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Mahony: Political Dissident, Prisoner of State

By Constance R. Cherba and Edward E. Deckert
8/29/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

In the early morning hours of August 14, 1862, U.S. Marshal H.M. Hoxie, his deputy and several soldiers made their way through the quiet streets of Dubuque, Iowa, toward the home of a well-known political dissident. Their target was Dennis Mahony, an outspoken critic of the Lincoln administration and editor of the Dubuque Herald, a leading Democratic newspaper in Iowa and the upper Midwest. Mahony attempted to raise the alarm as soon as the soldiers seized him by crying out “murder,” and Hoxie threatened to shoot him if he didn’t “cease making a noise.” Hoxie escorted Mahony to a Mississippi River levee, where they boarded the steamboat Bill Henderson to begin the journey to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C.

Six days earlier Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had ordered U.S. marshals to arrest and imprison any “person or persons who may be engaged by act, speech, or writing in discouraging volunteer enlistments or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or for any other disloyal practice against the United States.” Hoxie refused to show Mahony the order for his arrest, and Mahony was never given the trial to which he was entitled. His arrest and imprisonment stands as another example of the notorious abuse of civil liberties that took place during the Civil War.

Mahony was born in Ross, County Cork, Ireland, on January 20, 1821. At age 9 he immigrated with his parents to Philadelphia, where he attended grammar school. Later he studied law in the offices of Charles J. Ingersoll and worked as a journalist for local newspapers. In 1843 Mahony, his young Irish wife Margaret and their daughter Harriet moved west to Iowa, where he taught in Dubuque and Jackson counties. He continued to study law with the firm of Davis & Crawford in Dubuque and was admitted to the bar in 1847. He was immediately appointed justice of the peace in Jackson County.

In 1848 Mahony represented Jackson and Jones counties in the Iowa House of Representatives, to which he was elected three times. He served as floor leader of the Democratic minority, and also chaired the House Committee on Schools and the Joint Committee on schools of both houses, helping to draft the bill that became the public school law of Iowa.

In the fall of 1849, Mahony returned to Dubuque and became editor of the Miners’ Express, a pioneer newspaper, until resigning because of ill health. Three years later Mahony, in association with three partners, established the Dubuque Herald, a weekly newspaper that absorbed the Miners’ Express and eventually became one of the state’s first daily papers. In 1855 poor health forced Mahony to sell his interest in the Herald, but he repurchased the paper in 1860 and resumed his journalistic labors. His editorial voice reflected the opinions of Southern Democrats, and he became increasingly harsh in his attacks on Lincoln and the Republican administration.

Over the next two years Mahony used the Herald as a sounding board for his opinions. On October 11, 1860, he accused “unscrupulous” Republicans, including Lincoln and William Seward (later the secretary of state) of plotting to deprive “the people of fifteen states…of their inheritance,” or the right to hold slaves. Mahony anticipated economic hardship in Dubuque due to the interruption of Southern commerce, and on November 23 he levied a tirade against the recently elected Lincoln: “So much for electing a man—the exponent of personal liberty bills, nigger suffrage and equality, Beecherism, Stoweism, niggerism and a dozen other isms and tomfooleries upon which the entire North under the lead of Abolitionized Massachusetts has gone mad.”

Following the attack on Fort Sumter, Mahony published an editorial on April 13, 1861, that blamed the administration’s actions in goading the “rebellious brethren of the South into the commission of such acts of violence as must be repelled and chastised.” He went on to say the fanatics of the North were provoking civil war by inciting the slaves to insurrection. Day by day Mahony became more shrill in his editorials. He denounced Lincoln’s “usurpation” of Congressional power to enlarge the regular army, blockade ports, declare war and abolish post offices. He also faulted Lincoln for overruling Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and appropriating judicial powers to himself, comparing Lincoln’s government to despotism. He added that the president’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was an act so extreme that even the English Crown would not dare attempt it. Mahony probably had little idea what Lincoln’s suspension of the writ would soon mean for him personally.

Although Mahony voiced bitter opposition to the Republican government, he demonstrated loyalty to the Union and supported the soldiers in the field. He commended efforts to raise a local cavalry regiment, advised the citizens to welcome returning volunteers and defended his state’s loyalty to the Union.

In 1862 Mahony became increasingly convinced that the Lincoln administration had undertaken the war not to save the Union but to emancipate the slaves. Throughout July, the outspoken editor expounded his antiblack, anti-Abolitionist and antiwar statements. A few weeks later his arrest was cause for jubilation in the city’s Republican newspaper, the Dubuque Times: “This act of the government has been prayed and petitioned for by all the loyal citizens for many months and at last they have the satisfaction of knowing that the arch traitor of Dubuque is removed.”

Mahony was held in captivity for three months at the Old Capitol Prison. He conferred with Judge Charles Mason, a prominent Iowa jurist and Democrat living in Washington, who volunteered to represent him and attempted to attain his release— though he was unable even to obtain a specification of charges. A few days after his arrival, Mahony penned a long acceptance speech to be published in the Herald should he win the Democratic nomination for the Third Congressional District in Iowa (an election he would lose to William Boyd Allison). Although his correspondence was limited and censored, Mahony passed his time in the prison by keeping a journal of his confinement.

August 21, 1862. I was placed with my companion and fellow victim from Iowa, Mr. Sheward [editor of the Fairfield Constitution and Union] in Room No. 13. Sheward and I, according to custom, registered our names. This was done with a lead pencil on the walls. I [wrote] “D.A. Mahony of Dubuque, Iowa. A victim of partisan malignity and of the despotism of Abraham Lincoln.”

I did not sleep much as my bed was more than two feet too short and otherwise uncomfortable consisting of a very meager portion of old straw in a dirty tick laid on an elevated floor. During the night the challenges of the guards and their never ceasing repetition of “all right, No. 5” or “all right No. 6”—an unusual language for a civilian to hear—aided in keeping us newcomers awake. Our reflections, too, on our situation had more influence on us than sleep, courted as it was by our long journey from Iowa.

August 22, 1862. [Mahony wrote Secretary of War Stanton to ask why he had been arrested and demanded a trial.]…We were told that it was useless for us to write letters; nay, that the more letters we wrote to the authorities the worse it would be for us.

[Mahony also wrote to his wife.] My Dear Wife:…I am still as ignorant of the cause of why I am here as I was the day of my arrest….I do not know how long I am to be kept here or whether I will be removed to another place; but meantime, write to me here and have the Herald sent to me. Give my love to all our friends and kiss the little ones for me.

[Mahony continued in his journal.] We found that the building was crowded in every part of it. Even the yard was full, literally, of prisoners; and it was littered up with tents of which there were five, and straw, and filth so that there was no room to move about. The weather, too, was intensely sultry. Nothing but the providence of God preserved the prisoners from the natural effects of the filth, heat, and contact with each other. The first time I had occasion to obey the calls of nature, I was so disgusted with the sight of the place provided for that purpose, that my stomach sickened and I was compelled to turn away.—Oh! reader, reader, could you but know what we prisoners of State experience…what it is to be subjected to the horrors of the Bastille, you would not endure for a day the despotism which degrades American freemen to a far worse condition than the most criminal felon who has ever been convicted in our courts.

Our meals were served in Room No. 10 by a contraband named Bob who was blessed with a good share of human kindness. He took a great deal of interest in our welfare and procured us whatever came in his reach that was fit to eat. Indeed, we had reason to believe that he shared with us some of his own rations. Our breakfast consisted of bread and what was called coffee, but which smelled like stale dishwater. Dinner consisted of bread and what the prisoners called mule meat. It looked, when cooked, like a piece of thick sole leather, steeped in grease and fried. Of course, but little of it was eaten. Our supper was the same as breakfast.

August 23, 1862. Most of our time was spent sitting near the barred window looking out on the busy world and reflecting on our situation and the condition of our unfortunate country.

August 24, 1862. This being Sunday, the prisoners were informed by the Superintendent that there would be preaching in the yard and Room No. 16. In the yard a Secesh preacher prisoner would preach the Lord God according to Jeff Davis, and in No. 16 an Abolitionist, according to Abe Lincoln. The prisoners could take their choice. Most of the prisoners went to the yard, not so much to hear the preaching, but to take a little outdoor exercise.

August 27, 1862. The excitement in Washington became more and more intense as the news of [John] Pope’s defeat on the Rappahannock and his subsequent and consequent retreat towards Washington became confirmed….The continuous firing heard distinctly all day kept everyone in the Old Capitol absorbed in one thought, the battle which was going on.

August 28, 1862. The firing of heavy arms was renewed this morning and at a distance which judged by the sound was much nearer than it appeared for some days past. It was evident by the excitement observed in the city through the prison windows that a general alarm pervaded the people.

August 29, 1862. I addressed a letter to the President to-day informing him of my arrest and demanding a trial; also suggesting that the course of the Administration in making these arrests in the arbitrary manner in which they had been effected would only tend to raise up the people in hostility to the government. I told the President that he had no more right in law to cause [me to be arrested] in Dubuque, Iowa, and brought to Washington for trial or to be imprisoned without trial, than I had to order his arrest in Washington and have him taken to Dubuque and imprisoned there. The Superintendent told me after reading my letter that I had better not send it as it would do me no good and probably do me an injury, but I persisted nevertheless in having it sent. If the President did not receive it, it is because it was suppressed by his subordinates.

August 31, 1862. Hundreds of the inhabitants of Washington left the city yesterday, and more are leaving today in apprehension that the city will be taken by the Confederates, who are understood to be but a few miles distant. [The Confederates had won a crushing victory over Pope’s army at the Second Battle of Manassas on August 28-30.]

September 1, 1862. The road was thronged all day with vehicles carrying household goods and their owners away from Washington…apprehensions are entertained by the citizens and by the Federal authorities, that an attack will soon be made upon [the city]. Rumor says that General McClellan will be placed in command of the army for the defense of the Capital.

September 7, 1862. This is Sunday, the third since my arrest, the second of my arbitrary and illegal imprisonment. I slept late….A Yankee Abolition preacher named Spears and his wife were sent here today to preach their abominable trash to the prisoners. Mrs. Spears appeared before the audience with a forefinger to her nose, and eyed the crowd as no woman could but an Abolition she-male. She did not talk long as the crowd did not appear disposed to listen to her farrago.

September 8, 1862. Several [Confederate] prisoners have been brought here today from the neighborhood of Fredericksburg. Among them were some negroes. One of them a large intelligent spoken fellow was very anxious to see his master, who, having been paroled was not brought to the prison. I asked this slave whether he would go back to his master. “Yes, sir,” said he, “I don’t want to stay here; my master has always treated me well and I don’t want to leave him.” I may say from conversations I have had with nearly every one of the male contrabands around the premises that every one of them desires and designs, if he should have an opportunity, to go back to his master.

Mid October, 1862. My health was failing rapidly, so visibly so that two physicians that were in the room with me became alarmed at my situation. They voluntarily made an examination of me and the following is the result:

“We find that the bad health of Mr. Mahony is the result of continued confinement; and further we believe the disease which he is now suffering from (namely, incipient paralysis) is aggravated by his imprisonment, and a protraction of it will continue to effect him injuriously and thereby endanger his life.”

This had no effect on the tyrants that held me in subjection. Indeed, there is good reason that they would have been glad had death taken us out of their hands instead of being obliged to let us go at large again.

On November 10, 1862, Mahony was released from the Old Capitol Prison after signing a loyalty oath that included a clause forbidding him to sue any of the federal or state officials responsible for his imprisonment. Thousands of Democratic supporters in Dubuque welcomed their hero’s return, and cheering crowds pulled his carriage through the lighted streets to Washington Square, where he addressed the throng. Mahony resumed editorship of the Herald on January 1, 1863, and continued his attacks on Lincoln.

In late January he journeyed to New York to oversee the April printing of Prisoner of State, a book he had written describing his experiences. In May Mahony published Four Acts of Despotism, a discussion of the Tax Bill, the Finance Bill, the Conscription Bill and the Indemnity Act, which he characterized as “imperishable proofs of the despotism and tyranny of the Administration of Abraham Lincoln.”

Mahony was elected sheriff of Dubuque County in the fall of 1863 and again in 1865, campaigning on the issue of his exoneration. Upon completing his term, and following the sale of the Herald in 1866, he moved to St. Louis, where he established the Times, a Democratic daily. Shortly afterward he sold the Times and returned to Dubuque. In 1871 he again repurchased the Herald (now called the Telegraph), which he edited for eight years until his death on November 6, 1879, at the age of 58.

 

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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