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.


Views of Reconstruction Have Changed

Was Reconstruction good or bad? Your view on that topic will largely dictate whether you see the white Southerners of the Civil war time period in a good light or bad light. The view of Reconstruction was largely negative in white society until the 1980’s. With the publication of Eric Foner’s book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (Harper & Row 1988), the popular white view changed. A Colombia historian, Dr. Foner is widely respected. His tome received positive reviews. Reprinted several times, it has now become a classic history of the Reconstruction period in U.S. history.

Dr. Foner makes a valuable point throughout the book, that with the end of Reconstruction, so ended the right to vote and other civil rights for Southern African-Americans. His research is exhaustive. Yet, he does diminish what had been accepted prior to his book, the degree to which Reconstruction was abused by both Northern politicians and local African-Americans. For example, we know that many African-Americans profited handsomely from their positions of power. The perception in the time before Dr. Foner’s book was that black men had been manipulated by the white Northerners, but they may have been willing to be manipulated. For example in a book widely read in its day, Charles Nordhoff traveled the South in 1875 on a tour requested by his boss, James G. Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald. Mr. Nordhoff’s mission was to find out the “truth” of Reconstruction. The northern public was aware of charges of corruption. Mr. Nordhoff was sent to either verify those charges or discount them. His resulting book, The Cotton States in the Spring and Summer of 1875, largely verifies the charges of corruption by “carpet-baggers” and by African-American men who appeared to be under the control or instigation of white northerners now living in those Cotton states.

Mr. Nordhoff in his tour of Louisiana talks about seeing “colored” members of the Louisiana legislature – men who were slaves ten years before – now “driving magnificent carriages, seated in stylish equipages, and wearing diamond breast pins.” He discussed a box containing election returns from one of the upstate parishes being carried into New Orleans by a Conservative politician (meaning by a Republican) to a house of prostitution in New Orleans. The Conservative politician was holding it ransom for some large reward from the Conservatives in that parish.

Mr. Nordhoff reported in his book that while most murders in Louisiana since 1870, with two major exceptions – Coushatta and Colfax – were not political, few of the murderers received their just punishment. There were some 33 murders. But, pardons were frequent. Mr. Nordhoff explained that between 1865-1868, the white citizens of Louisiana did kill and oppress the freed black man. But, when Reconstruction began in 1868, the freed black man was given authority for which he was not prepared. Mr. Nordhoff saw black members of parish police juries (like the county commissioners in Texas) who could not read or write, or just barely so. Yet, those black police jury members had total control over taxes, roads and bridges. In 1868, the Louisiana legislature paid $4.2 million for 70 miles of railroad that was never completed. The railroad was sold as a connection from New Orleans to Mobile, but it never got beyond the first 70 miles. Mr. Nordhoff, a former abolitionist, recounted many such incidents of abuse.

Dr. Foner allows that black Republicans were not immune to illicit gain, but he compares it to corruption practiced by white Democrats. He suggests that corruption was common throughout the country, not just in Reconstruction cotton states. Foner, Reconstruction, at pp. 388-389.

But, Dr. Foner’s book does not appear to address the issues presented in the prior research, that the post-war economy plummeted in the South after the Civil War and after Reconstruction started. The 1874 value of real property in New Orleans had fallen to one-third the value it had in 1868, the last year prior to Reconstruction. Henry, The Story of Reconstruction (Konecky & Konecky 1999, but originally published in 1938), p. 516. The Sheriff of Orleans Parish was paid $60,000 in 1868, a time when $500-600 was the typical yearly wage for skilled labor. This was in a city that did not completely support secession.

In the 1860 election for example, John Bell, the nominee of the Constitutional Union party (composed of former Whig party members), won each Orleans Parish voting district by a 2:1 margin over Douglas and Breckinridge. The Constitutional Union party was founded on the eve of the 1860 election. Its major plank was to preserve the union. Stephen Douglas, the nominee of the Northern wing of the Democrat party ran ahead of John Breckinridge, the nominee of the Southern wing of the Democrat party. Breckinridge was the candidate favored by the rest of Louisiana and by the rest of the South. Breckinridge and Douglas essentially split the Democrat vote. Together, the Democratic vote would have amounted to some 5400 votes, compared to some 5200 received by Bell. If just one Democrat had run in 1860, Bell might well have lost. But, the results do show New Orleans was not a “fire-eater” (the term used for ardent secessionists) city. Jerry Tarver, Political Clubs of New Orleans in the Presidential Election of 1860, La. Hist. Assoc., Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring, 1963), p. 126. The Crescent City was not a secessionist center.

Neither does Dr. Foner address another concern presented by the earlier scholarship on the subject, that many black males of the time simply voted as they were told by white Republicans. The White League, Robert Henry tells us, said the Negroes “invariably” voted like a body of soldiers obeying a command. The white Southerners accused the blacks of voting “blindly” based on how they were instructed. Henry, The Story of Reconstruction, p. 517. Even allowing for some hyperbole, that charge presents serious systemic issues with Reconstruction.

And, it was the concern with outlaw black citizens acting with impunity that was cited by the White League for its formation in New Orleans. Among the graft and corruption, there was also a problem found in newly freed blacks acting with criminal intent. Gangs of “riotous” blacks incited by three former city officials had committed unspecified “outrages” against white persons at the Third Ward Polling place on Poydras Street. Stuart O. Landry, The Battle of Liberty Place (Gretna Press 2000, but originally published in 1955), p. 69. In another incident, a white man was assaulted by a crowd of “Negroes” for carrying a concealed weapon. The Metropolitan Police, created by the carpet-bagger governor, Henry Clay Warmoth, were essentially a private army for the governor. Joe Gray Taylor, New Orleans and Reconstruction, La. Hist. Assoc. (Vol. 9, No. 3, p. 196. Gov. Warmoth did not deny his corruption. Without Negro votes, he would never have been elected. Ibid. Gov. Warmoth was replaced by William P. Kellogg, who was only more corrupt than Gov. Warmoth.

In May, 1874, a white woman was robbed in broad daylight on a major street in new Orleans. The newspaper of the day proclaimed no one was safe due to Negro outrages. Joe Gray Taylor, New Orleans and Reconstruction, p. 201. That was surely hyperbole, but this was a time when even approaching an unknown woman was socially forbidden. That one white woman would be robbed during the day was shocking. Also in May, 1874, a home was entered while the family was out and all the silver was taken. The newspaper warned New Orleans white citizens to watch out for Gov. Kellog’s men during the day. In other words, the newspaper believed the daytime burglar was a Republican. New Orleans Bulletin, May 8, 1874, p. 3. Dr. Foner’s book does not address this apparent spike in crime, or the perception that the crime was due to Republicans. In disregarding these issues, Dr. Foner’s book reveals a lack of balance, just as the earlier Reconstruction books lacked balance.

It is accurate, it seems to me, that the hysteria of the time seems racist. The Battle of Liberty Place quotes news stories of the day indicating widespread fear of “black militia” marching by and possibly storming saloons and businesses. It seems likely that white Southerners of the time felt an irrational fear of newly freed blacks. Before the Civil War, there was a constant, almost unconscious fear among whites that the blacks would rise up and kill all the whites. The City of New Orleans actually saw a large slave revolt in 1811. So, the fear had some basis. In fact, the fear of slave rebellion was so wide spread that when Gen. Ben Butler first came to New Orleans, he brought his wife. Mrs. Butler had a nightmare during one of her first nights about a slave revolt. Fears of a slave revolt were so widespread that even a visiting and protected white wife of a Northern general had some deep fears of a slave revolt – at a time when the Union army was actually freeing black slaves.

But, fear, however racist and irrational, held by a large segment of the population cannot be ignored. It is the fundamental duty of any government to allay fear. The federal government imposed a government on Louisiana. The Republicans disregarded the fear felt by the whites and it did not provide the most fundamental requirement of any government, reliable police protection.

Dr. Foner never mentions the open corruption of two successive Louisiana governors. Neither does he acknowledge that unlike corruption in other states, in the South, open corruption was essentially sanctioned by the federal government. Dr. Foner never discusses the extent to which freed blacks were allowed, and even encouraged to harass the white Southerners. His book does help remedy the lack of attention to black suffrage and civil rights in prior Reconstruction research.

But, it appears Dr. Foner remedied that imbalance in part by overlooking the lack of fundamental state police powers. If the state cannot enforce criminal laws, then the state has failed a central function. Mr. Foner misses an important point about Reconstruction. When you impose a government on a people otherwise accustomed to democracy, that government cannot simply be as good as the government found in other states. It must be better. It must be a government that the whites can at least tolerate. Reconstruction failed in that respect. For all its superb research and needed balance, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution misses that most salient need of an imposed governance, it must work and it must be relatively free of corruption.

What did the United States do to Help with the Irish Famine?

The Famine in Ireland during the 1840’s was the worst disaster in Europe during the nineteenth century. A country of some 5 million lost 3 million people in just a few years. It is said 1 million died and 2 million emigrated. It was a scarring experience for all Irish. The Irish children of the 1840’s would grow to become the Irish soldiers, North and South, in 1861.

What did the United States do during the Famine? Private citizens donated huge amounts in the 1840’s. Some 118 ships left U.S. shores for the Irish nation. They carried some $545,145 worth of food stuffs. Doubtless, much of that was donated or generated by Irish immigrants then living in the U.S. What did the U.S. government do during the Famine?

It was not clear at the time that the U.S. government should help. Many Congressmen and Senators argued that it was unconstitutional for the country to use public funds for private relief. At least two bills to authorize the spending of public money to help Ireland died in committee. One Democrat senator, John Niles, a slavery opponent, opposed one bill, saying charity begins at home. The country should aid those within the U.S., not persons in far off lands. Another Congressman, Lewis Levin, an early Know Nothing party leader, always opposed Catholics. He argued one proposed bill was actually intended to feed “party vultures,” not Famine victims. He meant the bill was to help some politicians secure Irish votes in America, not feed the starving. The American (Know Nothing) party started in New York in 1843. The nativist sentiment in the United States was strong in the 1840’s. Rep. Levin wanted to increase the requirement to become a citizen from living in the U.S. from five years to 21 years.

The U.S. government eventually did allow that two U.S. war ships could be used to transport food to the victims of the Famine. Congress passed a bill making this possible. Remarkably, they felt it was constitutional to use government resources, so long as actual ownership of U.S. property was not transferred to private persons. One ship, the Jamestown, was quickly loaded in Boston and was in Cork within 15 days of departure.

But, the second ship, the Macedonian, languished in New York harbor until the Jamestown returned. The New Yorkers simply did not contribute the way Boston’s citizens contributed. That was probably because New York City was ground zero for the new American (Know Nothing) party. The nativist attacks on Irish immigrants in New York were severe. When the Jamestown returned, the Boston committee quickly collected enough donations to finish loading the ship. The captain of the Jamestown, George DeKay of New Jersey, spent $30,000 of his own money outfitting the Macedonian. This set back Capt. DeKay financially. He requested relief from Congress. Before the body could act, however, he died exhausted and penniless.

Timothy J. Sarbaugh, “Charity Begins at Home: The United States government and Irish Famine Relief 1845-1849,” History Ireland, Vol. 4, Issue 2, Spring, 1996.

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).


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


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.


The Irish Immigrants Preferred the Democratic Party

From early on, the Irish immigrants preferred the Democratic Party. For one thing, the Democrats actively courted the Irish vote. Coming from a country like Ireland, where the party in power, the Whig party, barely acknowledged their existence, this was significant. Too, the Democrats talked often about the value of the “common man.” The Democrat rhetoric appealed to the Irish immigrant.

Indeed, the Whig party in England had consciously and deliberately ignored the famine in Ireland. They were content to take little or no action, trusting in the powers of the free market to save the Irish from starvation.

In 1832, Andrew Jackson ran for office. Descended from an Irish immigrant, his campaign apparatus touted his Irish connections. His opponent, John Quincy Adams, was supported by newspapers that frequently described the Irish as “Hessian flies [and] cancer worms.” Those same newspapers attacked the rebels in the Irish 1798 rebellion. And, of course, Adams’ party was the Whig party. In the minds of many immigrants, it was the Whigs in England who “killed” them with the famine. Through the 1840’s the Whigs engaged in anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Through the 1830’s and 1840’s in New Orleans, the Democrats reminded the Irish voters that “Whiggery” was the same as nativism. That is, the Whigs were the same as anti-immigration fervor. The Irish immigrants were often reviled in American newspapers.  It is not surprising they would prefer the Democrats throughout the South.

Today, we wonder why the Irish in the South served in the Confederate army and why some Irish immigrants in the North avoided the draft. One significant reason was the aversion and distrust of the Republican party. The Republicans were former Whigs and worse, former members of the American (Know Nothing) party.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 2001), p. 94-96.

The View of One Irishman in the Union Army

So, how was it for Irish immigrants who joined the Union army? It was difficult for some of them to join the Union army because it was ultimately controlled by former members of the Know Nothing party and by Protestants. We get some clues about Irish sentiment from a letter written in 1863. Christopher Byrne was younger brother to one famous Irishman, “Blind” Patrick Byrne, said to have been the last of the great Irish harpers.

Christopher expressed pride in his brother’s fame. He expressed regret that their family was now scattered all over the world. Christopher joined the Union army, but had his regrets. Writing from Minnesota, he described the state of Northern politics. He described the Union leadership as a “Horde of Fanatics” – likely referring to the ardent abolitionists – who would rather “rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” “When they are not interfering with the rights of foreigners or proscribing Religious Denominations, they are Speech Making in favour of Abolition.” Here, Christopher is clearly referring to what was then overt discrimination against immigrants and especially against Irish Catholic immigrants. Many of the abolitionists were clergy or were otherwise very religious. We forget today how deep was the religious divide throughout the 1800’s. Ardent Protestants must have caused alarm for any Irish Catholic immigrant.

Cristtopher discusses slavery several times in his letter. Yet, he never addresses the morality (or lack thereof) of slavery. Instead, he insists the Northern U.S. had no business in meddling in the business of the South. He adds, writing in 1863, that the North can prevail in the war only if it guarantees the South’s autonomy in the matter of slavery.

He rose to Sergeant by the end of the war. Yet, he admits in the letter he enlisted only because “the excitement of the time and the misrule of the administration has forced me and thousands like me into it.”

He describes the civil war in 1863 as one for which “Magnitude has no parallel on record.” Coming from an Irishman in 1863, that does suggest a great rebellion indeed.

See “Irishman’s Diary about the American Civil War” in the Irish Times, Sept. 6, 2017 here.



Rep. Davis Castigates Anti-Immigrant Fervor

In 1861, the Democratic party had wide support across the South. Even today, some people believe erroneously that the Democratic party alone supported slavery. But, certainly, the Democrats largely supported the extension of slavery. Yet, The Democrats also generally embraced the Irish and German immigrants in the decades leading up to the Civil War. In the decades of the ante-bellum era, the German and especially the Irish immigrants were seen as repugnant by many native Anglo Americans. A young Congressman, Jefferson Davis, was friends with prominent Irish immigrants in Vicksburg, Mississippi. His plantation was near Vicksburg.

The future president of the Confederate States of America earned a measure of fame among immigrants everywhere when he attacked the nativist members of Congress and their attempt to restrict immigration. As a freshman Representative in 1844-1845, he castigated the nativist members for their “sordid character [and] their arrogant assumption.” He argued that instead of restricting immigration, Congress should make becoming a citizen easier. It was one of the ironies of American history that a well-known supporter of immigrants was also a large slave owner. No one said ante-bellum politics were simple.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Univ. of North Carolina Press 2001), p. 102.