The divided loyalties of John Mitchel

Between Two Flags: John Mitchel and Jenny Verner

by Anthony G. Russell

(Merrion Press, €19.99pb/ €65.00hb)

J. Anthony Gaughan

This latest book on John Mitchel (1815-75) highlights the life-long loyalty he enjoyed from his wife, Jenny Verner, his commitment to the American Confederacy of Southern States and support for the institution of slavery.

Jenny Verner was born in 1820 (she died in 1899) into an Ascendancy Armagh family, closely involved with the Orange Order. She first met John Mitchel at the age of 15. Their courtship was opposed by both families and they eloped unsuccessfully. After a second elopement they married in 1837.

After Mitchel qualified as a solicitor he and Jenny settled in Newry. They moved to Dublin in 1845 when Mitchel was appointed assistant editor of The Nation. Their house in Rathmines became a meeting place for Young Irelanders, among whom the lively and intelligent Jenny was a great favourite. Totally supportive of Mitchel’s nationalism she helped with his work for The Nation. Later she worked as an editor and contributor to his revolutionary paper, The United Irishman.


In May 1848 when Mitchel was convicted of treason felony and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation she urged the Young Irelanders not to allow him to be taken away without a fight. After a three-year separation she embarked on a perilous journey to join Mitchel in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where in 1853 the last of their six children was born.

After Mitchel escaped in July 1853 Jenny and their children accompanied him to New York. There from 1853 to 1855 they resumed many of their old friendships with Young Ireland exiles. Subsequently, Jenny and the family followed the peripatetic Mitchel to an isolated farm in the Allegheny mountains in Tennessee, then Knoxville and finally to Washington DC. At this time Mitchel was publishing his pro-slavery newspaper the Southern Citizen. Like her husband Jenny supported the southern cause and its maintenance of slavery.

By 1860 Mitchel was in France and thence Jenny followed him. There she accepted the decision of her daughter to convert to Catholicism and enter a convent. She herself remained a practising Presbyterian.

In 1862 Mitchel decided to throw in his lot with the Confederate Army as the American civil war reached a critical stage. 


Already his three sons were on active service: John was involved in the attack on Fort Sumter at the beginning of the war and was killed leading its defence at the end of it; James and Willie were at Gettysburg; James though wounded survived the battle, Willie did not.

Mitchel evaded the Union blockade and when his health did not allow him to enlist in the army he joined an Ambulance Corps. Within months the redoubtable Jenny and her two daughters had also evaded the Union blockade and joined Mitchel in Richmond, the Confederate capital.

Later when Mitchel left with the retreating Confederate army Jenny and the family remained in the city even after the Union army captured it and set it on fire. After the war Mitchel went to Paris, where he acted as financial agent for the IRB.

However a year later he and the family returned to New York and Mitchel started another newspaper, The Irish Citizen (1867-72). In 1875 he was returned unopposed as MP for Tipperary, but died in March of that year. Jenny’s last office for her husband was to take his remains home for burial in Newry, Co. Down.

Mitchel acknowledged that the American civil war began because of slavery, but he claimed that the Confederacy was fighting, not for slavery, but the independence and rights of individual states.

However, his support for slavery was unambiguous. To the dismay of some of the staunchest supporters of the Confederacy he even advocated the re-opening of the African slave-trade!

It has been suggested that Jenny reluctantly supported slavery because her husband did so but her private letters suggest otherwise.

However, this support of the Mitchels for slavery did not prevent them from becoming – and remaining – icons in the pantheon of Irish nationalism.