John Mitchel was born to a radical Presbyterian minister, in Dungiven, Ireland, in 1815. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin and became a lawyer and journalist. An outspoken nationalist, his love for Ireland led him to establish the United Irishman newspaper in 1848, but his impassioned articles soon led to his arrest on a charge of treason. Found guilty, he was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania). In 1853 he escaped and made his way to the United States. He settled in the south where he published a newspaper, and gave three sons to the Confederate cause in the American Civil War.
His eldest son, Captain John C. Mitchel, First South Carolina Artillery, opened the barrage on Charleston’s Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 that started the American Civil War. Later, in command of that same Fort, he was killed during a Union barrage. His sword is in a glass case in a Charleston museum with a confederate flag, both gifted by his mother in 1896. A display plate reads: The sword worn by Capt John C. Mitchel, First Regiment, South Carolina Artillery and the flag that waved over Fort Sumter on July 20, 1864, the day he was killed. His dying words were ‘I willingly give my life for South Carolina. Oh, that I could have died for Ireland! Those words are also inscribed on his headstone in nearby Magnolia Cemetery, in a plot shaped in the outline of Fort Sumter.
His youngest son, Willie, joined the First Virginia Regiment and was killed in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 carrying his regiment’s colors. After the battle, members of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, learned from Confederate Irish captives that John Mitchel’s son had fallen on the field. They left a detachment behind to locate the body. It was discovered in a shallow grave wrapped in a blanket secured with three pins and a note attached that read, Willie Mitchel, son of an Irish patriot.
Captain James Mitchel was the only son to survive the war, but he lost an arm in combat. After the war he relocated north and settled in the Bronx, NY. He became involved in politics and became a City Fire Marshal. He went after and jailed a number of arsonist gangs who made a living hiring out to businessmen who wanted to collect on insurance claims. He thereby incurred the wrath of several big businessmen and he lost his job in a political feud. He married the sister of County Clerk Henry Purroy and they had one son. They named him John Purroy Mitchel after James father and his mother’s maiden name.
Meanwhile, old John himself returned to Ireland in 1874 and the following year was elected to the House of Commons from Tipperary. Denied his seat because he was considered a felon, he returned to his constituency and was overwhelmingly re-elected. However, he died before he could take his seat.
The last surviving male in the Mitchel line was young John Purroy Mitchel. Somehow, the family had become Roman Catholic and young John Purroy Mitchel was educated at Fordham University. Raised with the same strong sense of patriotism and civic duty that marked his father and grandfather, after graduating Law School, he became an incorruptible reformer fighting the graft of Tammany Hall. His successes led him to become the youngest man ever elected Mayor of New York City (1914-1917) at age 34. While in office Mitchel cut waste, improved accounting practices, and professionalized the city’s civil service by standardizing salaries and work guidelines for municipal employees. Widely known as the “Boy Mayor,” he also fought police corruption, instituted the nation’s first zoning guidelines, and appointed the first woman to lead a major municipal agency in any U.S. city.
After his term as Mayor, World War I was raging and young John joined the new Army Aviation Service. Sadly, Major Mitchel was killed in an accident during a training flight in Louisiana; he was only 38 years old. New York and the nation responded with a flurry of eulogies and memorials, including a Mitchel Square memorial park at 167th Street and Broadway and a memorial bust at the entrance to Central Park on 5th Avenue at 90th Street. The next time you end the NY St. Patrick’s Parade on Fifth Avenue, walk up a few blocks and check it out. Also named in honor of this beloved public servant and American patriot was Mitchel Field, a former Army Air Service airfield on Long Island from where Charles Lindbergh took off on the first trans Atlantic flight to Paris. As he flew over Ireland, I wonder if Lucky Lindy realized he was flying over the resting place of the grandfather of the man for whom his point of departure was named. Among the many eulogies given at Mitchel’s passing, President Theodore Roosevelt was moved to say, No stauncher American, no abler public servant, and no finer natural soldier than [John] Purroy Mitchel was to be found in all our country.
John Purroy Mitchel’s patriotism for America was a reflection of his grandfather’s patriotism for Ireland and his sense of justice was the same as his father’s. It seems that the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree.