Irish nationalist John Mitchel was put on trial in 1848 and eventually sentenced to “transportation” to Tasmania. He escaped to New York City and eventually moved South to support the Confederate cause. Seventy years later his grandson would be killed in a military training exercise getting ready to go to France to fight in the First World War.
Over the past few days I have been drafting the outline for my talk at next week’s Camp Doughboy weekend on Governors Island about John Purroy Mitchel. When I have more details I will share them here. Some may recall that in early July I wrote a piece for Roads to the Great War for the 100th anniversary of his death. Space constraints prevented me from going deeper into the Mitchell family than I would have liked. JP Mitchel was the grandson and namesake of famed Irish nationalist John MItchel. Mitchel the Elder was born in 1815 and put on trial by the British in 1848 when Ireland was in turmoil during the failed European revolutions of that year. He was sentenced to exile–what at the time was called “transportation”–to the Australian outpost Van Diemen’s Land, what we today call Tasmania. There on the Van Diemen penal colony too was Thomas Francis Meagher.
Mitchel and Meagher independently escaped to New York City. Mitchel ended up Brooklyn, living on Union Street and working as a journalist when he wrote his memoir Jail Journal; or Five Years in British Prisons. As the secession crisis heat up he eventually took his family down south, first to Tennessee and as the war went on to Richmond. Mitchel is testimony to the notion that life and humans are complicated; throughout his life he remained engaged in the Irish freedom struggle but was a staunch defender of slavery and the Confederacy. Mitchel was all in for the Confederate cause and all three of his sons served. Ironically two of the boys fought against the Meagher’s Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg in December 1862. One of Mitchel’s sons was killed in Pickett’s Charge near the Codori farm and another died while commanding Fort Sumter in 1864. The third, James, was wounded several times and lost an arm. Mitchel worked as a journalist for several Southern papers supporting President Davis. Ulysses S. Grant because a frequent foil after the general moved east in 1864. As the war wound down Mitchel escaped Richmond with Jefferson Davis’s entourage but was eventually captured and held at Fort Monroe before being released late in 1865. He soon became an editor with Benjamin and Fernando Wood’s New York Daily News, a Democratic vehicle that had given Lincoln much grief during the war and afterward turned it wrath on Reconstruction.
Mayor John Purroy Mitchel (center in top hat) and Cardinal John Murphy Farley reviewing St Patrick’s Day parade, March 17, 1914
John Purroy Mitchell was born in the Bronx in 1879, four years after his grandfather’s death. For reasons that are not clear to me, JP Mitchel was raised Catholic whereas his grandfather had been a Presbyterian. These were not small matters in Irish and Irish-American communities. I am assuming the Catholicism came from his mother’s side; the Purroys were Catholics who had come to New York City from Venezuela. I’m not going to rehash the Mitchel story here, though I probably will go into it more over the coming week as we get closer to Camp Doughboy. By the time he became mayor of New York City in January 1914 John Purroy Mitchel was thoroughly engaged in the Reform movement to clean up government. When war came later that year he was one of the earliest advocated for American Preparedness. It is intriguing to think of Mitchel being so actively engaged in the Preparedness Movement. Many Irish and Irish-Americans supported the Germans because they were fighting the British.
Like his grandfather during the American Civil War however, John Purroy Mitchel was all in for the Allied cause, eventually giving his own life on that Louisiana air field in July 1918. The world is indeed a complicated place.
(top image from The Citizen uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Domer48; bottom, Library of Congress)