In Search of Willie: Seeking John Mitchel’s Son After Pickett’s Charge

John Mitchel was an Irish revolutionary who had been deported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1848. He escaped to America in 1853 and settled initially in New York. Mitchel found himself increasingly disillusioned with the form of capitalism he felt was being practised in the Northern States, where large numbers of people lived in poverty. He moved South before the war, becoming a strong proponent of slavery and supporter of the Confederacy. His three sons all fought in the Confederate Army, and the youngest, Willie, participated in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. When Willie was reported missing in action, it precipitated an unusual alliance of the Northern and Southern Irish press as they sought his whereabouts. 

The area of Pickett's Charge, Gettysburg (Wikipedia)

The area of Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg (Wikipedia)

Early news of Willie being missing came on 13th July when the Richmond Daily Dispatch brought information on the casualties in the First Virginia Infantry. Willie was notable even then; he is the only non-officer to be mentioned in the initial list from Gettysburg:

‘The 1st Virginia carried in 175 men, about twenty five having been detailed for ambulance and other duty. They brought out between thirty or forty, many even of them being wounded. There is but one officer in the regiment who was not killed or wounded, and that was Lieut. Ballou, who now commands it. Col. L. B. Williams went into action on horseback and was instantly killed. He fell forward on being shot, and did not speak afterwards. His horse was hit three times. Col. W’s body is in the hands of the enemy. Among the officers we have ascertained the following losses: Company G, Lieut. Morris, comd’g, Capt. Langley was sick but went into the fight and was wounded; Lieuts Woody and Morris, all wounded; company B, color company, Capt. Davis, wounded and missing; Lieut. Paine, wounded; company C, Capt. Hallinan and Lieut. Dooley, both wounded and missing; company D, Capt. Norton, Lieuts. Reeve, Keiningham, and Blair, all wounded; company H, Capt. Watkins, Lieuts. Cabell and Martin, all wounded; company I, Lieuts Ballou and Caho, the latter wounded. Wm. Mitchell, son of John Mitchell, in command of the color guard of the regiment, is wounded and missing. Lieut. Blair, of company D, commanded the skirmishers. We have been unable to get a list of the privates killed and wounded.’ (1)

John Mitchel and his family were understandably desperate to hear news of their son. John’s position as a hero of Irish nationalism still carried weight among the Irish in the North, and allowed them to seek information Union soldiers might have on their boy. The New York Irish-American brought this request to the northern Irish community on 29th August:

‘A correspondent writes to us from Maryland requesting us to relieve the anxiety of an old friend by “communicating publicly the fate of Private William Mitchel, who fell on the field of Gettysburgh, killed or wounded.” If any of our readers can inform us whether such a person was among the Confederate prisoners taken at Gettysburg, or otherwise, we shall feel obliged by a communication of the facts as speedily as possible.’ (2)

However the Mitchels’ hopes were dashed in September. The Richmond Sentinel brought the news that John Mitchel and his family were dreading, weeks after the event:

‘We are sorry to learn that Wm. Mitchel, youngest son of John Mitchell, Esq., editor of the Enquirer, who was reported missing after the battle of Gettysburg, is now believed to have been killed in that hard-fought struggle. Young Mitchel was only eighteen years old, and is represented to have been a young gentleman of fine attainments, and an excellent soldier, and behaved with especial gallantry at Gattysburg. He has two brothers in the Confederate Service.’ (3)

The New York Irish-American, despite being a pro-Union northern newspaper, joined in the mourning for the Irish nationalist’s son, despite the fact that he had been a Confederate. On the 12th September they wrote the following eulogy:

JOHN MITCHEL’S YOUNGEST SON

‘We have received with sincere sorrow the intelligence that William Mitchel, the youngest of John Mitchel’s sons, fell mortally wounded on the battle-field of Gettysburgh, shot through the lower part of the abdomen. He was in the color-guard of the 1st Virginia regiment, and fell near the breastworks held by the 3d corps, in the last desperate charge which Longstreet’s troops made upon the position. He was a young lad of the highest promise, and never failed to endear himself to those with whom he was brought in contact, by the sterling goodness of his disposition and the many excellent traits of character he displayed. Few who remember the bright, open-hearted boy, who, three short years ago, was the life of a yet unbroken family circle in the vicinity of this city, but will join in the regret with which we now record his untimely fall upon a field where brother strove with brother in deadly conflict that could bring naught of good to either. Mr. Mitchel’s family have been sorely afflicted within a few short months. It is but the other day we had to chronicle the death of his eldest daughter in Paris; and now another of his children has gone to his last rest, far from home, and from the friends whose ministrations, at least, might have made lighter the steps that lead to the grave.’ (4)

News spread to Ireland of Willlie’s death, and was reported in the Dublin Nation of 26th September:

‘Amongst the sons of Ireland whose blood was poured on the slaughter-field of Gettysburg, was one whose fall will be learned with sorrow in many an Irish home. William Mitchel has given his young life in the cause to which his father early devoted his whole heart and his great intellect; and surely if there is to be at this moment a grief keener than all other in the parental heart of the brave exile, it is that the life of his second-born, so gallantly yielded on the battle-field, was not given, as Sarsfield said, “for Ireland.” to the Irish-American, of New York, we are indebted for the sad tidings which are conveyed in the following touching record: [There followed a reprint of the Irish-American eulogy]

Honor to the kindly heart that dictated , and the friendly hand that traced , those lines! Honor to the journal which, though within the Union lines, and consistently defending the Union cause, has not imitated those Irishmen who would depict John Mitchel’s son as fighting against Ireland, and “doing the work of Ireland’s foe!” it is mournful to think that over the bier of the young exile, thus bravely fallen as befitted his name and race, voices should be raised to poison against him the sympathies of his countrymen at home! But it cannot be done while faith remains and memory survives in the Irish heart. In the land for whose liberation his father staked his life as boldly as he at Gettysburg, young William Mitchel will, for his own and his parents’ sake, be mourned truly and lovingly. Ireland claims with equal affection her children in America, whether they be ranked under the Northern or the Southern banner; she claims with equal pride the gallant hearts who exhibit the ancient heroism of the race amidst the battlefield’s appalling scenes, whether they be “Confederates” or “Federals.” Whether they strike for North or South, they strike from a true man’s motive; they serve the free home of their adoption, and renew their claim to that proud testimony borne of their fathers of yore- “Always and everywhere faithful.” ‘(5)

Willie Mitchel’s death in Confederate service appeared to have united in mourning many Irish in the North and South as well as at home in Ireland. Many wished to extend their condolences to Willie’s highly respected father. This did not go unnoticed by the rest of the Northern press. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper recorded on 24th October:

‘The Irish papers mention with peculiar regret the death of John Mitchel’s youngest son, William, aged only 17, who fell fighting for the Rebels at Gettysburg. He was, by all accounts, a noble youth, and has evidently been sacrificed to his father’s insane desire to possess a plantation. Seldom has a man been more heavily punished for his apostacy than John Mitchel.’ (6)

Some papers, such as the New Haven Palladium, were even less charitable. They recorded the confirmation of Willie’s death briefly:

‘John Mitchel’s youngest son William was killed at Gettysburg. Pity it had not been the young man’s father.’ (7)

Willie Mitchel died during ‘Pickett’s Charge’, 150 years ago today. Though his father’s views on slavery and the South had divided many, his loss was widely acknowledged by the Irish nationalist community wherever they were based, be it North, South or at home. For John Mitchel worse was to come- his eldest son would later be killed while commanding Fort Sumter, mortally wounded where the war had begun in 1861.

(1) Daily Dispatch 13th July 1863; (2) Irish-American 29th August 1863; (3) Macon Telegraph 17th September 1863; (4) Irish-American 29th August 1863; (5) Irish-American 24th October 1863; (6) Frank Leslie’s 24th October 1863; (7) New Haven Palladium 17th September 1863

References

Richmond Daily Dispatch 13th July 1863. ‘Description of Friday’s Fight- The First Virginia Regiment at Gettysburg’

New York Irish-American 29th August 1863. ‘William Mitchel’

Macon Telegraph quoting the Richmond Sentinel 17th September 1863. ‘Wm. Mitchel’

New York Irish-American quoting the Dublin Nation 6th September 1863. ‘Fallen on the Battle-Field’

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 24th October 1863. ‘Obituary’

New Haven Palladium 17th September 1863. ‘John Mitchel’

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Categories: Battle of Gettysburg, Derry, Virginia

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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5 Comments on “In Search of Willie: Seeking John Mitchel’s Son After Pickett’s Charge”

  1. July 4, 2013 at 12:45 am #

    Damian, thank you for bringing so many stories to light that we would never have known otherwise. Few realise just what a great part the Irish have played in the histories of so many countries and conflicts.

    • July 4, 2013 at 9:13 am #

      Thanks! I would love to see far more in Ireland on the history of the diaspora, not just in the U.S. but also places like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. When you consider 35% of those born in Ireland lived abroad in 1870 it illustrates how central to the Irish story the diaspora is.

  2. July 26, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

    Here’s an article we have on our site about Willie Mitchel. The now defunct Irish Brigade Association out of NY city laid a wreath for him and other Irish Confederates at Gettysburg some 21 years ago now. My God how time flies. Here’s the article: http://thenewwildgeese.com/profiles/blogs/private-willie-mitchel-an-irish-confederate-boy

    • July 29, 2013 at 9:09 am #

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for sharing!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

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  1. Anna Lo backs Irish reunification and decolonization - Page 49 - March 25, 2014

    […] with 'Pvt Willie Mitchell, son of Irish Patriot" but today it now lies unmarked and lost. In Search of Willie: Seeking John Mitchel’s Son After Pickett’s Charge | Irish in the Am… Inasmuch as the Irish community in the US and Ireland grieved for him on that, I instead agree […]

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