Thomas Francis Meagher (August 3, 1823 – July 1, 1867) was an Irish nationalist, a Union Army general during the American Civil War, and American politician. In his younger years he was an Irish revolutionary, fighting for Ireland's independence from British rule. He was known as "Meagher of the Sword" due to his fiery revolutionary speeches. During this time Meagher introduced the flag that is now the national Flag of Ireland. In 1848, Meagher was convicted of sedition by the United Kingdom, and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to transportation to Van Diemen's Land (today the Australian state of Tasmania).
In 1852, he escaped to the United States and arrived in New York City. Once in the United States, he studied law, pursued journalism, and traveled presenting lectures. At the commencement of the American Civil War he joined the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of brigadier general, most notably forming and leading the Irish Brigade.
Thomas Francis was born in No. 19, The Mall, Waterford City, Ireland. His father, Thomas Meagher (1796–1874), was a wealthy retired merchant, who was twice Mayor of the City, which he also represented in Parliament from August, 1847 to March, 1857. He had been born in St John's Newfoundland, where his father, also Thomas (1763–1837), a Tipperary farmer had emigrated, at the turn of the century. There Meagher's grandfather became a trader, merchant, and shipowner, in the only British colony were the Irish constituted a majority of the population. It was here that Meagher's grandfather married Mary, née Crotty, and established his prosperous trade between St John's and Waterford City. Later, in Waterford, he would place his eldest son, Meagher's father, to represent his interests.
Meagher's mother, Alicia Quan (1798–1827), was the second eldest daughter of Thomas Quan and Alicia Forristall. She died when Meagher was three and a half years old. Meagher had four siblings; a brother and three sisters. Of his siblings, only his older sister Christine Mary lived past childhood.
Meagher was educated at Catholic boarding schools. His father regarded Trinity College, the only university in Ireland, as being both anti-Irish and anti-Catholic. At the age of eleven his family placed him in the care of the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare. It was at Clongowes that he developed his skill of oratory, becoming the youngest medalist of the Debating Society at age 15. These oratory skills would later distinguish him as a leading figure in Irish Nationalism. Though he gained a broad and deep education at Clongowes, he was not educated about the history of his country or matters relating to Ireland. After six years, Meagher left Ireland for the first time, to complete his education in England at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. After an attentive course of study, he would leave college with a reputation for developed scholarship and “rare talents.” While at Stonyhurst his professors had struggled to overcome his “horrible Irish brogue,” sending him home with an Anglo-Irish accent which grated on the ears of his countrymen. Despite his English accent and a "somewhat affected manner", his eloquence as an orator would soon lead his countrymen to forget his English idiosyncrasies. Meagher would become a popular speaker "who had no compare" in Conciliation Hall, the meeting place of Irish Repeal Association.
The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the 'Orange' and the 'Green', and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of the Irish Protestant and the Irish Catholic may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood.
—Thomas Francis Meagher: On presenting the flag to the people of Dublin April 1848
Meagher returned to Ireland in 1843, with undecided plans for a career in the Austrian army, a tradition among a number of Irish families. In 1844 he traveled to Dublin with the intention of studying for the bar, but Conciliation Hall on Burgh Quay, home of the Repeal Association held a greater attraction. It was while in Dublin that he met the writers of the The Nation newspaper and became a worker in the Repeal movement. At a Repeal meeting held in Waterford on December 13, at which his father presided, Meagher acted as one of the Secretaries. He soon became a popular figure on Burgh Quay, his eloquence at meetings making him a celebrated figure in the capital. Any announcement that Meagher would be speaking would ensure a crowded hall.
In June, 1846, Sir Robert Peel’s Tory Ministry fell, and the Liberals under Lord John Russell came to power. Daniel O’Connell simultaneously attempted to move the Repeal movement into supporting the Russell administration and English Liberalism. The Repeal agitation would be damped down in return for a profuse distribution of patronage through Conciliation Hall. On the June 15, 1846 Meagher denounced English Liberalism in Ireland saying that there was a suspicion that the national cause of Repeal would be sacrificed to the Whig government and that the people who were striving for freedom would be “purchased back into factious vassalage.” Meagher and the other “Young Irelanders” (an epithet of opprobrium used by O’Connell to describe the young men of The Nation) vehemently denounced in Conciliation Hall any movement towards English political parties, be they Whig or Tory, so long as Repeal was denied.
The “Tail” as the “corrupt gang of politicians who fawned on O’Connell” were named, and who hoped to gain from the government places decided that the Young Irelanders must be driven from the repeal Association. The Young Irelanders were to be presented as revolutionaries, factionists, infidels and secret enemies of the Church. For this purpose resolutions were introduced to the repeal Association on July 13, which declared that under no circumstances was a nation justified in asserting its liberties by force of arms. The Young Irelanders, when members of the association, had never advocated the use of physical force to advance the cause of repeal and opposed any such policy. Known as the “Peace Resolutions,” they declared that physical force was immoral under any circumstances to obtain national rights. Meagher agreed that only moral and peaceful means should be adopted by the Association, but if it were determined that Repeal could not be carried by those means, a no less honorable one he would adopt though it be more perilous. The resolutions would again be raised on July 28, in the Association and Meagher would then deliver his famous "Sword Speech".
Addressing the Peace Resolutions, Meagher held that there was no necessity for them. Under the existing circumstances of the country, any provocation to arms would be senseless and wicked. He dissented from the Resolutions because by assenting to them he would pledged himself to the unqualified repudiation of physical force “in all countries, at all times, and in every circumstance.” There were times when arms would suffice, and when political amelioration called for “a drop of blood, and many thousand drops of blood.” He then “eloquently defended physical force as an agency in securing national freedom.” Having been at first semi-hostile, Meagher carried the audience to his side and the plot against the Young Irelanders was placed in peril of defeat. Observing this he was interrupted by O’Connell’s son John who declared that either he or Meagher must leave the hall. William Smith O’Brien then protested against John O’Connell’s attempt to suppress a legitimate expression of opinion, and left with other prominent Young Irelanders, and never returned.
In January 1847, Meagher, together with John Mitchel, William Smith O'Brien, and Thomas Devin Reilly formed a new repeal body, the Irish Confederation. In 1848, Meagher and O'Brien went to France to study revolutionary events there, and returned to Ireland with the new Flag of Ireland, a tricolour of green, white and orange gifted by the French. The acquisition of the flag is commemorated at the 1848 Flag Monument in the Irish parliament. The design used in 1848 was similar to the present flag, except that orange was placed next to the staff, and the red hand of Ulster decorated the white field. This flag was first flown in public on March 1, 1848, during the Waterford by-election, when Meagher and his friends flew the flag from the headquarters of Meagher's "Wolfe Tone Confederate Club" at No. 33, The Mall, Waterford.
Following the incident known as the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 or "Battle of Ballingarry" in August 1848, Meagher, Terence MacManus, O'Brien, and Patrick O'Donoghue were arrested, tried and convicted for sedition. Due to a newly passed ex post facto law, the sentence meant that Meagher and his colleagues were sentenced to be "hanged, drawn and quartered". It was after his trial that Meagher delivered his famous Speech From the Dock.
While awaiting execution in Richmond Gaol, Meagher and his colleagues were joined by Kevin Izod O'Doherty and John Martin. However, due to public outcry and international pressure, the death sentences were commuted by royal clemency to transportation to "the other side of the world." In 1849 all were sent to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania, Australia). On July 20, the day after being notified of his exile to Van Diemen's Land, Meagher announced that he wished henceforth to be known as Thomas Francis O'Meagher.
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 gentleman to try better next time.
—Thomas Francis Meagher: Promising the judge before passing sentence
Meagher accepted the "ticket-of-leave" in Tasmania, giving his word not to attempt to escape without first notifying the authorities, in return for comparative liberty on the island. A further stipulation was that each of the Irish "gentleman" convicts were sent to reside in separate districts: Meagher to Campbell Town and shortly after to Ross (where his cottages still stand), MacManus to Launceston and later near New Norfolk, Kevin O'Doherty to Oatlands, John Mitchel and John Martin to Bothwell, O'Brien (who initially refused a ticket-of-leave) to the "Penal Station" on Maria Island and later to New Norfolk. Throughout his time in Tasmania, Meagher continued to meet clandestinely with his fellow Irish rebels, especially at Interlaken on Lake Sorell.
On February 22, 1851 Meagher married Katherine Bennett ("Bennie"). Katherine was the daughter of Bryan Bennett, a fellow convict. This marriage did not gain the acceptance of Meagher's fellow exiles, and soon after they were married Katherine became ill. Less than a year after his wedding in January 1852 Meagher abruptly surrendered his "ticket-of-leave" and planned his escape to America. Meagher sent a letter to the authorities, along with his "ticket-of-leave", notifying them that he would consider himself a free man in twenty-four hours. At the time of his escape, Katherine was expecting a child and stayed behind, since she was in an advanced stages of pregnancy. Following Meagher's departure from Van Diemen's Land a son was born, but died shortly after Meagher's arrival in New York City. The infant son is burried at St. John's Catholic Church, the oldest catholic church in Australia, in Richmond, Tasmania, Australia. The small grave is placed directly next to the church itself and has a plaque making reference to Meagher being an Irish Patriot and member of ther Young Irelanders.
Following Meagher's escape, Katherine was taken to Ireland. Eventually she was able to spend a short time in America with Meagher, before returning to Ireland in poor health. She died in Ireland in May 1854, at the home of Meagher's father.
Meagher arrived in New York City in May 1852. Here, he pursued law and journalism, and became a noted lecturer. Soon after, Meagher became a United States citizen. He eventually founded a weekly newspaper called the Irish News. Meagher and John Mitchel, who had also since escaped, published the radical pro-Irish, anti-British Citizen. After his escape, the question of "honor" was raised by Mitchel, among others. Meagher agreed to subject himself to a "trial" of American notables, and undertook to return to Van Diemen's Land if they held against him. The simulated court martial found for Meagher, and he was vindicated.
In 1856, Meagher married for the second time to Elizabeth Townsend, the daughter of Peter Townsend and Caroline (née) Parish of Monroe, New York. The Townsend family were wealthy Protestants, who did not approve of Meagher marrying their daughter. Eventually, the Townsend family relented, Elizabeth converted to Catholicism, and she and Meagher married. During this time, prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Meagher traveled to Costa Rica, in part to determine whether Central America would be suitable for Irish immigration, and also to write travel articles for Harper's Magazine. Prior to the American Civil War he was a captain in the New York State Militia.
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
Meagher's decision to serve the Union was not a simple one; before the onset on the war he had supported the South. He had visited the South to lecture, and was sympathetic to its people. Further, his friend John Mitchel supported the secessionists. However, Meagher and Mitchel split over the issue of slavery. Mitchel went to the Confederate capitol in Richmond, Virginia, and his three sons served with the Confederate States Army
On April 12, 1861, the first shots were fired at U.S. held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. This action by the South pushed Meagher into support of the Union cause. In lectures, including a famous speech made at the Boston Music Hall in September 1861, he implored the Irish of the North to defend the Union. He also began recruiting, taking out advertisements in local newspapers to form Company K of the 69th Regiment (which would be known as the "Fighting 69th") of the New York State Militia. One such advertisement published in the New-York Daily Tribune read: "One hundred young Irishman - healthy, intelligent and active - wanted at once to form a Company under command of Thomas Francis Meagher"
With the commencement of the war in 1861, Meagher volunteered to fight for the Union. He raised support for the Union's effort and he recruited a full company of infantrymen to be attached to the U.S. 69th Infantry Regiment New York State Volunteers. 69th on April 29, the regiment was added to Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell's Army of Northeastern Virginia. Colonel Corcoran but was captured during the Battle. Despite the Confederate victory, the Irish of New York's 69th fought bravely, winning praise from the media and support from the Irish of New York. Following the First Battle of Bull Run, Meagher returned to New York to form the Irish Brigade which he led with the rank of brigadier general (effective February 3) in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
In late May during the Battle of Fair Oaks, part of the Peninsula Campaign, Meagher saw his first battle as a brigadier general. The Union was defeated at Fair Oaks, but the Irish Brigade developed a reputation as fierce fighters. This reputation was solidified when the New York printmaker Currier and Ives published a lithograph depicting Meagher on horseback leading his brigade on bayonet charge. Following the Battle of Fair Oaks, Meagher was given command of a non-Irish regiment. This experiment was unsuccessful, and thereafter Meagher would only command Irishmen. Meagher's troops again became engaged during the Peninsula Campaign at the Battle of Gaines' Mill on June 27. The Irish Brigade arrived in battle after a quick march though the Chickahominy River, as reinforcements for Fitz John Porter's weakening forces. Later, this march and battle would be recalled by historians as the highlight of Meagher's military career.
The Irish Brigade suffered huge losses at the Battle of Antietam that fall. Meagher's brigade led an attack at Antietam on September 17 against the Sunken Road, which was referred to after the battle as "Bloody Lane", and lost 540 men to heavy volleys before they were ordered to withdraw. During the battle, Meagher was injured when he fell off his horse. There were reports that Meagher had been drunk, causing the fall. However, official reports from Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan indicated that Meagher's horse had been shot. This was not the first time that Meagher faced this accusation, as it was falsely reported that he was drunk at the First Battle of Bull Run. The high number of casualties, and the rumors of being drunk on the battlefield, lead to increased criticism of Meagher's command ability.
The Irish Brigade suffered its largest losses at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Brigade chaplain Father William Corby, in speaking of the brigade, said it was "a body of about 4,000 Catholic men marching – most of them – to death." Meagher led 1,200 men into battle, and "two hundred and eighty men only appeared under arms to represent the Irish Brigade" the next morning. Meagher was also wounded in this battle when he was hit in the leg by a cannonball. Meagher spent the next four months recovering from his injuries and took charge of his command three days prior to the Battle of Chancellorsville. After limited engagement at Chancellorsville, Meagher resigned his commission on May 14, 1863, over the Army's refusal to let him return to New York to raise reinforcements for his battered brigade. The brigade was 4,000 strong in mid–May 1862, but by late May 1863 it had only a few hundred combat-ready men left.
Following the death of another leading Irish political figure, Brig. Gen. Michael Corcoran, Meagher's resignation was rescinded on December 23 and he was assigned to duty in the Western Theater beginning in September 1864. He commanded the District of Etowah in the Department of the Cumberland from November 29 to January 5, 1865. Meagher then briefly commanded a provisional division within the Army of the Ohio from February 9–25, and resigned from the U.S. Army on May 15.
After the war, Meagher was appointed Secretary of the new Territory of Montana, and soon after arriving there was designated as Acting Governor. In this office Meagher attempted to create a working relationship between the territory's Republican executive and judicial branches, and the Democratic legislative branch. He failed, making enemies in both camps. Further, he angered many when he reprieved a fellow Irishman who had been convicted of manslaughter.
The Territory of Montana was created from the eastern portion of Idaho Territory in recognition of the influx of settlers following the discovery of gold there in 1862. When the Civil War ended, a flood of settlers entered the territory, in their quest for riches often ignoring U.S. treaties with the local Native American tribes. In 1867, the renowned Western explorer John Bozeman was reportedly killed by a band of Sioux, and several other attacks were made against the territory's settlers. Meagher responded by organizing a militia. He secured funding from the federal government to campaign against the Native Americans, but was unable to find the offenders, or retain the militia's cohesion. He was later criticized for his actions.
Meagher called Montana's first constitutional convention in the hopes of achieving statehood. In order to be accepted into the Union, Montana would require a written constitution to be approved by its citizens and the United States Congress. However, the territory did not garner enough support from its citizens to be admitted to the union. In addition, copies of the constitution were lost on their way to a printer and Congress never had the opportunity to review the document. Montana would eventually gain statehood in 1889, years after Meagher's death .
In the summer of 1867 Meagher traveled to Fort Benton, Montana, to receive a shipment of guns and ammunition sent by General Sherman for use by the Montana Militia. On the way to Fort Benton, the Missouri River terminus for steamboat travel, Meagher fell ill, stopping six days en route to recuperate. When he reached Fort Benton he was still ill. Sometime in the early evening of July 1, 1867, Meagher fell overboard the steamboat G. A. Thompson, into the Missouri River. The pilot described the waters as "...instant death – water twelve feet deep and rushing at the rate of ten miles an hour." His body would never be recovered.
Meagher's death is considered by some to be suspicious. He was outspoken, and there were many who might have wanted to murder him. Some state that he had been drinking, and simply fell overboard. Others suggest that he may have been murdered by Montana political enemies, or by a confederate soldier from the war, and some supposed that Native Americans were responsible.
Meagher was survived by his second wife, Elizabeth Townsend (1840–1906) and was also survived by a son. There is a statue of Meagher, on horseback with sword raised, erected in 2004 on the Mall in his home city of Waterford, Ireland. He is remembered for his service to Montana by a statue on the front lawn of the Capitol grounds in Helena Meagher County, Montana was named for him, and a monument at the Antietam battlefield was dedicated in his honor. The inscription on the granite monument reads:
"The Irish Brigade commander was born in Waterford City Ireland on August 23, 1823, a well educated orator, he joined the young Ireland movement to liberate his nation. This led to his exile to a British Penal Colony in Tasmania Australia in 1849. He escaped to the United States in 1852 and became an American citizen. When the Civil War broke out he raised Company K, Irish Zouaves, for the 69th New York State Militia Regiment which fought at First Bull Run under Colonel Michael Corcoran. Subsequently Meagher raised the Irish Brigade and commanded it from February 3, 1862 to May 14, 1863 til later commanded a military district in Tennessee. After the War Meagher became Secretary and Acting Governor of the Montana Territory. He drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton on July 1, 1867. His body was never recovered."