Irish Southerners Vote to Secede

secessionist wave grew and grew throughout the 1850’s. When Lincoln was elected in 1860, that started a reaction. South Carolina voted to secede in December, 1860. Still, many Southerners, including the Irish immigrants, resisted secession. In April, 1860, newly elected Pres. Lincoln issued a call to the states for 75,000 troop to suppress “the rebellion.” That move, it was clear, meant Pres. Lincoln intended to invade the South. In the 1860 presidential election, Memphis had voted 2-1 for the union Democrat, Stephen Douglas. But, now after Lincoln’s call for troops, the Memphis Irish now voted overwhelmingly for secession.

In Texas, the only state to hold a general election on secession, the Irish communities of Refugio and San Patricio voted for secession. Among the Irish representatives to attend the individual state conventions, all voted for secession. There were four representatives in Louisiana, one in Florida and one in North Carolina.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 138-139.

Bishop England and Schools

His name was England, but he was Irish. Bishop John England was the prelate in Charleston, South Carolina. Bishop England was an active defender of the Irish in early America, at a time when defenders of the Irish immigrants were rare. Like many Irish immigrants to the Southern U.S., he accepted slavery at face value. He did not question the society that gave him a freedom he did not know back in Ireland. But, he also recognized things about slavery.

He started a free school for children of “free colored.” This was seen as a challenge to the white supremacists of the time. There were laws against teaching slaves to read. Children of free colored men and women were a gray area, that many whites preferred not to broach. But, Bishop England was different. He did not mind annoying the Protestant ascendancy here in the U.S.

What he did not expect was the mail campaign launched by Northern abolitionists. They inundated the Charleston post office with mail. Nativists used the excessive mail to claim the offensive mail was destined for Catholics. Alarmed by this twisting of his intentions, Bishop England closed the school in 1835. Too, he was probably concerned about so much mail from Northern abolitionists, who were universally fervent Protestant Evangelicals. To any Irish Catholic, fervent Protestants caused severe nervousness.

Bishop England responded by describing the abolitionists as fanatics. His newspaper said the school had to be closed due to the “saints” interfering with a society with which it had no understanding. He meant the abolitionists did not understand the South. His newspaper continued pointing out that in Great Britain and Ireland, the “saints” were seeking Negro emancipation, and the better observation of the Sabbath, they were issuing tracts with the worst calumnies and straining every nerve to exterminate Catholics. It was hard for Catholics to trust Protestants in any country after 200 years of Protestant efforts to exterminate Catholics.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 128-129.

Suffragettes and Confederate Memorials

The Confederate Memorial in San Antonio was erected in 1900. The Daughters of the Confederacy devoted three years to raising nickels, dimes and quarters for a memorial to remember those who fell. In San Antonio, Julia Montgomery, one of those Daughters, developed the concept for the statue. That probably means she suggested that the statue depict a common soldier, not some famous general. Julia’s biological daughter, Virginia, then drew the plans for the memorial.

Virginia, also known as Jenny, was an artist then living on her own in New Orleans as an artist. It was said that Virginia was the first woman to design a monument in the U.S. That the two Montgomery women were so involved in the development of the Confederate memorial suggests they had some personal interest in the memorial. In fact, the husband of Julia and father of Virginia, was Capt. John Montgomery, a Quartermaster for the Confederate army. It was said that Capt. Montgomery came back from the war war “broken in body and fortune.”

John Montgomery lived with his family in Mobile before the war. He earned a good living as a “cotton merchant.” That means he was probably a commission merchant, who sold cotton crops for a percentage. After the war, he did not work at all for some time. In 1871, he was listed simply as a “merchant.” A year later, he was a policeman. Still later, he was unemployed again. Later, he was a cigar dealer. A year later, at the age of 50, he was simply a clerk. By 1877, he disappears from public records. By 1880, his four children and wife are scattered to the four winds. Who knows where his wife, Julia, is. In 1873, she appeared in the New Orleans directory working as a teacher.

John likely died before 1877. All semblance of family normalcy was long gone by the time he died. In some eyes, he might have appeared to be a failure. But, one daughter and his wife did not think so. They dedicated themselves to erecting a memorial in his honor and in memory of all Confederate dead.

Julia ended up in San Antonio working as a teacher by the 1890’s. By the early 1900’s, Julia was living in New Orleans with Jenny. She attained some local fame. Julia died in 1922. Her lengthy obituary explained she was very active in clubs, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the Confederacy, the Woman’s Club. She was one of the leaders of the suffragette movement in New Orleans. She voted for the first time in her life just two years before – in the 1920 presidential election. She was said to be the oldest voting woman in New Orleans. When she passed away, her age was given as 99.

Virginia wrote a lengthy article in the New Orleans Times Picayune titled: “Bachelor Girl, A World Leader.” A “bachelor girl” could lead a fulfilling life in 1930 without having a family, insisted the artist. Among her favorite subjects at the time for her watercolors were “Negroes” in their daily lives.

The Irish Temperance Movement

Most  folks do not realize there was a very strong temperance movement in Ireland in the 1840’s. Fr. Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin priest in County Cork, started a temperance movement seeking to reduce the reliance of so many Irish on alcohol. He found a very receptive audience and quickly built a large successful organization. The movement jumped across the Atlantic ocean. In New Orleans, Fr. James I. Mullon, pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, organized the St. Patrick’s Total Abstinence Society. Fr. Mullon, a very popular priest in his own right, administered “the pledge” after High Mass every Sunday. In 1842, the society was the pride of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

In 1850, Fr. Mathew crossed the ocean and visited the South. In New Orleans, he collected 13,000 new pledges. At Memphis, he gathered 700 new pledges. At Natchez, he preached to Catholics and Protestants at St. Mary’s Cathedral. “Throngs” pledged abstinence at the altar rails.

Before Fr. Mathew was welcomed by the Southern Irish, he had to assure them that despite his meetings with abolitionists in the North, he had no intention of interfering with slavery. He assured the Southern Irish that while in the South, he would only address temperance.

Fr. Mathew arrived just in time to help dedicate a new church for the growing Irish immigrant population in New Orleans. He dedicated the new St. Alphonsus church during his visit. That first 1850 edifice was much smaller than the current St.  Alphonsus church building.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 61-62, 132.

Did Robert E. Lee Own Slaves?

The Atlantic magazine published an article in 2017 stating Robert E. Lee was not the “kindly” man history has recorded. As one piece of evidence, it pointed to his harsh treatment of “his” slaves. It is true that then Lieut.-Col. Lee inherited slaves from his father-in-law. His father-in-law was George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of George Washington. See the Atlantic article here.

George W. P. Custis named Lee as the executor of his will. George W.P. Custis also freed his slaves in his will. But, Mr. Custis, while a kind man, left his plantations and farms in bad shape. He left one home, Arlington plantation, to LTC Lee and his wife. He also left many personal items formerly owned by George Washington to his daughter and son-in-law.

As the executor, LTC Lee felt duty-bound to make Mr. Custis’ bequests good. But, to keep the home together, he first had to generate income. To generate income, he had to keep the enslaved humans a little longer. The terms of the will required LTC Lee to free Mr. Custis’ slaves within five years. LTC Lee had to take leave from the Army. That leave became longer and longer as the Lieut.-Colonel struggled with the challenge of managing three plantations and returning them to profitability soon enough to honor his father-in-law’s wishes. In March, 1858, Custis’ creditors were owed $10,000, a huge sum for the time.

As one would expect, the slaves gradually learned they were supposed to be freed. They were not happy to still be enslaved. Two men, probably abolitionists from nearby Washington City (now known as Washington, D.C.), were lurking about one of Mr. Custis’ homes encouraging the slaves to leave. Three of the male slaves escaped. They were captured and tossed in jail. The slaves called to passersby to help them, insisting they should be freed. LTC Lee sent them to Richmond to be leased out and generate some income.

In 1859, two other slaves escaped. Lee, the novice planter, had them captured and again sent them elsewhere to generate income.

LTC Lee did not support slavery. But, neither did he oppose it. As a career military officer, his views on most subjects were generally centrist. In 1858-1959, he was simply trying to effectuate the wishes of his beloved father-in-law. By 1858, LTC Lee was a career military officer. He was not comfortable playing the role of a planter. In letters to his sons, he complained about the difficulty of managing slaves. It was not the same as commanding free white men.

It is not likely he had the Custis slaves whipped. Lee generally avoided confrontation. It is more likely he would deal with difficult slaves by sending them elsewhere. That does not make him a kind man by 21st century standards. Sending an enslaved man 60 miles from his home was its own punishment. But, it does suggest the Atlantic article lacks certainty.

Pres. Lincoln issued the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Three days before that event, then Gen. Lee finally freed the Custis slaves, barely within the five year deadline. He freed all the Custis slaves, even the ones who had long since been “leased out” in nearby cities. He freed the slaves who were then living in Union occupied territory. He knew they would probably not need freedom papers, but just in case, the General issued them papers all the same.  

Robert E. Lee abhorred slavery. Not because he thought it was unfair or abusive of the black man, but because of what it did to the white man. When he executed the papers freeing the Custis slaves, he listed 170 persons by name for all three plantation farms. He sought to make sure he overlooked no one regardless of where they were in late 1862. Soon after, he hired his personal servant, Perry, and his personal cook, George at $8.20 per month. He indicated to them that he hoped they would be able to “lay up” some of their pay for their future.

By 1860, LTC Lee returned to active service in San Antonio Texas. And, in the end, all of Mr. Custis’ creditors were paid, except for one, Robert E. Lee.

Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1997), pp. 176-179, 183-184, 272-274.

Be Safe.