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John Mitchel - Rebel With Two Causes

(The original text of this article appeared in 'Crossfire' the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) No. 27 (April 1993) and 29 (April 1987) under the title 'Britons in the Civil War - John Mitchel and Family' - acknowledgements for additional material were given to Barry Crompton of the Australian ACWRT, and are here acknowledged again, with thanks).

 

John Mitchel was an uncompromising advocate of Irish - and then of Southern - independence. He was exiled for his support of the former cause, Then imprisoned for, and lost two sons to, the latter. His last defiant act was to win a seat in the British Parliament he loathed.

 

 


Mitchel was born near Dungiven, Co.Derry, in 1815. He was the son of a Nonconformist Minister and attended Trinity College, Dublin. Having commenced legal practice, he developed an Interest in Nationalist politics and became one of the leading lights of the Young Ireland movement. Serving as assistant-editor of the party paper, 'The Nation', he was described by historian Cecil Woodham-Smith as:

 

"... the most remarkable and the most formidable of the Young Ireland leaders ... and the principal leader-writer on the 'Nation'. His abilities were outstanding, and his 'Jail Journal', a minor masterpiece, has won him immortality. John Mitchel possessed an extraordinary capacity for hatred directed at the British Government, and an equal talent for burning invective. He had also the gift, which the other leaders of Young Ireland lacked, of arousing the masses of the people and inspiring them with intense devotion... Yet side by side with outstanding qualities of leadership, courage, integrity and fanatical sincerity, Mitchel possessed fatal defects. He was wildly unpractical, he was obstinate, he did not foresee the consequences of his actions, he did not merely lack organising ability, he regarded method, organisation and system with lofty contempt."

 

Mitchel broke with the Young Irelanders at the end of January 1848, and on 12 February he began to publish the short-lived 'United Irishmen' with the avowed purpose of preparing the country for rebellion. "With characteristic contempt for subterfuge, Mitchel declared that he scorned to conceal his purpose; there was to be no secret plot, he would state his intentions openly in the 'United Irishmen' each week, and offered, if it would be any convenience to His Excellency Lord Clarendon, to entertain a Castle detective in his office, provided the man was sober and honest, who could make daily reports to the Castle. Further, there was to be no one leader; public wrath and indignation would suffice, at the first signal, to sweep the English out of Ireland." Mitchel, a giddy idealist whose life had been spent in towns, knew little of the peasantry on whom he pinned his hopes of revolution; contemptuous of logistical details, with no organisation, no support, no arms and no ammunition behind him, he hurled threats and curses at the Lord-Lieutenant and the British Government. Lord Clarendon was addressed in the columns of the 'United Irishmen' as "H(er) Majesty's Executioner General and General Butcher in Ireland."

 

The authorities initially ignored Mitchel's activities. As 1848 developed, however, and governments toppled across the continent, the British become decidedly twitchy, and on 21 March, Mitchel, William Smith O'Brien and future Union general Thomas Meagher were arrested. O'Brien and Meagher were charged with having made seditious speeches at a meeting, Mitchel with publishing seditious articles in the 'United Irishman'. They were all remanded on bail as a delay ensued while the authorities decided exactly how to proceed. The problem was that a prosecution and conviction on a charge of treason under existing laws would lead, in theory at least, to hanging, drawing and quartering; that kind of thing simply wasn't on in 1848, so a new piece of legislation, the Treason Felony Act, passed through Parliament "with the speed of an express train". Any person who "compassed the intimidation of the Crown or of Parliament" was made guilty of felony punishable by transportation for 14 years or life.

 

Mitchel had been imprisoned in Dublin's Newgate on 13 May, charged under the new Act, and was tried on 25 May. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 years transportation. His friends made a desperate and unsuccessful rush for the dock, he was hastened away and within the hour, he was chained and on his way to Spike Island, the convict depot off the Cove of Cork, en route for Bermuda and then Van Diemen's Land (modern day Tasmania)

 

Mitchel escaped 1853. He was allowed to go at large on parole, and thinking his conviction a most tyrannical and iniquitous proceeding on the part of the English Government, he determined to meet force by 'ruse'. One day, when he had obtained a swift horse, he walked into the magistrate's office and said to him, "Mr -- I have come to tell you that I will no longer be a prisoner on parole, I take back my word," and before the surprised magistrate had time to arrest him he went out, mounted his horse and dashed off. He rode to the seacoast, took shipping on an American vessel and came over to the United States with his son. Of course everything had been prearranged by his friends, but he ventured the risk of being captured before he could get away and having a still larger sentence passed upon him.

 

The 'Jail Journal' was published in the United States in the following year. He set up in New York and founded a newspaper that was vocal in defence of slavery. In fact, Mitchel also advocated the reopening of the African Slave Trade and argued against the emancipation of the Jews. One presumes that he was unconscious of any contradiction between these views and his desire for his own people's liberty. Cecil Woodham-Smith's explanation for this paradox is that "Mitchel was inspired not by love of liberty but hatred of England."

 

To follow Mitchel's fortunes we now turn to the diary of Edmund Ruffin, who first mentions our subject on May 11, 1858, as someone who had just been admitted to the Montgomery Commercial Convention despite Ruffin's passive objections. At this time Mitchel had moved base to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he was publishing the 'Southern Citizen'. Ruffin was presumably won over when he realised how much of an advocate of slavery the Irishman was, because on January 8, 1859, he wrote "Some days ago I made the acquaintance of John Mitchell (sic), the Irishman..a strong southern & pro-slavery advocate, who has lately moved his paper to this city . When I subscribed for it, & left my card for him, he called on me, & had a political conversation. I see that he is anxious to conciliate my favor." Six days later he wrote of Mitchel: "He is a very able and interesting writer - & his denunciations are very severe. I am glad to have his aid in lashing & exposing the great humbug, the Colonization Society...Mitchel...goes fully for the rights of the South. I fear however that his having so boldly advocated the re-opening of the African slave-trade will prevent his paper being supported by the many southern men who still view that proposed policy as most objectionable & condemnable." Ruffin continued to meet with Mitchel to discuss proposals for extending the influence of the Irishman's newspaper, but it all evidently came to nothing because on August 9 Ruffin made the brief entry: "The publication of the "Southern Citizen" closed, & the editor, John Mitchel, going to Europe. Sorry for it..."

 

If Mitchel did in fact return to Europe, he was back in America by the start of the Civil War, as he volunteered for service in the Confederate Army. Defective eyesight rendered him incapable for such service, but he was accepted into the ambulance corps. In terms of war however, it is Mitchel's sons who merit most attention.

 

The eldest son, John C. Mitchel Jr., had stood in the dock in Dublin with his father, had shared his trip to Van Diemen's Land and had escaped with him. He was commissioned lieutenant and ordered to a South Carolina artillery battalion stationed at Fort Moultrie. He shared in the attack on Fort Sumter and his company was sent, along with the Palmetto Guards, to garrison the fortress. His entire war service was seen in this vicinity and, in April 1863, he was placed in command of what remained of Sumter (with the rank of Captain). On July 20, 1864, while making an observation from the ramparts of the fort, he was mortally wounded. "He saw the shell coming, but refused to go to the bombproof as he felt he must set his men an example of courage. He died after three hours of agony, saying, "I die willingly for South Carolina, but oh! that it had been for Ireland!" A colleague, Major John Johnson of the Confederate Engineers, described Mitchel as follows-. "Few young Confederate officers impressed me more favorably. He was a born soldier, a man of nerve, finely tempered as steel, with habits of order, quick perception, and decision, and he had been earnestly recommended for promotion. A little after noon on the 20th of July, 1864, he took with him to the highest point in the fort, the south-western angle, his favorite telescope, which he was using to observe the enemy's works on Morris Island, when he was mortally wounded." The next son, James, served an Adjutant on the staff of John B.Gordon and lost his arm in one of the battles near Richmond.

 

The youngest son, William, served in the Stonewall Brigade and was killed at Gettysburg.

 

Mitchel's service in the Confederate ambulance corps was probably brief, because he spent a large part of the war as a newspaper editor. On 12 March 1863, Rebel War Clerk Jones noted in his diary that Mitchel was now the editor of the 'Richmond Enquirer'. By 23 November 1864, the same source states that Mitchel was editor of the 'Richmond Examiner'. At both newspapers, Mitchel seems to have lost none of his pre-war pugnacity. One enemy was the Governor of North Carolina, Zebulon Vance. Mitchel published an article implying that North Carolina conservatives were bent on destroying the existing Confederacy and conspiring to create a Middle Confederacy of Border States. This prompted an acid response in the columns of the 'Raleigh Standard'. "It is bad enough to have to endure the gross partyism of Mr Davis' administration, but it is intolerable to be libelled by this seedy foreign adventurer." Lest it be thought that Mitchel was purely and simply an administration man, however, it should be emphasised that he also launched frequent attacks on Davis. Nor was that the limit of his aggressiveness: on 22 November 1864, he challenged a Mr Foote to a duel. According to the Rebel War Clerk, "the note was borne by Mr Swan, of Tennessee, Mr Foote's colleague. Mr Foote would not receive it, and Mr Swan took offense and assaulted Mr Foote in his own house, when Mrs Foote interposed and beat Mr Swan away."

 

At the end of the war, Mitchel was imprisoned by the Federal authorities for aiding the Rebellion, "until a deputation of Irishmen asked President Johnson for his release on the premise that he was vital for the cause of Irish freedom". Johnson pardoned Mitchel who presently was let out of prison and went north to New York. The Fenian movement sent Mitchel to Paris as fiscal agent charged with the safe transmittal of funds to the Irish revolutionaries. In 1866 he resigned his Paris assignment and returned to the United States where he lived out the remainder of his life. At least until he went back to Ireland to stand for election to Parliament. After his apparent success in that election, "the people in their enthusiasm took the horses from his carriage and dragged it themselves through the streets." This was followed by his disqualification, re-election and convenient (for the authorities) death, perhaps the only person with a Confederate (or, indeed, Union) war-record who was subsequently elected to Parliament.

 

ACWRT(UK) 1986 & 2001

 

 

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