Southern Citizen: John Mitchel, the Confederacy and slavery

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2007), Volume 15

On 29 November 1853 John Mitchel arrived in New York City, having escaped from the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land. He had been one of the most prominent and militant members of the Young Ireland movement, and had served five years of a 14-year sentence of transportation after being convicted of treason felony in May 1848 for advocating insurrection in his newspaper the United Irishman. Fêted as a hero who had suffered for the cause of Irish freedom, he was cheered by an enthusiastic crowd, while bands played, militia companies lined the streets and the Napper Tandy Light Artillery gave him a 31-gun salute. Over the next few days he received numerous deputations from various clubs and societies, and was given a civic reception in City Hall.

Goodwill squandered
Yet within six months Mitchel had squandered all this goodwill and was one of the most hated men in New York. Never one to back away from controversy, he had alienated many of the city’s Catholics with an intemperate attack on the Irish-born archbishop of New York, John Hughes, for his support of the papacy’s temporal power, and had also grievously offended abolitionists with his statements in favour of slavery. Although Mitchel was from an Ulster Presbyterian background himself, he had lost his faith as a young man and had a particular contempt for the reforming zeal and puritan self-righteousness of the evangelical Protestants who formed the backbone of the abolitionist movement. The fact that many evangelical abolitionists were also anti-Irish nativists hardened his antipathy towards them. To friends who advised him to be more cautious in his public pronouncements, he responded that ‘they might as well whistle jigs to a milestone’.
As these controversies raged, he had visited the South, where his views on slavery were more acceptable and where he had been received with hospitality and respect. In early 1855 he decided to settle there with his family and bought a 140-acre farm in Tucaleechee Cove, an isolated valley in east Tennessee about 35 miles from Knoxville. Farming, however, did not pay very well, and his wife Jenny disliked life in the woods and worried about the social and educational disadvantages for their six children. In 1856 they decided to move to Knoxville, where Mitchel earned his living through lecturing and journalism.
On his lecturing tours through the United States, Mitchel observed the growing conflict between North and South, and grew increasingly supportive of the South. Conversations with Southern planters as he sailed down the Mississippi reinforced his belief that slavery was good for both master and slave. Like his mentor, Thomas Carlyle, Mitchel was explicitly racist in his reasoning: he argued that negroes were an innately inferior people who lived in a state of barbarism and brutal slavery in Africa, and that they had a better quality of life working on plantations in America. He maintained that a society based on free competition resulted in the exploitation of the weak, whereas the slave system provided for the social well-being of all, and that slaves on Southern plantations had more comfortable lives than the overworked factory hands of Manchester or the starving cottiers of Mayo.

‘Impertinent foreign meddler’
In October 1857 Mitchel and his friend William Swan, mayor of Knoxville, decided to start a newspaper, the Southern Citizen, to promote ‘the value and virtue of slavery, both for negroes and white men’, advocate the re-opening of the African slave trade and encourage the spread of slavery into the American West. Mitchel’s support for slavery was probably shared by most Irish immigrants, North and South, who regarded the emancipation of slaves as a threat to their own position in American society. But Mitchel took this stance to an extreme, and his fervent views were not always welcomed by Southerners, many of whom thought they played into the hands of abolitionists. One Southern newspaper rebuked him as an ‘impertinent foreign meddler [who] vapours and struts as if the whole South belonged to him’.
Despite his reputation in Ireland as a revolutionary, Mitchel was an essentially reactionary thinker. He saw himself as a man at odds with the nineteenth century, decrying its arrogant belief in material and moral progress, and much of his admiration for the South stemmed from his belief that it was a refuge from the progressive tendencies of the age. He regarded it in particular as a haven from modern capitalism, which he denounced as a soulless and degrading system that had brought only misery and starvation to Ireland. He argued that North and South were two separate nations with incompatible social systems drifting further apart with each passing year, and that the latter must finally secede. The South, a largely agrarian and slave-holding society, was for Mitchel a modern-day version of the ancient classical republics that he idealised. He believed that its blending of aristocratic and democratic elements formed a stable and harmonious society in which all citizens carried themselves with a dignified and independent bearing. He particularly admired the South’s gentility and old-world manners, claiming that on a journey of 2,000 miles through the cotton states he had not heard a harsh word or seen a violent action. The ‘peculiar gentleness of demeanour and quiet courtesy’ of the South he attributed to slavery, which he believed had a restraining influence on the slave-owner because of the power and responsibility with which he was entrusted. The Southern custom of speaking gently to servants and slaves created ‘a softness of manner and tone which, in educated people, being united with dignity, and self-possession, gives me the ideal of a well bred person’. The fact that such gentility was often coupled with a strong martial ethic made it all the more appealing to him. Southerners, he observed, were well used to arms and, like the citizens of ancient Rome or Sparta, prepared to demonstrate their civic virtue in defence of their homeland.
Mitchel believed that the North’s attempt to impose its will on the South was essentially the same as Britain’s domination of Ireland. The interests of North and South were

‘substantially the same as the opposing interests of England and Ireland. The one is the commercial, manufacturing, and money-broking power—the other represents mainly agriculture . . . The actual descent and affinity of the Southern population is in far the greater part Irish, French, Welsh, Spanish—in any case Celtic . . . The Celtic is the superior breed; of finer origin, more fiery brain, more passionate heart—less greedy, grabbing, griping and groveling . . . In race being Celtic; in pursuits agricultural; in temperament pleasure loving, hospitable and indolent . . . the South is a new Ireland; her rival another England. Can you wonder that I am a Southerner?’

To those who accused him of hypocrisy in advocating freedom for Ireland and slavery in America he responded that he was in fact highly consistent: in both cases he sought to liberate an underdog from the oppression of an arrogant neighbour by repealing an unjust union.

Sons joined the Confederate army
While championing the South, Mitchel continued to keep an eye on European affairs, and in summer 1859 detected the possibility of a breach between France and England from which Ireland might benefit. Anxious not to let the opportunity slip, he travelled to Paris but soon recognised that neither country was really intent on war. Nevertheless he decided to settle there for a time. He kept closely in touch with events in America, and approved strongly of the secession from the Union of several Southern states in February 1861 and the election of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederate States of America. When war finally broke out in April, the Mitchels anxiously awaited news from their two eldest boys, John and James, who had remained behind in America. Both had joined the Confederate army: John held a commission in the First South Carolina Artillery, commanding a battery that had shelled Fort Sumter in the action that had started the war; James enlisted as a private in the First Virginia Infantry and was later commissioned in the same regiment. James fought at the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on 21 July 1861, in which the Confederates had successfully repulsed a Federal advance, but it was several months later that his parents received a letter from him and learned that he was safe.
By the autumn of 1862 Mitchel was anxious to return to America to be closer to his sons. He had little to do in Paris, and his youngest son Willie, aged eighteen, was desperate to join his brothers in fighting for the Confederacy. Father and son sailed for New York in September 1862 and on to Baltimore, where, running the gauntlet of Federal patrol boats, they crossed the Potomac at night in a leaky skiff and entered Confederate territory in October 1862. They travelled on to Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy, and Willie immediately enlisted as a private in the First Virginia Infantry, his brother James’s regiment. Mitchel himself attempted to enlist but was disqualified because of his short-sightedness. He did, however, serve with an ambulance unit which, as well as tending to the wounded, occasionally did guard duty in the trenches around Richmond. Mitchel also put his pen at the service of the Confederacy, accepting the editorship of the Richmond Daily Enquirer, a semi-official newspaper. In his editorials he was scathingly critical of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as an incitement to insurrection for slaves that could only result in their slaughter, and he denounced Lincoln as ‘the common enemy of both black and white’. Throughout the war Mitchel held to his pro-slavery beliefs with absolute consistency. As the South’s manpower reserves became exhausted, some leading Confederates, notably Generals Robert E. Lee and Patrick Cleburne (a native of County Cork), proposed that slaves should be offered their freedom in return for fighting for the South; Mitchel, however, was strongly opposed to any such move, arguing that if freedom was good for slaves then the South had been in the wrong from the start.
Mitchel’s sons versus Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade
Richmond was the main military objective of the Union forces and was stoutly defended by General Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia. Numerous pitched battles and skirmishes were fought in its vicinity and the city was often in a state of near siege. The great battle of Fredericksburg was fought 40 miles to the north in December 1862, and beforehand Mitchel visited his sons James and Willie in the Confederate camp. He witnessed some of the artillery exchanges that preceded the battle, and, aware that the fate of the Confederacy was in the balance, cursed the fact that he was a non-combatant. At Fredericksburg James and Willie Mitchel, serving in General George Pickett’s Virginian division, faced the Union army’s Irish Brigade led by Thomas Francis Meagher, who had been one of their father’s closest friends in the Young Ireland movement in Dublin and had shared his exile in Van Diemen’s Land. Meagher led his men forward repeatedly to storm the strong Confederate position at Mayre’s Heights, but each time they were mown down by withering Confederate fire. Their courage even won the admiration of their opponents: Pickett wrote to his wife that as he saw their green flags approach his lines 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’. The battle was a bloody defeat for the Union, and the Irish Brigade saw over 900 of its 1,200 men killed or wounded.
In summer 1863 Lee, seeking to capitalise on his victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville (2–4 May 1863), attempted to take the war to the North, but was checked in fierce fighting at Gettysburg (1–3 July). The First Virginia Infantry were almost annihilated in Pickett’s great infantry charge on Cemetery Ridge and young Willie Mitchel was among the dead. His father was comforted by the fact that he had died bravely, seizing the regimental colours from a fallen comrade and, despite being wounded himself, carrying them forward at the head of the regiment until he was finally shot down. Mitchel wrote that his son ‘could have had no more enviable fate. He died in honourable company’. On learning that a son of John Mitchel was among the Confederate dead, Irish soldiers on the Union side made a special effort to find his body, but it seems that his remains were never identified.
After Gettysburg the war began to turn against the South, and Mitchel grew increasingly disillusioned with Jefferson Davis’s leadership. In December 1863 he resigned from the Enquirer and became the leader writer for the Richmond Examiner, regularly attacking Davis for his excessive chivalry, especially his failure to retaliate in kind for Federal attacks on civilians. Mitchel also wrote for some Irish newspapers and was particularly anxious to discourage Irish enlistment into the Union army. (About 150,000 Irishmen fought for the Union; probably less than 20,000 served with the Confederacy.) In a letter to The Nation Mitchel applauded the bravery of the Irishmen fighting for the North but claimed that they were dupes, fooled by false promises of land in the South and fighting for a government that despised them and cared nothing for their lives: ‘they are to be made use of precisely as the poor negroes are—thrust to the front in every fight, and thrown aside afterwards as broken tools. They will never hold land in the Confederate country, save that regular fee-simple of six feet by two which many thousands of them now peacefully hold.’

Grant denounced as a callous butcher
In 1864 General Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander-in-chief, stepped up his campaign in Virginia, and that May Mitchel’s ambulance unit saw some particularly savage engagements, notably the bloody and indecisive battle of the Wilderness, when there seemed to be no end to the numbers of dead and wounded carried from the field. Mitchel described the scene at the Confederate field hospital as one of ‘horror and anguish and filth’; fragments of limbs littered the camp and ‘pitiable and horrible cases of ghastly wounds are so frequent on these occasions that one might grow callous to the sight of human agony’. Many Richmond families lost loved ones, but Mitchel observed that ‘no sadness shows itself; above all, no cowardice . . . I confess that I delight in the spectacle of a people roused in this way to a full display of all its manhood . . . planting itself firmly on its sown ground, stripped for battle and defying fate’. Mitchel denounced Grant as a callous butcher, who was willing to sacrifice four of his own men to kill a single Confederate soldier, but recognised that, given the North’s greater manpower, such brutal arithmetic would eventually mean defeat for the South.
Grant continued to press against Richmond, and by June 1864 the city was under siege. The following month Mitchel learned that his eldest son John, who had served throughout the siege of Charleston and had been given command of Fort Sumter, had been killed by an artillery shell. James was now the only one of Mitchel’s sons who remained alive, and even he had twice suffered serious wounds, including losing an arm. Such was the Confederate need for experienced officers that he was back at his post weeks later. Probably to spare the Mitchel family further grief, James was transferred to a staff post in Richmond in September 1864. (After the war James became a New York City fire marshal and his son, John Purroy Mitchel, was elected mayor of New York in 1913.)
In early April 1865 Union forces broke though Lee’s lines outside Richmond, and the city was evacuated. Mitchel joined the Confederate government in Danville, on the southern frontier of Virginia, refusing to concede that the Southern cause was lost. Even after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox on 9 April Mitchel remained at large for some weeks, staying on a friend’s farm in Halifax County. On hearing of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 14 April, he observed that ‘the malignant and vindictive Yankee mind will take it as the very luckiest of possible events . . . As for poor Lincoln, he was an ignoramus and a boor; not an apostle at all; no grand reformer; not so much as an abolitionist, except by accident—a man of very small account in every way’. When eventually he heard of the surrender of the last sizeable body of Confederate troops, Mitchel returned to Richmond in May. Since there was no way for him to earn a living there, he decided to return to New York, where he had been offered the editorship of the New York Daily News, a Democratic newspaper that had opposed the war.

Denounce ‘Yankee triumphalism’
Many Republicans were angered by the presence of this outspoken champion of the South in New York and called for his arrest, claiming he had advocated the mistreatment of captured Union soldiers (some even implied that he had been involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln). Mitchel dismissed all such claims out of hand, but refused to condemn explicitly Lincoln’s assassination: ‘We take no interest in assassins’. Instead he denounced the vindictive actions of the Union government, particularly its continued imprisonment of Jefferson Davis in harsh conditions as one of the ‘blackest villainies known to history’, and claimed that its humiliation of a gallant foe would destroy the Union forever. Warnings to tone down his criticism only spurred him to denounce ‘Yankee triumphalism’ more vehemently. Finally, he was arrested at the Daily News office on 14 June on a charge of writing seditious articles, and taken to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, where Jefferson Davis and Senator Clement Claiborne Clay (accused of conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln) were the only other prisoners.
The prison regime was severe in the extreme: Mitchel’s cell was small and damp, the food almost inedible, and he was allowed no exercise or writing materials. He had difficulty sleeping, kept awake by the scurrying of rats and the buzzing of mosquitoes, and suffered severe asthma attacks. In August a prison doctor notified the authorities that he would die unless his conditions were eased. The authorities relented, and he was given books, newspapers and better food, and allowed to walk in the open air. His health improved somewhat, but never really recovered from the damage done in the first two months. He aged significantly during this period, becoming stooped and looking haggard and worn beyond his 50 years. His sufferings, however, made him a hero to many in the South: Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee both paid generous tributes to him, Lee praising him as ‘a powerful and brilliant writer . . . a gallant gentleman, and a tower of strength to the Confederate cause’.

Fenians made representations on his behalf
Many leading Irish-Americans complained to the authorities about his treatment, and the Fenian movement, which had grown rapidly in the Union army during the war, made strong representations on his behalf to the Federal government. Finally, on 30 October 1865, he was released. His lawyers advised that he would probably be arrested again if he made any trouble and that he should move to Europe until passions cooled in the US. He found it deeply ironic that merely for expressing his opinions he had been imprisoned successively by the two states in the western world that most prided themselves on their 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 into dungeons’.
To keep him out of trouble, Mitchel was offered the position of financial agent for the Fenian movement in Paris. He accepted and in November 1865 sailed for France. During the remaining decade of his life, although he showed occasional flashes of his old fervour, he was generally a more subdued and contemplative character than he had been before the war. Alone in Paris, he brooded on the events of recent years, reflecting that support for the Confederacy had taken a heavy toll on him and his family, and ‘although it was a good cause, I must admit that I grudge it what it has cost us—the lives of two sons, in defence of a country which, after all, was not their own’.

James Quinn is the Executive Editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Further reading:
W. Dillon, Life of John Mitchel (2 vols, London, 1888).
D. B. Mahin, The blessed place of freedom: Europeans in Civil War America (Washington DC, 2002).
K. J. O’Grady, Clear the Confederate way: the Irish in the army of Northern Virginia (Mason City, Indiana, 2000).
J. Quinn, John Mitchel (Dublin, 2007).


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