Irish nationalists John Mitchel and Thomas Meagher were prewar supporters of Southern secession, comparing it to their desire for an Ireland independent of British rule. Oddly, Meagher was somehow converted to Northern sympathy, possibly from assurances that a victorious Union side would invade Ireland and free it from the hated English. One recalls the Fenians, mostly former Union troops, invading Canada in 1866. It is said the Northern government turned a blind-eye to this in retaliation for Canadian and British support of the Confederacy.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Irish and Southern Nationalists
“[John] Mitchel was a nationalist star among the Irish constellation of Confederate leaders. In Ireland, he was one of the greatest political writers of his age. Ina three-year period, 1845 to 1848, the iconoclastic Ulsterman used the hot lead of the press to exhort the Irish to violent revolution. Mitchel was the first leader of his generation in Ireland to openly advocate armed rebellion against Great Britain. Only the cold steel of the pike, he believed, would win Irish national independence.
During the same period Mitchel came to accept the political ideals that would be represented later by Southern nationalists in America. Among these ideals were self-determination and local control of government, an economy free from taxation and regulation by a distant and powerful central government, and trade policies that favored agricultural interests over industrial lobbies. While Ireland and the Confederacy traveled similar political paths, Mitchel’s journey to the American South was an arduous one.
True to his revolutionary ideals, Mitchel acknowledged the right of slaves to gain their freedom by force. Most notable among Mitchel’s comments on slavery was his negative reaction to the inherent hypocrisy of Britain’s abolitionist stance. The empire, Mitchel contended, had grown wealthy from the slave labor in its colonies while abolishing the slave trade at home. He carried this philosophy to the center of the slavery crisis –in America – in 1853.
On the dock to meet him [at New York] . . . was his rebel compatriot, Thomas Meagher. Meagher had been convicted for his part in the rising of 1848 [and escaped prison]. As prewar tensions rose, both men announced their sympathies for the Southern position. The two Irishmen adhered to the Irish nationalist orthodoxy that believed the South’s claim to the right of secession was tantamount to Ireland’s attempt to sever ties with Great Britain.
In Charleston [before the war, Meagher] delivered a speech that raised $800 to help build a monument to . . . John C. Calhoun. (Calhoun himself was the son of Irish immigrant Patrick Calhoun of Donegal, Ireland.) A staunch Democrat, Meagher stated as late as April 1861, “I tell you candidly and openly that in this controversy my sympathies are entirely with the South.” At that time, Meagher also felt the South had a right to secede. “You cannot call eight millions of white freemen “rebels,” sir. You may call them revolutionists, if you will,” he told a Republican Party acquaintance.
On the question of slavery, Mitchel thought it “the best state of existence for the Negro, and the best for his master; and if Negro slavery in itself be good, then taking the Negroes out of their brutal slavery in Africa and promoting them to a human and responsible slavery here is also good.” Mitchel’s view of slavery was one widely held by most Southerners of the period – a rationalization that since slavery existed in the world, American slavery was preferable to the African variety.
At that time, Mitchel was more concerned with what he saw as industrial slaves in [Northern] factories, and with the Know-Nothing assault on Irish Americans. He connected the Northern abolitionists with Know-Nothings and linked them with unscrupulous industrial barons in the North. The Northern industrialists, he contended, had no compunction about slavery when they purchased raw materials produced by Southern slave labor.
At the same time, he argued, many [New England cotton] mill owners exploited their own workers, especially immigrants, as if they were slaves. Mitchel believed the mill workers of New England were more in need of emancipation than the slaves of the South.”
(Clear the Confederate Way!, The Irish in the Army of Northern Virginia, Kelly J. O’Grady, Savas Publishing Company, 2000, excerpts, pp. 36-41)