Transatlantic Separatist Migration and the War of the Rebellion

By Dr. Niels Eichorn

On June 9, 1853 the Irish firebrand and 1848 revolutionary, John Mitchel rode into Bothwell, Tasmania, where he walked into the police station. The British authorities had convicted Mitchel and a number of other Irish revolutionaries to transportation. Instead of incarceration, Mitchel had promised to not escape and received a limited freedom of movement. Once inside the police station, Mitchel returned his “ticket of leave.” He and his companion were down the road before the police officers realized what had occurred. The escape from Van Diemen’s Land did not work out as planned, but by early October, Mitchel was in California. Like hundreds of other Europeans, Mitchel brought with him a heavy ideological baggage that would influence his decision making in the approaching secession crisis.

In contrast to previous presentations, Forty-Eighters were not a unified group that easily fit into a union-loving, liberty-embracing, and slavery-hating categorization. The individuals who departed Europe after failed revolutions in 1830 and 1848 were steeped deeply in the new nationalist ideologies of the nineteenth century. However, they also embraced an older political revolutionary language.

In 1688, the British Parliament, in explaining the vacancy on the British throne, noted “we may prevent all those miseries, which must needs follow upon the nations being kept under arbitrary government and slavery.” Similarly, Colley Cibber, a critic of King James II, argued that the old king’s intention was “to drive all England into popery and slavery.”[1] Obviously, this was not the chattel slavery we tend to think of today. Instead, this older uses of slavery referred to the fear of losing political rights, national sovereignty, or economic freedom. A people lacking those were no better than slaves.

When in 1848 the Hungarians rebelled against Habsburg rule, they initially insisted on the restoration of the kingdom’s ancient rights. On April 19, 1849, Hungary declared its independence. The “Declaration Relative to the Separation of Hungary from Austria” showed many similarities to its U.S. counterpart. The document charged, “The House of Austria has publically used every effort to deprive the country of its legitimate independence and constitution, designing to reduce it to a level with the other provinces long since deprived of all freedom, and to unite all in a common link of slavery.”[2] The Hungarian perception was that only independence could end Hungary’s enslavement and oppression at the hand of the Austrians.

European separatist-nationalists from revolutions in Ireland, Hungary, Poland, and Schleswig-Holstein brought this perception of enslavement by a political, aristocratic minority with them to the United States. Here, they faced a difficult challenge, how to translate their European experiences with national, personal, and political oppression into a country that had chattel slavery. In large part, the question became whether oppression originated in the United States from an imperial government in Washington forcing alien political ways on a southern minority or if a southern slave-owning aristocratic minority tried to force its opinions on the majority of the country.

Slavery did not translate easily across the Atlantic for these European separatists. Few sympathized with the plight of African-Americans on southern plantations. Instead, they worried about the power slave-holding aristocrats had in U.S. politics. Some separatists embraced slavery. For example, Ignatius Szymański relocated to New Orleans, where he purchased a sugar plantation and 30 slaves. He translated his Polish manor effortlessly into a Louisiana plantation, retaining an aristocratic persona.[3]

Worst among the European separatists in regard to slavery was John Mitchel. Mitchel defended slavery and promoted the reopening of the transatlantic slave trade, seeing slavery as an uplifting institution. “He would be a bad Irishman,” Mitchel claimed, “who voted for principles which jeopardized the present freedom of a nation of white men, for the vague hope of elevating blacks to a level which it is at least problematic whether God and Nature intended them.” Most troubling, the Irish exile wished, “we had a good plantation, well-stocked with healthy negroes, in Alabama.”[4] Mitchel drew much ire from abolitionists in the northern states, but southerners warmly embraced him.

Therefore, when the Civil War broke out, most European separatists faced a political and not a humanitarian or moral decision. In Davenport, Iowa, Miklós Perczel worried that secession “threaten[ed] the very existence of the republican form of government since the aristocratically inclined citizens of the pro-secession states would soon seek to establish a monarchy to ensure the security of their institutions.”[5] Similarly, Thomas Francis Meagher argued, “the South had been the ruling party. . . . The Southerner had become so accustomed to rule that he could not be reconciled to the will of the majority, constitutionally expressed, when that will took the reins of power from his hands.”[6] The concern over an aristocratic minority enslaving the country drove the majority European separatists to support the United States.

Once President Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms came, Alexander Asbóth appealed to his fellow Hungarians in the New York Times on May 3, 1861. Tying the cause of the United States to that of Hungary, Asbóth hoped a success in North America could benefit Hungarian independence. He worried that the success of secession “would be a triumph for all despots and the doom of self-government.” Hungary and all other people who fought oppression would suffer if the Confederacy succeeded. The Hungarian separatists had no sympathy for southern separatism.[7]

European separatist-nationalists came to the United States with a unique ideological baggage. Having struggled to free their nationality from oppression in 1830 or 1848, they employed a similar set of arguments to southern secessionists. However, translating their European language of enslavement into a country with chattel slavery was no easy task. While a few migrants embraced slavery and perceived of the United States as an oppressive regime destroying the sovereignty of the southern states, the vast majority of migrants saw a southern aristocratic minority intent on enslaving the country politically. European separatist migrants illustrate how difficult it was for immigrants to adjust to the secession crisis in the United States and translate experiences into their new home’s political environment.


Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. He is the author of two recent books , Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War  (2019) and  Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (2019). He has also completed a new small popular history on the Battles of Macon and is now working on a diplomatic history of the Civil War era.

[1] William III, “The Declaration [October 1688],” Colley Cibber, “Memoir of the Revolution [1740]”, reprinted in England’s Glorious Revolution, 1688-1689: A Brief History with Documents, ed. Steven C. A. Pincus (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 43, 49.

[2] István Deák, The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians, 1848-1849 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 261; Henry W. DePuy, Kossuth and His Generals: With a Brief History of Hungary (Buffalo, NY: Phinney, 1852), 203-204.

[3] “Tochman Kacper” in Studenci Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 219; Mark F. Bielski, Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War: Divided Poles in a Divided Nation (Philadelphia, PA: Casemate, 2016), 65-66.

[4] “John Mitchel’s Views on American Slavery,” The Liberator (Boston, MA), February 3, 1854; Aidan Hegarty, John Mitchel: A Cause Too Many (Belfast, UK: Camlane Press, 2005), 80, 88-89; James Quinn, John Mitchel (Dublin, Ireland: University College Dublin Press, 2008), 56.

[5] István K. Vida, Hungarian Émigrés in the American Civil War: A History and Biographical Dictionary (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2012), 50-51.

[6] “Thomas F. Meagher in Boston,” Daily National Intelligencer, October 2, 1861; Michael Cavanagh, Memoirs of General Thomas Francis Meagher: Comprising the Leading Events of His Career Chronologically Arranged (Worcester, MA: Messenger Press, 1892), 400, 404. 412.

[7] New York Times, May 3, 1861.