- Jul 30, 2018
Thomas Francis Meagher was born on August 3, 1823 in Waterford City, Ireland. His father was a merchant and quite wealthy; he eventually retired from trading to go into the politics and was twice elected mayor of the city.
His family's financial situation enabled Meagher to study at Roman Catholic boarding schools in Ireland and England. From a young age, he showed great talent in oration, and at the age of 15, he was the youngest medalist of the Debating Society. While in England, he acquired an Anglo-Irish upper class accent.
Soon after his return to Ireland in 1843 to study law, he became involved in politics, specifically the Repeal Association which wanted to repeal the Act of Union which united Ireland and Britain. He first acted as his father's secretary, but soon gained popularity as speaker. Whenever he was announced to speak, the hall would be crowded.
For a while, the movement was peaceful, but when patronage was promised to silence the movement, the Association split. Meagher went with the Young Irelanders that continued working toward a repeal. In a speech – which would become known as the "Sword Speech" – he proposed on July 28, 1846 that physical force should be used to secure national freedom if peaceful means did not have the desired results. That speech, however, caused dissension within the Young Irelanders, and they split. Meagher and other like-minded activists formed the Irish Confederation.
In 1848, Meagher traveled to the continent to study the revolution happening in France at the time. He returned with a proposal for a new Irish flag, a tricolor of green, white and orange. With a few changes the flag is still flown today.
In August 1848, after a failed uprising by the Young Irelanders, Meagher and fellow patriots were arrested and faced trial. They were convicted guilty of treason and sentenced to death – meaning "hanged, drawn and quartered" because of a recently passed ex post facto law. After the trial, Meagher delivered another famous speech, the Speech From the Dock.
Trial of Meagher, Terence MacManus, and Patrick O'Donoghue, all sentenced to death.
Because of public pressure, the death sentence was eventually changed to imprisonment for life on "the other side of the world." In 1849, Meagher and his fellow prisoners were sent to Van Diemen's Land – Tasmania.
He was allowed relative freedom of movement on the island against his word not to try to escape without first notifying authorities. While in Tasmania, he secretly met with his fellow Irish rebels despite them all being in different districts. That Meagher never repented having rebelled showed in how he addressed the judge before his sentence:
My Lord, this is our first offense, but not our last. If you will be easy with us this once, we promise on our word as gentlemen to try better next time.
In February 1851, he married Catherine Bennett, daughter of a convicted mail robber. Less than a year later, when she was pregnant with their first child, Meagher escaped to the United States. Catherine stayed behind and soon after gave birth, but the child died about four months later in May 1852 – about the same time Meagher arrived in New York City. Catherine traveled to London and then further to Ireland where she lived with her in-laws. For a while, she and Meagher got to spend some time in America, and when she returned to Ireland, she was pregnant again but also in poor health. She gave birth to a boy who she named after his father, before dying in May 1854. Meagher never met his son; the boy spent his entire life in Ireland.
In New York, Meagher met, courted and eventually married in 1856 Elizabeth "Libby" Townsend. She came from a wealthy Protestant family but converted to Roman Catholicism.
Meagher settled in New York City, studied law and journalism, and published newspapers. He also became a noted speaker and received US citizenship. When traveling to Costa Rica – in part to determine whether Irish could immigrate to Central America – he wrote and published travel articles in Harper's Magazine.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was a captain in the 69th New York State Militia.
We all know Meagher fought for the Union, but before the war, he supported the South. He had lectured there and was sympathetic to the people. Furthermore, his friend and fellow Irish activist John Mitchel lived in the South, supported secession and had his three sons serving for the Confederacy. Meagher also was a Democrat.
It is not only our duty to America, but also to Ireland. We could not hope to succeed in our effort to make Ireland a Republic without the moral and material support of the liberty-loving citizens of these United States.
Thomas Francis Meagher on deciding to fight for the Union
Thomas Francis Meagher on deciding to fight for the Union
He recruited young Irishmen and they enlisted as Company K, 69th New York Infantry. The regiment's colonel was Michael Corcoran who was captured during the First Battle of Bull Run. Meagher succeeded him as colonel. The regiment was part of Sherman's brigade.
Afterward, he returned to New York to recruit more men to form the Irish Brigade. He lectured and implored the Irish of the North to defend the Union. Meagher's recruitment rallies and the Trent Affair enticed many Irish to enlist for the Union cause.
Meagher in the 1860s
Meagher was promoted to Brigadier General, effective February 3, 1862, and led the Irish Brigade – consisting of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Infantry regiments – in the Peninsula Campaign. In the Battle of Fair Oaks, the Irish established a reputation of being fierce fighters. Soon after, the 29th Massachusetts Infantry was added to the brigade, but the men were predominately "Yankee." When that didn't work out for everyone involved, the 29th Massachusetts Infantry was replaced by the 28th Massachusetts Infantry after the Battle of Antietam, another regiment of mostly Irish immigrants. The fifth regiment to join the Irish Brigade was the 116th Pennsylvania.
The Irish Brigade attacked the Sunken Road at Antietam, suffering heavy losses, and charged up Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg, again suffering immense casualties. The brigade was only lightly engaged at Chancellorsville. Meagher requested leave to recruit more men to fill out his reduced ranks (of the 4,000 men the brigade counted in May 1862, only a few hundred were left and combat-ready a year later), but the request was denied. In protest, Meagher resigned his commission on May 14, 1863. His replacement was Colonel Patrick Kelly.
After Michael Corcoran, exchanged from Confederate imprisonment, had died in December 1863, Meagher's resignation was rescinded. His new duty took him West where he commanded the District of Etowah in the Department of the Cumberland for a little more than a month and led a provisional division in the Army of the Ohio for about two weeks. He resigned, again, on May 15, 1865.
After the war, Meagher was appointed Secretary of the new Territory of Montana, and soon after arrival was designated Acting Governor. He tried – and failed – creating a working relationship between Republicans and Democrats, making himself lots of enemies. When Indian attacks on settlers increased, Meagher formed a voluntary militia after securing federal funding, but he failed to find the offenders and could not retain the militia's cohesion. He was criticized for his actions.
On July 1, 1867, Meagher disappeared. He had traveled to Fort Benson to receive a shipment of arms for the militia. In the early evening hours, he fell overboard from a steamboat into the Missouri. The ship's pilot described the waters as "…instant death – water twelve feet deep and rushing at the rate of ten miles an hour." Meagher's body was never recovered.
There are many theories and suspicions concerning his death: Some say he was killed, some say he had been drinking. Meagher had been accused of being drunk before, while commanding in battle. He got injured at Antietam because he fell off his horse, supposedly being drunk, and he also faced reports of being drunk during the First Battle of Bull Run.
Despite his political failings in Montana, Meagher was remembered by the founders of the Irish Republic as a great orator, and in 1963, President John F. Kennedy told the story of Meagher's Irish Brigade before presenting the brigade's battle flag to the Irish Parliament where it still hangs. Furthermore, various statues and monuments in Ireland, Montana, New York and Antietam had been erected in his honor.
Tattered flags of the Irish Brigade flying in a parade in New York. Flown by the 69th New York Infantry, which still exists today.
From Lines of Battle