“A Noble Southern Man”

Charleston, S.C., 1865

Today I came across a news clipping from the Boston Transcript, which covered the fall of Charleston in February 1865.  The paper reprinted a letter written by an officer in a Massachusetts regiment about a Charleston lawyer by the name of Nelson Mitchell.  Turns out that the story is fairly well known.  Luis F. Emilio also mentions Mitchell in his history of the 54th Massachusetts.  I suspect the author of the letter served in the 54th or 55th since it is contained in the Norwood P. Hallowell Papers.  One wonders where, if at all, Mitchell fits in with the Southern Heritage folks.

Dear Father,– A man died in Charleston about eight months ago, whose memory deserves to be cherished by every one interested in the issue of te war.  His name was Nelson Mitchell, a lawyer by profession, and from what I can learn, he and two or three others constituted the whole loyal force of the city.  Mitchell was an anti-slavery man by conviction, and from the moment Sumter first opened fire upon us, he never ceased to talk against the institution that caused the war.  Twice he was sentenced by secret commission to be hung, but each time he got out of his danger, because the authorities could get no one to do their secret work.  They were afraid to make their counsels public, because he was a man universally respected for his integrity, and so they tried and condemned him in secret.

After our black men were taken prisoner, a military court was convened to try them.  After a long trial it was concluded that the military had no jurisdiction in their cases, and the matter was handed over to the civil authorities.  When this was done Nelson Mitchell volunteered to be their counsel, and in face of a defiant mob he daily went to the court house and spoke his mind.  After great toil and delay Mitchell carried his point and by his eloquence and energy fairly drove this wretched South Carolina jury to do justice.  They decided that the case was one belonging to the military jurisdiction, each party shoving the responsibility off upon the other, until finally the men were released from danger and practically regarded as prisoners-of-war.  Dr. Mackey–one of the same stamp of men–told me that Mitchell always had the stars and stripes unfurled in his house and taught all inmates to show it homage.

Well, this noble man died eight months since, and on the day of his death his house was struck by one of our shell.  His name ought to be forever kept in memory by the blacks especially, and by all who have an interest in their redemption.  He did more for them–so far as actual courage is concerned–than almost anyone else, and his name ought not to die with him.  I have learned these facts from ample testimony of intelligent negroes and mulattoes, who speak of him with the utmost affection.  He died in great poverty, leaving two sons who had been trained i his principles to inherit it.  I write these things to you because they ought to be publicly known.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

14 comments… add one
  • Chris Oct 26, 2011 @ 9:26

    According to _Gate of Hell: The Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863_ by Stephen Wise, this is overblown. p. 127: “In later accounts, the story of the trial would become highly romanticized by reporters and writers. Nelson Mitchell would become a Northern hero who sacrificed his property and public standing to serve the captured African-Americans. These stories were not true. Mitchell was not ostracized by his fellow citizens during or after the trial.”

    There are no notes to that section, so I can’t track back to the sources for it, so I dunno as to its veracity, but there it is.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2011 @ 9:32

      Interesting, but that doesn’t help us with why a soldier would write such a letter home in February 1865. Clearly, these claims were being circulated at the time. Thanks, Chris.

      • BorderRuffian Oct 26, 2011 @ 11:48

        Claims? Letter by an unknown person in a newspaper. Just chalk it up as Union romanticism and let it go…

        • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2011 @ 11:51

          Really, Border? Is that the extent of your interpretive abilities? This is the first time that I’ve heard of “Union romanticism” before the war ended. Hilarious.

          • Miguel Hernandez Jul 20, 2012 @ 1:47

            The writer of the letter in question was Luis Fenollosa Emilio son of Spanish immigrant parents. Emilio served throughout the Civil War and was the CO of Company E of the famous 54th Massachusetts. He is the author of “A Brave Black Regiment” which was the basis for the movie, “Glory.” among the battles he participated in was the assault on Fort Wagner and he assumed temporary command of it when Col Shaw and several of the senior officers were killed, wounded or captured. He was about 21 years of age when he was mustered out of service at Wars end in 1865.

  • BorderRuffian Oct 26, 2011 @ 7:56

    “…Nelson Mitchell volunteered to be their counsel…”

    This document says he was appointed by Governor Bonham-

    This was the case -the only one I know of- where blacks captured in arms (while in US service) were to be tried for treason and possibly executed. Jefferson Davis advised against it.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2011 @ 8:24

      This was the case -the only one I know of- where blacks captured in arms (while in US service) were to be tried for treason and possibly executed.

      Yes, as we all know the Confederate military rarely needed a trial to justify the execution of black soldiers.

    • Michael Oct 26, 2011 @ 13:54

      I’m no historian; merely an interested lay researcher. But it is my understanding that the government and military of the CSA played a little game of “hot potato” when it came to the disposition of captured Union, black soldiers. To treat them as prisoners of war would be to admit that they were something other than “Negroes in arms,” i.e., Union troops deserving of the standard “rights” of POWs. The government of the CSA eventually made the decision to return them to their home states for civil disposition (usually meaning returned to slavery or executed for “insurrection.” This became a bit of a sticky wicket when the soldiers were from free states.

  • James F. Epperson Oct 26, 2011 @ 3:04

    A chapter in Urwin’s “Black flag over Dixie” tells of the trial, but does not make an issue of Mitchell’s Unionism, that I recall. In a footnote (#47), additional information (like the fact that Mitchell was a member of a committee of welcome for Jeff Davis) throws some doubt on this letter’s full accuracy.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2011 @ 4:15

      Andy Hall was kind enough to send along a newspaper clipping, which noted his role as an escort for Davis. That said, it’s not clear to me what that means for the claims in the letter. He definitely seems like an interesting character.

      • James F. Epperson Oct 26, 2011 @ 5:22

        I guess I am finding it hard to reconcile the letter’s claims as to Mitchell’s Unionism with being an escort for Davis. Since the latter is well-documented, I am forced to doubt the letter’s accuracy.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2011 @ 5:27

          I am wondering whether the story is more complicated than having to decide between unionism and a committed Confederate based on his serving as an escort. Of course, part of the problem is that I have no idea who wrote the letter.

  • Ray O'Hara Oct 25, 2011 @ 15:05

    many a lesser man has a statue.

  • Neil Hamilton Oct 25, 2011 @ 14:50

    This man’s story should be rightly listed under the words, “Southern Heritage,” vice all the nonsense of trying to cram those very same words under “Confederate myth,” or “Lost Cause” fantasy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *