Captain Thomas C. Fitzgibbon sat in the encampment of the 14th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in August 1862 when he took up his pen to write a letter to a close friend in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. In it, he addressed the core issues at the heart of the escalating conflict that tore apart the United States of America.
The Irish-born officer addressed his letter to Michael W. Morris, a pillar of the Irish immigrant community in Northeastern Pennsylvania. The two men had become close friends while establishing new lives in the United States in the late 1840s and 1850s. Morris originally settled in Wayne County before moving to Pittston and establishing businesses that made him into a pillar of that Coal Region community.
Fitzgibbon lived for a time Northeastern Pennsylvania before heading west to Michigan. He settled in Detroit, trying his hand at several businesses, including starting a short-lived newspaper for the Irish immigrant community in that city. When the Civil War broke out, Fitzgibbon made the decision to join the effort to save the Union. He felt he was duty-bound to serve the country that had taken him in and provided him with opportunities that were impossible in his native Ireland.
In Fitzgibbon’s letter to his friend Morris, later published in the Pittston Gazette in September 1862, the commander of Company B, 14th Michigan discussed at length the troubling issues that roiled a country torn apart by civil war.
He described that participating in the conflict saddened him. He felt depressed by the state of the nation and the war. But he had also become radicalized on the slavery question. Fitzgibbon, like many of his Irish counterparts, joined the Democratic Party when he arrived in the United States. This was the conservative party in the United States, but one that welcomed immigrants into their political fold. Fitzgibbon described himself as a “Douglas” Democrat, meaning that he subscribed to the political ideologies of Stephen Douglas, a powerful senator from Illinois. Douglas crafted the compromise policies toward slavery in the 1850s, including popular sovereignty in the western territories.
In Fitzgibbon’s telling, his introduction to the realities of slavery in the South made him into an abolitionist. He addressed the horrors of slavery directly: physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Southern enslavers. While fighting guerrilla units, Fitzgibbon encountered a Black woman and her child seeking refuge from the plantation where they were held in bondage. These experiences morphed Fitzgibbon from a conservative into a radical on the slavery question. He emphasized his point: “ABOLISH SLAVERY.”
As his letter went on, however, Fitzgibbon’s white supremacy, a common refrain among Union soldiers during the Civil War, appeared. The officer believed that African American men should not be recruited into the US Army, believing that if white men alone couldn’t restore the Union, that the government should not survive. Despite these sentiments, Fitzgibbon emphasizes that he believed the abolition of slavery should be immediately enacted and that his soldiers in Company B would refuse to hear about an end of the war that did not result in the destruction of slavery.
The 25-year-old officer also emphasized that his fellow Irish immigrants should take up arms for the Union cause. He believed fervently that the United States provided opportunities that were worth fighting and dying for in a noble cause. In this section of the letter, Fitzgibbon was speaking of the large Irish enclave in the Coal Region, many of whom expressed little interest in the war effort or the cause of the Union.
This letter is a remarkable document that provides a young Irish immigrant and soldier’s perspective on the most important issues of his day. He addresses them directly and with eloquence, giving us a document to better analyze the issues at the center of our nation’s bloodiest conflict written by a former resident of the Coal Region.
Letter from Captain Thomas C. Fitzgibbon
Headquarters, 14th Michigan Infantry,
Army in the field, Tuscumbia, Ala., Aug. 18, ‘62
My Much Beloved and Dear Old Friend: –
To you I am indebted and tender you my most sincere but insufficient thanks for a copy of the Pittston Gazette, which has followed me through Mississippi, and found me here. As there are many friends, besides a fond sister of mine in the historic valley of which you are a resident – friends I could not, even though I would, forget – the presence of the Gazette has touched the chords of memory and awakened in bosom the recollections of more peaceful and happier days.
I am sad, very sad betimes [sometimes]. Though continually in the presence of a treacherous and sleepless enemy, time is often given me to reflect upon the past, if not philosophize upon the future. When I contrast the happy state of our country then and now, and reflect that this grand and noble edifice dedicated to freedom, to glory, and to God, is being uprooted by the traitor bands of those who should be its guardians, you will not wonder that the heart of one whose every breath was a sigh for freedom, should grow dismally sad. But there is little use in indulging in an elegiac strain of reflection just now, but defy fate and fight our enemies – the common enemy of mankind and our country.
You have known me a sterling and unwavering Democrat of the Douglas school, and anything I may say or write now, you must accept as the result of experience rather than the dribblings of a politician or the essence of political sophism. When I tell you that I view this disaster or check to our National greatness as the just chastisement of our National sins, rather than the work of demagogues, you will, I know, be surprised.
So long as the evils of Slavery exist, so long and no longer will the vengeance of a just and offended God be visited upon us. [Emphasis in original] “Conservative” traitors at the North and polly-wog politicians may fret and fume about the safety or danger of the “peculiar institution,” but the choice of saving it at the sacrifice of our National existence today presents itself to the American people.
Our glory hereafter and happiness here, hinge upon its total abolition and eradication, and the sooner you of the North understand it the better for you and your country. When I see and have seen the brother and sister cohabit as strangers, I shudder at the thought that Gomorrah was a place of purity compared with these States wherein such has been and is tolerated. Here you find slaves as fair-skinned and beautiful as their owners. Owning hundreds of these creatures who are subject to base passions and lash; it is no unusual sight to see the master “confiscate” to his own base uses the comeliest and best looking of his “flock.” – The sons of this lecherous autocrat, governed by a like unbridled passion, comes in possession of this species in turn, and a like result follows. He, too, takes the handsomest of these slaves to himself, and being ignorant of the paternity of his “servants,” takes his sister to his embrace, and commits the double crime of using and enslaving his own flesh and blood!
And thus it follows from generation to generation. This I have seen in my daily marches and counter-marches through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. In the presence of the husband, the wife has been often dragged by her owner to satiate his bestialities! And yet, neither dare utter a word of reproach or complaint. Think of this, ye fathers and mothers, who view with horror the idea of interfering with the “rights” of those who set the laws of God and their country at defiance, and whose only aim and ambition is to build up an immense Slaveocracy, designed for the perpetuation of such crimes.
This glittering tomb – this cloca of lust – should not only be cleansed from off the face of our country, but the wide world. Being detached from my Regiment last week, with a hundred picked men, to hunt down the guerillas, who infest this country as a plague, painful sights frequently presented themselves to me.
Here and there emerging from a ravine or jungle came the poor, unpitied negro woman, in almost a state of nudity, in her arms dangled her child, its father having gone with the “Yankee” to enjoy the freedom God award but man denied him. There she had lain for days without food or drink, afraid her coming out would bring the blood-hound or the “butternut” upon her track. From her panting breast the innocent borne of her womb – born to a life of slavery and unknown horrors – drank its sustenance. No one saw or pitied her but Him who feedeth the young ravens.
This is no fancy sketch, written for the amusement or horrification of any party or person. It is the bitter truth as seen by a soldier who never asked to be excused from duty – who never turned his back upon friend or foe.
Let the Union be restored tomorrow as it was, and it would be but granting an armistice, not sufficiently long enough to allow us to polish our belts or sheath our swords. The element of decay and destruction would still remain and we would simply be postponing the settlement of a question which should be settled in blood by our children. Let us, then, for the sake of posterity, end this question as it should and only can be ended – ABOLISH SLAVERY.
The diversity of opinion on this question has cost the country much already. Some of our Generals in the field who looked behind the battlefield for promotion, were opposed to the adoption of the policy of manumission, whilst others carried the question further than it should or ever can be carried in this country. Put arms in the hands of manumitted blacks to fight for the Union, and you will drive as many brave and true patriots as there is in the nation out of it. If we of the North, have not white flesh and bone, and sinew, and blood sufficient to conquer and crush out this rebellion and its abetters, the sooner we go to the wall and resign to them the government of our country the more credit we will gain.
The great secret of success, or rather seeming success, of the rebels, so far, lies in their earnestness. We have been giving them a fair, stand up fight, they have played the rough-and-tumble. They embraced, and never allowed the least advantage to escape. When we beat and knocked them down, we folded our arms and not only allowed them to get up, but recruit their strength: per contra, when they “got us on the hip,” they floored us, kicked us, cuffed us, and goaded us! Only that it would seem egotistic in me to say anything personally of myself, I could cite to you three well known occasions wherein bI gave battle to, fairly beat and routed three to five times my own number of their troops.
I have been engaged five times with my company, and never lost but two men. Mine is the largest, and reputed to be, the best drilled company in the Army of the Mississippi, and so vehemently determined are they in action, that they care little whether their enemy attack them in flank, rear or front. They will butt and bayonet a passage for themselves; and though like a majority of my countrymen, they are steadfastly democratic, I pity the man who would come amongst them to preach “Protection to Slavery.”
I never lost one by sickness or sorrow; I have 87 fit for duty, able and willing to shoot, shovel, and shout for the Union and country of their adoption and love. Our success is attributable to earnestness and determination.
If a rebel shelters himself from them beneath the roof of a house wherein are congregated the wives and daughters of his brother rebels, they must pass him out or “down comes their shanty.” They carry neither kid gloves nor commiseration for those who would surrender this noble land of ours to the misrule of foreign tyrants.
As those only who have been stricken with disease can thoroughly appreciate good health, so also can they who have felt the tyrant’s chain press into their souls, judge best of foreign domination, and appreciate the blessings of civil and religious liberty. To us Irishmen this struggle should be of greater import than even to the native borne, for since day first dawned and the world began, no nation or island has done so much for us as this Republic. Rally, then, one and all, to the standard that is untarnished by the commission of a foul act against you. Let no poltroon or back-door influence cause you to swerve from your path of duty. For myself, I thank God that either in life or death, my name, humble though it be, is and will be numbered with those who, forsaking home, family, kindred and friends, braved the dangers of flood and field to save a generous and free nation, or perish in the attempt.
I have, I fear, importuned you with this long epistle; but being off duty today (being detailed as the field officer tomorrow) opportunity has been given me to unbosom a thought or two to an old and cherished friend. To receive a letter or newspaper from you occasionally, would be to me an oases in the desert of life. Thankful to you and the friendly editor of the Gazette, I conclude with a heart’s blessing upon you and the country in whose service I am now engaged.
Thomas C. Fitzgibbon,
14th Mich. Infantry, Army of the Mississippi,
To M.W. Morris, Esq.
Fitzgibbon mentions that he would be willing to perish in the attempt to save the United States. He did so. Thomas C. Fitzgibbon died in June 1865. He succumbed to wounds he received in battle while serving with General William Tecumseh Sherman in North Carolina. He lived long enough to see the end of the Civil War and passage of the 13th Amendment. But he did not live to see a fully reunited nation that he died to preserve.
Featured Image: Thomas C. Fitzgibbon in his US Army uniform and refugees from slavery behind US Army lines.
One thought on “A powerful letter on slavery and the Civil War from a one-time resident of Northeastern Pennsylvania”
I have often thought about the end of slavery, and how we missed an opportunity back then to have put into place guaranteed freedoms for those enslaved. Would we still have the problems we have today if we had done more to guarantee the rights of the black men back then?
Then I think, “Do we have men in power today that have the gift of vision in respects to what we can do today to solve a problem years from now?