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In the 19th century, John Mitchel advocated for Irish freedom in his native land, escaped from a British prison, fled to America and soon became a high-profile advocate for slavery — writing for Richmond-based newspapers during the Civil War.
That last part is why a plaque remembering him hangs at Fort Monroe, where he was locked up after the war ended in 1865 — the same time as former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The plaque, sponsored by the Virginia Press Association, was placed outside the Casemate Museum near his former cell in 1951, decades after Mitchel died.
The association and former Daily Press editor-in-chief Raymond Bottom Sr., — also its past president — dedicated the plaque to Mitchel. It calls him a “staunch supporter of the Confederacy,” and “a martyr to the effectiveness and influence of the printed word.”
Now, as Confederate monuments are being dismantled amid America’s reckoning with its racial history, including an arch honoring Jefferson Davis at Fort Monroe, the nonprofit group that represents hundreds of Virginia-based publications wants the plaque removed.
“We don’t want to leave it up. It’s appalling and shocking that they (officials at Fort Monroe) let them put it up,” says Betsy Edwards, the press association’s executive director. “I don’t know whose idea it was. I don’t think it reflects the Virginia Press Association today, but the VPA was reflective of the state at that time.”
Fort Monroe is the site where the first Africans arrived at the Virginia colony in 1619. It later earned the name “Freedom’s Fortress,” as the place where hundreds of enslaved Africans sought refuge and became a “contraband of war” camp.
Edwards noted it seemed odd that a plaque honoring someone who supported the Confederacy would be there. Fort Monroe officials agree the plaque should be removed from its current location, Executive Director Glenn Oder said.
“So that it can (be) placed in context with his imprisonment at Fort Monroe and not celebrating his staunch support of the Confederacy,” Oder said.
John Mitchel was born in 1815 in Ireland. He has long been viewed as a leading Irish revolutionary, said Robert Kelly, president of the Fort Monroe Historical Society and former historian at the Casemate Museum.
Drawing his research from multiple sources, Kelly said Mitchel came of age during the Young Ireland, Irish nationalist movement of the 1840s. He wrote for local publications against British rule. After advocating for insurrection, he was charged with treason and sentenced to serve 14 years at a penal colony in Australia. After five years, Mitchel escaped and moved to America in 1853.
Around the same time, in the waning days of the Great Potato Famine, millions of Irish had emigrated stateside. The part of the country one arrived in determined where one’s support fell, said John V. Quarstein, historian and expert on Civil War history.
“In Northern areas … you believed in keeping the Union,” Quarstein said.
Mitchel fell in love with the Southern agricultural way of life. Observing the growing conflict between the North and the South, he decided that “enslaved people in the South were treated better and had more comfortable lives than the Irish who were working long hours in the harsh conditions of factories,” Kelly wrote in an email.
Establishing himself in Tennessee, Mitchel began writing and lecturing in the South and later started The Southern Citizen newspaper in Knoxville. Mitchel wrote in favor of slavery and against what he called the oppression of the South by the North, comparing it to Ireland’s fight against England.
“He was an ardent supporter of Irish nationalism and freedom and equality and justice for his people,” Kelly said. “He saw parallels between the North’s efforts to harm the South’s way of life by restricting and ending slavery and Great Britain’s oppression of the Irish. He was convinced that slavery should be allowed to continue and even expand in the United States.”
Mitchel worked at numerous publications and did a great deal of pro-slavery writing for the Richmond Enquirer and the Richmond Examiner. The newspapers, which existed from 1804 to 1877, had various editors aligned with different political parties and were considered pro-slavery publications.
Following the Civil War, Mitchel moved to New York and wrote for a 19th-century version of the Daily News in New York, not associated with the current tabloid owned by Tribune Publishing.
While working there, Mitchel was accused of creating seditious articles against the Union, including advocating mistreatment of Union prisoners-of-war.
Mitchel denied those claims and would not condemn President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Instead he denounced the Union for imprisoning Davis at Fort Monroe, saying it would “make any reconciliation between the North and South impossible,” according to Kelly.
“Mitchel’s journalism career showed the power of the press in advancing revolutionary ideas, right or wrong,” Kelly said.
Jim Crow Virginia
National Newspaper Week historically begins the first week in October. And on Oct. 7, 1951, the Daily Press teamed with Virginia Press Association to unveil a plaque in Mitchel’s honor.
A captioned photo that accompanied an article on page 2 of the newspaper showed then-Virginia Press Association president Carl B. Knight delivering remarks. Joining him were military, representatives from various Confederate organizations, clergy, a rifle team and Bottom, then the editor-in-chief and a VPA past president.
The party assembled in front of a cell — the one in which Mitchel had been held for a little more than four months almost 90 years before.
The inscription gives brief details of his incarceration, just under four months from June to October 1865, which had a slight overlap with the incarceration of Jefferson Davis.
The rest of the inscription describes Mitchel as “fearless and courageous Southern journalist, staunch supporter of the Confederacy,” and “a defiant and unrelenting opponent of oppression, an indefatigable and uncompromising proponent of the Southern cause, a martyr to the effectiveness and influence of the printed word.”
The last line on the plaque has the dedication from the Virginia Press Association.
In the Daily Press article, Bottom described Mitchel as someone who “wrote boldly in justification of the Southern cause and in bolstering the sovereignty of the Confederate states,” according to Daily Press archives.
Bottom further said, " ... it also inspires us now in a world more complex than his to hold, even at the price of liberty, to the sacred right with which a free press is entrusted — to criticize where criticism is due to speak out for the right and defend the oppressed and seek ever the truth.”
The Bottom family and its partners, the Van Buren family, which managed its sister publication the Times-Herald, had been connected to the Daily Press for some 90 years. The Tribune Company bought the newspaper in 1986.
The plaque unveiling happened in the same year the Casemate Museum opened. Fort Monroe was an active military post and not yet named a historic landmark or listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The time in Virginia’s history was the precursor of the Civil Rights era, Quarstein said. It was years before desegregation in education began in earnest following the landmark civil rights case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The plaque had been mounted before the Massive Resistance campaign against desegregation unfurled across Hampton Roads.
“We were still living in a segregation society with all the history that we were being taught ... was being slanted toward a particular point of view,” local historian Calvin Pearson said. “The Confederacy history was still alive and well in 1951. It was not unusual to read about (or) see the history of the Confederacy and monuments and memorials that were erected in their honor.”
Fort Monroe has a history as a site where prisoners were sent, but there were some obvious contradictions.
“The construction of the Confederate memorial and monuments was to remind the people of color that they still had no rights,” Pearson said. “What’s amazing is that the Confederate States of America only lasted four years and yet hear we are in 2020 still arguing over who won the war and how it should be represented.”
Fort Monroe officials along with the National Park Service, which owns part of the 565-acre former military post, now said they will work together to tell a more accurate story.
“Prisoners such as Mitchel, and the commemorative artifacts that recognize them, should be placed in context,” Oder said. “Educating people on the timing of their placement and the groups that sponsored the memorial can tell a great deal about the attitudes of our country at the time.”
Edwards said the plaque is not needed to preserve the history.
“We believe in archiving the newspaper. They are the best record of the history. I would never go for destroying the newspaper, or any section of a history book,” Edwards said. “We don’t need that plaque. Taking the plaque down does not eradicate the history.”
Lisa Vernon Sparks, 757-247-4832, email@example.com
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