Private Willie Mitchel: An Irish Confederate Boy
Many who have read Irish history are familiar with the name
of John Mitchel, Irish revolutionary, Young Irelander, and publisher of The
United Irishman, who was born 182 years ago, on Nov. 3, 1815; however, many
are unaware of Mitchel's life in America. During the American Civil War,
Mitchel supported the Confederacy. Three of his sons served in the Confederate
army and two of them gave their lives in for that cause; one of them was
named , Willie.
FROM WILLIE MITCHEL'S early days at university in Paris until that fateful
July day by the Codori house on Gettysburg's bloody field, he and his tiny
box of insects were apparently inseparable companions. His colleague and
fellow infantryman, John Dooley, wrote fondly of Private Willie's relentless
pursuit of the intricacies of the special mini-life of bugs, beetles, butterflies
and bees. Bees Irish, Tasmanian. American. French. Southern. Drawn no doubt
by the service of his two brothers -- one with Beauregard at Fort Sumter
in the 1st South Carolina Artillery, the other in Virginia's illustrious
1st Infantry - Willie found irresistable the allure of active service in
a cause that mirrored Ireland's own battle with its more powerful neighbor.
Indeed, Willie's father, John Mitchel, himself was caught up in the Southern
cause, but by war's end the old rebel and his beloved Jennie Mitchel would
pay dearly for their commitment. Two sons would fall, one to lie forever
in an unmarked grave somewhere by the Codori farmyard scarcely a hundred
yards from the high water mark of the Confederacy; the other, Captain John
C. Mitchel, would lie in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery, the outline of the
plot a miniature of the famous fort in the harbor. Willie Mitchel and his
father vacated Paris in the autumn of 1862, John to become an editor on the
staffs of two Richmond newspapers, Willie to join the 1st Virginia where
his older brother, James was serving. John Dooley (author of a diary later
to be published as John Dooley, Confederate Soldier, edited by Joseph T.
Durkin, SJ, Georgetown U. Press) soon took on the role of Private Mitchel's
big brother, but the relationship came to a frightful end as Private Willie
Mitchel received a mortal wound while carrying the flag of his regiment (one
of several carriers on July 3, 1863) in Pickett's charge, just 200 yards
from the Confederacy's High Water Mark.
It could be argued that this obscure private bore the most recognizable
Irish name on the field that day,simply because of his father's universal
fame. In either army, the Mitchel name was known and revered by all of
those who knew and respected John Mitchel's very best friend, the founder
and, until recently, the commander of the Irish Brigade, Thomas Francis
Meagher. And for good reason: John Mitchel and Meagher were Ireland's most
famous rebels, Mitchel receiving 14 years of penal servitude just before
the Rising of 1848 (the British law was created ex post facto, specifically
to incarcerate John Mitchel), while Meagher would get the death sentence,
later to be commuted to exile in Tasmania. With other Irish rebels, Mitchel
and Meagher were expected to live out their lives there, among the aborigines
and English settlers, on the vast prison island of the evil empire. Mitchel's
family would later follow in the felon's track, but not for long. In 1853,
after a well-executed escape plan (not unlike that of Meagher, who had escaped
to America the year before) John Mitchel and little Willie, then only nine
faced the perilous voyage north to San Francisco and freedom.
But little did either Mitchel envision the equally perilous and fateful months,
less than a decade later, when America's sons would divide; the Mitchels
and Meagher to play out their own version of America'scivil war. But the
ties between Mitchel and Meagher were never broken. An indication of the
esteem in which Mitchel and his sons were held by the Irish of the Union
army is illustrated by the action taken by the men of Meagher's brigade when
they learned on July 4 that John Mitchel's son had perished in Pickett's
charge which they had witnessed from a point on the Union line about 250
yards south of the famous "copse of trees" that was the focus of Pickett's
Charge. Quite likely the sad intelligence came from Captain John Dooley,
who was wounded and now a prisoner, and who had witnessed the fateful wound
sustained by his friend, Willie.
As the Irish Brigade (now no longer commanded by Meagher) began the pursuit
of Robert E. Lee, with the rest of the Union army, it left behind Quartermaster,
Patrick M. Haverty, to find the body if Willie Mitchel, the Confederate volunteer.
Haverty never found the body, though a naval surgeon dispatched from Washington
for medical duty on the field, appears to have identified a hasty grave made
for the young hero. Reportedly, some Confederate companions found the body
and wrapped it in a blanket secured by three pins. To one of the pins was
attached a simple note, "Private Mitchel, son of Irish patriot."
Does that box of insects keep company with the bones of Willie Mitchel? Might a summer butterfly
flit across that burial ground? A bee in the Gettysburg glade below the Clump of Trees? What of
Jennie, that Irish mother who lost two of her rebel sons (so touchingly drawn in our own day by
Rebecca Moulder O'Conner, her Arizona-based biographer), making her way along the County
Down strand as a wisp of Irish breeze carries a tiny voice. Of Willie?
Jennie, who was supported by exceptionally generous Irish-American admirers, lived on thru the
century, passing away December 31, 1899. Her Celtic cross dominates a large family plot in
Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. Aside from her Confederate son, James, Jennie Mitchel
is surrounded by other Confederate heroes: Generals Archibald Gracie, General Zachariah C.
Deas, General Mansfield Lovell, and General Lloyd Tilghman. Nearby lies the body of the last
commander of the Irish Brigade, Brigadier Denis F. Burke, who fought in every campaign of the
brigade from the Peninsula to Gettysburg and Appomattox.