a biography of John Mitchel.

Source: “Southern Citizen: John Mitchel, the Confederacy and slavery,History Ireland, Vol. 15, Issue 3, May/June 2007.


Letters Home

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland is essentially a regional archive. It contains voluminous records of Ireland and Irish history. It also includes countless letters home from Irish abroad in the U.S. Most Irish and Most Irish-Americans today expect the Irish immigrants surely condemned slavery. After all, the Irish had been subjugated by England for centuries. They had even been enslaved by the English on occasion. Yet, the letters home reflect a more mixed bag of sentiments.

One letter from William McElderry to relatives in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim advocated slavery. Mr. McElderry, writing from Lynchburg, Virginia, pointed to the Bible to justify slavery. After all, he noted, slavery existed in the time of Jesus Christ. Yet, Christ, who criticized all that was evil never criticized slavery. He supported John Mitchel, the Irish rebel who escaped from an Australian prison and landed in New York. In New York, the Irish firebrand Mitchel advocated slavery in a town filled with abolitionists. Mr. McElderry thought Mitchel was spot on.

Yet, from Georgia came a letter by R. Campbell to John Campbell in Belfast decrying slavery and pointing to the Bible for authority.

Ft. Sumter

Pvt. John Thompson, 1st US Artillery, wrote to his father, Robert Thompson of Articlave, Co. Londonerry, about the surrender at Ft. Sumter. The bombardment at Ft. Sumter started the U.S. Civil War. The young Pvt. Thompson loved the U.S. flag. But, he described the Confederates as the “rebel gentlemen.” The rebel gentlemen afforded the Union soldiers the honours of war. They were allowed to retain their personal weapons. They were allowed to salute their flag and would then be provided transportation to any destination north they desired. Brett Irwin, archivist at the PRONI, noted, the two sides generally respected one another, more than in most nineteenth century wars. He found a sense of respect and courtesy reflected in these letters home.

Battle of Antietam

William McFarland, born in Co. Antrim, wrote to his brother in Philadelphia about the Battle of Antietam. The young McFarland served in the union Army, commanded by Gen. McLelland [sic]. He served during the Battle of Antietam. He believed Gen. McLellan was not aggressive enough after the battle. He served at the siege of Richmond. He told his brother he “faiced [sic] death on the edge of all those battle fields.”

Brett Irwin, “Irish Voices from the American Civil War,” History Ireland, Vol. 23 *Nov/Dec, 2015)

Some Irish Immigrants Tolerated Slavery

So, what did the Irish immigrants to the Southern U.S. think about slavery? We know from numerous sources that many Irish laborers saw themselves as competing against slaves and free African-Americans. Most immigrants were not “fire-eaters” – that is, they were not ardent secessionists. Some wealthier Irish did purchase slaves. This author’s own Irish immigrant ancestor owned a slave for a few years. Even the well-respected Father Mullon in New Orleans owned two slaves. Father Mullon was pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in New Orleans and helped face down the Know Nothings. He was said to be a friend to Jews and Protestants in a time when that was a rare quality.

Some immigrants wrote home about slavery. At about the same time that the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, was publicly criticizing the “peculiar institution,” Irish in the Southern U.S. were distancing themselves him. Maria McLaughlin wrote to her Irish brother in Savannah, Georgia criticizing him for questioning Daniel O’Connell’s right to criticize slavery. Maria believed the Great Liberator was right to question the “enemies of liberty.” But, her brother worked as a clerk for men involved in the slave and cotton business.

William McElderry and his brother, Robert, Irish immigrants and now living in the South defended their new home against criticisms by their sister back In Ireland. They insisted the black slaves were contented. William added that the slaves were well dressed and often have money of their own. William said he had seen some slaves who had been whipped, but, he assured his sister, they “deserved it.”

Moses Paul, also writing home to his sister in Ireland, took offense at his sister’s charge that they were “savages” for owning slaves. Mr. Paul admitted many Southerners owned slaves, so they could earn money. But, he insisted the slaves were contented and lived better than the poor back in Ireland. He did point out that unlike the Irish landlord, no slave owner would ever deliberately starve his slaves.

Dennis Corcoran, a New Orleans newspaper man, wrote Daniel O’Connell on behalf of the New Orleans Repeal Association that any attempt to subvert slavery now, as the abolitionists contemplate, would start a civil war. Mr. Corcoran argued that Mr. O’Connell’s advocacy against slavery was hurting the Irish immigrants. He pointed out that the Louisiana Native American Association (a society that advocated more stringent requirements for naturalization and which opposed immigrants) used O’Connell’s advocacy to attack all New Orleans Irish immigrants. The newspaperman pointed out that the slave-owning Southerners had accepted Irish immigrants and that acceptance should not be jeopardized.

Daniel O’Connell accepted funds from the Southern Repeal Associations. But, many Irish in the South abandoned O’Connell’s Repeal Association because of his opposition to slavery. The Charleston Repeal Association closed due to O’Connell’s advocacy.

It is ironic that the Irish, often accused of being racially inferior, would themselves see the black man as racially inferior. But, such was the tenor of the times.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of N.C. Press 2001), pp. 121, 122, 126, 129, 130