Discussion A True Southern Hero

John Hartwell

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The following is from a letter from an unnamed officer in a Massachusetts colored regiment (54th or 55th). A copy of the original is in the Hallowell Papers in the Mass. Historical Society, but it was quoted (along with a great deal more about this same individual) in Luis F. Emilio's, History of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-65.

"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 the 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 shells. 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 in his principles to inherit it. I write these things to you because they ought to be publicly known."​

According to some accounts, Mitchell was a one-time slaveholder himself, and relative of former S.C. governor Pickens.

South Carolina has much of which to be proud, and surely to have produced a man of such courage and integrity, AND the fact that despite the mistaken enthusiasms of the time a sense of justice and fair play enabled this naturally hostile jury could still be persuaded to come to come to a just and responsible verdict should be prominently remembered in that rich southern heritage. As a result of this verdict, free black soldiers (those who had never been slaves) were to be treated (at least officially) as prisoners of war.
 

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Patrick H

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The following is from a letter from an unnamed officer in a Massachusetts colored regiment (54th or 55th). A copy of the original is in the Hallowell Papers in the Mass. Historical Society, but it was quoted (along with a great deal more about this same individual) in Luis F. Emilio's, History of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-65.

"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 the 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 shells. 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 in his principles to inherit it. I write these things to you because they ought to be publicly known."​

According to some accounts, Mitchell was a one-time slaveholder himself, and relative of former S.C. governor Pickens.

South Carolina has much of which to be proud, and surely to have produced a man of such courage and integrity, AND the fact that despite the mistaken enthusiasms of the time a sense of justice and fair play enabled this naturally hostile jury could still be persuaded to come to come to a just and responsible verdict should be prominently remembered in that rich southern heritage. As a result of this verdict, free black soldiers (those who had never been slaves) were to be treated (at least officially) as prisoners of war.
A genuine hero in my estimation. This man's moral and physical courage is downright astounding when you think about it!
 


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