The Great Shame, and the bizarre career of John Mitchel
by Jack Neely
Last month I was drinking stout at a corned-beef-and-cabbage hoedown hosted by the Gay Street Hibernian Society, when attorney Arthur Seymour approached me and brought up a name I didn't expect to hear.
Some characters in Knoxville's history are so obscure and complicated I tend not to bring them up. I definitely don't expect anyone else to. Chief among them is John Mitchel.
One of the most radical Irish revolutionaries of the 1840s, Mitchel was a writer and editor connected to a radical group known as the Confederates. In 1848, just before the Uprising he had helped foment, Mitchel was arrested for publishing essays proposing railroad sabotage to disrupt the crown's troop movements. He wound up in a penal colony in Tasmania but escaped, later made his way back to Ireland, where, though still an unreconstructed Irish nationalist, he was elected to the British Parliament.
It was an adventurous life, no question. But what makes Mitchel hard to describe is that, in between escaping from Tasmania and returning to politics in Ireland, the same guy was a pro-slavery propagandist who lived in a nice big house in Knoxville.
I've nearly given up trying to describe John Mitchel. By the time you think you've finished describing him, your listener has already gotten confused about the beginning of your story or alarmed about its conclusion. Usually it's safer to leave John Mitchel out.
Most of what I've known about Mitchel is what I'd read in a rare 1888 tome in the lonely stacks of the McClung Collection. Even at the time of Mitchel's death, it seems clear from the newspaper articles of 1875 that only a minority of Knoxvillians remembered that he had ever lived here.
Anyway, Mr. Seymour mentioned he'd just read a new book by Thomas Keneally, the popular Australian author who wrote Schindler's List. The new one is called The Great Shame, and it's about the Irish diaspora of the 19th century, when famine and the British sceptre sent desperate Irishfolk to all corners of the world. Anyway, Mr. Seymour said that in this book there was a good deal about John Mitchel in Knoxville. I nearly dropped my stout.
I picked up a copy, astonished to find out that Mitchel's one of Keneally's main characters. The book even includes a picture of Mitchel I'd never seen, a Byronic portrait of an intent young man with spitcurls and long sideburns. Something about his eyes makes you think he's fidgeting about having to sit long enough for a photograph.
I dropped by the McClung Collection; it turns out Keneally himself spent an afternoon there three or four years ago. It's usually a very quiet place where elderly genealogists try to nail down the ancestor who will earn them a place in the First Families of Tennessee. But when word got around that the author of Schindler's List was amongst them, he ended up posing for pictures and signing autographs.
Keneally credits the McClung Collection in his new book. Then Keneally, the Australian Hollywood celebrity, tells the story of Mitchel in Knoxville with much more detail than I knew. Through one of the sources he cites, I found out a good deal more.
Mitchel arrived in town in early 1855, a turning point for him and for Knoxville, as the prospect of a railroad promised to boost the town from a shabby leftover of frontier days into something like a real city.
He arrived here as the dashing young Irish revolutionary, a 38-year-old national celebrity who had recently lectured in San Francisco and New York. Impressed by Northerners' hatred for Southerners, Mitchel began speaking of the South as "The Ireland Of This Continent."
Here he befriended Knoxville's intelligentsia, including Mayor William Swan, co-donor of Knoxville's new Market Square, and attorney/scholar William Gibbs McAdoo. From these two Mitchel got a hint of the variety of attitudes toward slavery, even within the pro-slave camp. Swan owned no slaves, but favored slavery as an institution. McAdoo did own inherited slaves, but wasn't ready to go to war to keep them.
Mitchel himself came to see the American sectional conflict as a mirror of the Irish nationalist movement; abolitionism seemed to him an Anglo-Saxon plot against the Celts. It's hard to know where he came up with that peculiar philosophy, but in early 19th century Ireland, when England abolished slavery in its colonies in the West Indies, the crown was still tyrannizing the Irish, pursuing policies that were sometimes like slavery but sometimes more like genocide. As millions of Irish died, unnecessarily, of hunger and disease, Irish revolutionaries came to resent what they saw as hypocrisy; some, including Mitchel, apparently came to resent abolitionism itself.
So after spending most of his own life as a second-class citizen, Mitchel chose to move to a place where a race other than his own suffered second-class status.
Mitchel and his family lived at the Lamar House on Gay Street for a while, then moved in with a downtown lady. Then, pursuing a dream of a rural homesteader, Mitchel moved to Tuckaleechee Cove, near present-day Townsend.
In both Knoxville and Tuckaleechee, some who heard of Mitchel's Irish nationalist fervor condemned him as a "Papist." He was, in fact, a Unitarian. Mitchel was taken aback by the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment he found everywhere in Americaa new hatred, for the most part, a reaction to the massive Irish immigration. Its best spokesman here was Parson Brownlow, of whom Mitchel enjoyed making fun. Whether the pro-slaver ever saw irony in his horror of anti-Irish prejudice is unclear.
Mitchel was disillusioned with farming, as almost all dreamers are. In early '56, he moved back to Knoxville and with Swan launched a strange journal called The Southern Citizen. Mitchel never owned slaves himself, and his wife Jenny didn't mind telling you she was against slavery, herself. But Mitchel arguedand maybe believedthat blacks were better off under slavery than in freedom, or in Africa. He favored re-opening the transatlantic slave trade.
Mitchel built a large house on the northeast corner of town, long before the neighborhood was known as Irish Town, in a tree-shaded area on the shores of First Creek. He called the house Nowhere Else. There he and his family lived for almost three years, on occasion entertaining other Irish exiles.
In late '58, Mitchel moved to Washington, D.C., hoping it would improve his magazine's distribution, but there it failed. He moved to Paris for a while, hoping to drum up another war against England.
When war came and Knoxville's first Confederate volunteer group was mustered in the spring of 1861, they called themselves the Mitchel Guards. The Knoxville Confederates' greatest hero was this escapee from a Tasmanian penal colony.
Mitchel's three sons joined the Confederate army; two were killed, the third seriously wounded. Mitchel became editor of the pro-secessionist New York Daily News, and was later jailed for railing against the Union. Regardless of what you think of Mitchel's philosophies, condemning the Union, in the North, after the final Union victory, took some chutzpah.
In 1874, Mitchel returned to Ireland, where after his 26 years' absence, he was still a legend. Tipperary elected him to Parliament, but Prime Minister Disraeli barred the former Knoxvillian because he was still a convicted felon. Mitchel died before taking his seat.
April 6, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 14
© 2000 Metro Pulse