Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher (1823 -1867)

Thomas Francis Meagher was born in Waterford City,  Co. Waterford, Ireland on August 3, 1823, the second of five children, to Thomas Francis Meagher Sr. and Alica Meagher née Quan.   Thomas  and a younger sister were the only ones to survive their childhood. The Meagher's, owners of a successful business and members of the City's political elite, lived in an old mansion on the Quay, now the Granville Hotel.

Thomas's father and grandfather were both named Thomas.

The Grandfather, who had emigrated to Newfoundland towards the end of the 8th century, to avoid arrest for his involvement in the 1798 Rising, married the widow of a businessman who owned a trading and shipping company. The Grandfather took over the business and established a branch in Waterford.

Thomas's father was born in Newfoundland in 1789. He relocated to Waterford in 1816 to manage the Irish branch of the family business. After having established himself as a successful businessman he entered politics and became the first post Penal Laws Mayor of Waterford City. He later served as a Member of Parliament representing Waterford City.

 Thomas's mother, Alica Quan, was the daughter of Thomas Quan, a part owner of one of the largest trading companies in Waterford. She died at the age of 28 when Thomas was three years old. 

Meagher received his early education at Mount Sion Christian Brothers School in Waterford City. At age ten he was sent to Clongowes Wood College in Clane, County Kildare. Clongowes Wood College was, and still is,  a Jesuit run elementary and secondary boarding school for boys.

Meagher was a talented student who spent a considerable amount of time in the college library poring over classical writings and volumes of ancient and modern history.  He was an excellent debater and orator who, at the age of fifteen, was the youngest medalist at the College's Debating Society.  His was also a keen student of Ireland's troubled history under British rule and was well versed in the intricacies of its politics, the personalities involved, their allegiances and the limits of their authority and  influence.

Despite his age and privileged upbringing he was greatly perturbed by the poverty and oppression endured by the vast majority of his fellow countrymen and women under British rule. He was impatient with Irish politicians who could not or would not effect change and appalled at the passivity of the Catholic Church in the face of such suffering. By the time he left Clongowes Wood, at the age of sixteen, he harbored a deep resentment for the British; a resentment that would later culminate in insurrection, imprisonment and exile.

After completing his studies at Clongowes Wood,  Meagher enrolled at the prestigious Jesuits Stonyhurst College, in Lancashire, England to complete his education. Stonyhurst prided itself for its strict academic discipline and its classical and comprehensive curriculum. In  Meagher mind, fancied or not, he believed that the main focus of his teachers at Stonyhurst was not to educate him, but to rid him off his Irish accent. Despite the fact that he resisted their efforts during the four years he spent there he, nonetheless, left Stonyhurst with a distinctly British accent.  However, whenever he choose he could revert to his Munster accent, particularly when it annoyed his audience.

After returning home to Waterford in 1843 he took a sabbatical for a year to contemplate his future. His career choices were limited to the British army, a minor job in the civil service or the practice of law, an option that would require years of preparation and legal studies.  He choose the latter and headed off to Dublin where he entered his name in one of the Queens Inns, to receive the mentoring and qualifications needed for admission to the bar.

When Meagher arrival in Dublin in 1844 nationalistic fervor, led by Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Association, dominated the political scene. Although an admirer of O'Connell in his student days, Meagher's evolved philosophy  'Irish Independence' was more in line with that of younger member's of the Association including Charles Gavin Duffy, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon, the founding members of Associations newspaper The Nation.

The Nation newspaper, known for its literary prose and nationalistic fervor, was a magnet for young intellectuals, both men and women, who contributed articles and poetry to its pages. Meagher, who chafed at the deliberate suppression of recorded Irish history from an Irish perspective agreed to write a series of educational Irish history books including the "Williamite Wars" and "Orators of the Irish Parliament" that would be serialized in The Nation.

By 1846 O'Connell leadership of the Repeal Association was being challenged by younger members for lack of progress in achieving its stated goal -- the repeal of the Act of Union of 1801-- as well as O'Connell's support of the Whig party in England in exchange for political patronage liberally dished out to O'Connell's inner circle of friends and supporters. In June of 1846 Meagher made a number of speeches at Conciliation Hall, the headquarters of the Repeal Association, criticizing O'Connell for his support of the Whigs and his lack of action or concern for the suffering Irish people.

In July of 1846 O'Connell fearing that the younger members he dubbed  "Young Ireland" were moving towards the use of force asked the association's governing committee to affirm the associations "Five Resolutions" that required members to only use peaceful and political means to achieve their ends.  On July 27 matters came to a head in Conciliation Hall when 23 year old Meagher gave his  "Abhorring the Sword speech. The speech was interrupted by O'Connell's son, John, stating that either 'Mr. Meagher or myself must leave the Association"

The Young Irelanders led by William Smith O'Brien, John Mitchell left Conciliation Hall and the Repeal Association never to return.

After negotiations for a reunion  failed, the Young Ireland seceders founded the Irish Confederation.  The aim of the Confederation was "to revive the uncompromising demand for a national Parliament with full legislative and executive powers".  The aim as stated differed little from that of the Repeal Association other than its members were forbidden to accept patronage, government positions or to engage in any other type of activity that could harm the reputation or effectiveness of the organization.

In 1847 the "Great Hunger" that was ravaging Ireland was at its apex. Meagher and the Young Irelanders railed against the lack of action by the British overlords to alleviate the suffering of the starving people. In speech after speech Meagher  implored the British government and the Irish politicians for help --- all to no avail. 

In 1848  a series of revolutions swept the continent of Europe. The first of these occurred in February in France where people power ended the reign of Louis Philippe. The news from France gave hope to the Young Irelanders and the Irish Confederation who had given up on peaceful means as a way of achieving Repeal of the Union or relief for the starving people.

 In March, at a meeting of the Irish Confederation, Meagher championed the adoption of a message of congratulations to the French people. Afterwards he read a prepared speech that ended as follows; "If the government of Ireland insists on being a government of dragoons and bombardiers, of detectives and light infantry - then up with the barricades and invoke the God of Battles".

Within days of the speech Meagher was charged with sedition as was William Smith O'Brien who also spoke at that meeting. John Mitchel was also charged for publishing "seditious" articles in the United Irishman newspaper.  While out on bail awaiting trial Meagher together with Smith O'Brien and Edward Holywood were selected to go to France to convey the Confederation's congratulations to the new French Republic and to seek its support for an Uprising in Ireland. Their request for help was denied, however, they returned to Ireland with a tricolor flag of green, white and orange that was adopted as the official Irish flag in 1921.  

After arriving back in Ireland Meagher and Smith O'Brien traveled to the South of Ireland to urge their followers to prepare for war.

Alarmed by unfolding events in Europe and Ireland the British government's passed the Treason Felony Act to forestall insurrection in Ireland. Under the new law "sedition" would be punishable by death.

From the onset the planned insurrection was doomed owing to a number of factors, not least the devastation wrought by the ongoing "famine".  On August 12, of 1848 Meagher was arrested and charges with "High Treason".  He was acquitted of the earlier charge of sedition by the dissenting vote of the one catholic on the jury.

On October 21 Meagher was found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence handed down by Judge Doherty read as follows:

Thomas Francis Meagher, be taken hence from the place from whence you came, and be thence drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution and that --- you may be there hanged by the neck until you are dead -- and that afterwards the head shall be severed from the body -- and the body divided into four quarters and disposed of as Her Majesty may see fit.

Owing to public pressure the sentence was commuted to transportation and penal servititude for life. On July 9, 1849, together with William Smith O'Brien, Terence Bellew McManus and Patrick O' Donoghue  he boarded the Swift in Kingston (present day Dún Laoghaire) bound for Van Diemen's Land, renamed Tasmania in 1854. They arrived in Hobart Town three months later.  On their arrival they were granted Tickets of Leave (parole) which allowed them to exercise limited freedom.

Meagher, who was used to the good life, could not reconcile to the situation he found himself in. From the onset he was determined to escape. In the interim he settled down in a cottage on the shores of Lake Sorrel. In February of 1851 he married Catherine Bennett, the daughter of a man who arrived in Van Diemen's Land as a convict. The following April he set his escape plans in motion by resigned his Ticket of Leave, a matter of honor for men of honor. He avoiding arrest by out-distancing chasing constables to the coast where he boarded a small boat that took him to an uninhabited  island. After ten days on the island the Elizabeth Thompson picked him up, days later than originally planned.  He debarked the Elizabeth Thompson at Pernambuco in Brazil. After spending some time there he  boarded the brig Acorn for the remainder of the journey to New York. 

Before leaving Van Diemen's Land he had made arrangements for his wife, Catherine, to sail to Ireland and from there to the United States.

After arriving in New Your in May 1852 Meagher became an immediate celebrity.  In response to invitation from far and near he embarked on a series of  speeches, receptions and social engagements.  Where ever he went he drew large crowds to hear him relate to the situation in Ireland and why it should be free of England's oppressive rule. In 1853 a volume of  his speeches  "The Legislative Independence of Ireland." was published.  Despite his busy schedule he took time to study law and journalism.

His wife, Catherine arrived in the United States in July of 1853. By the following October she had returned to Ireland pregnant and in poor health. She died six months later giving birth to a son that Meagher never met.

In 1855 Meagher was admitted to the New York Bar, married Elizabeth Townsend and became a United States citizen.  He founded the Irish News, a weekly newspaper, in 1856 that continued publication until 1861.

In 1858 Meagher traveled to Costa Rica purportedly to assess its viability as a relocation destination for the poor and destitute Irish in New York   Costa Rica, at that time, was offering land grants to Europeans immigrants as an inducement to settle there.  In all, he spent over two years there, exploring its suitability as a relocation for Irish immigrants, writing travel related articles for Harper's magazine and representing U.S. business interests.

At the onset of the Civil War in 1861 Meagher, under the auspices of Colonel Michael Corcoran, raised a company of "Irish Zouaves" for the 69th N.Y. Regiment.  At the first battle of Bull Run  On July 21, 1861 the Regiment under the command of Colonel Corcoran and his officers was one of the few Union regiments to maintain order and discipline during the defeat and ensuing retreat to the defenses of Washington. Order was maintained despite the wounding and capture of Colonel Corcoran and the killing of Lieutenant Colonel James Haggerty. The Regiment served as the Army rear guard during its retreat.

After completing his initial term of duty in August of 1861 he applied for and was granted permission to raise an Irish Brigade of 5,000 men. In December of that year he was appointed Brigadier General of the Irish Brigade.

On the 18th November, 1861, he left New York for Washington with the first regiment of the Irish Brigade; the other followed in due course. They were encamped in the vicinity of Alexandria, Virginia.   The Brigades three regiments, under the command of  Meagher joined the Peninsular Campaign at the Battle of Fair Oaks on June 1, 1862.  It was during this battle that the Brigade, led by Meagher on horseback, gained its reputation for its fearlessness and fighting abilities.

The reputation of the Irish Brigade was reinforced at the Battle of Gaine's Mill on June 27 by their tenacity and bravery in the face of superior enemy forces. Under orders to cover the retreat of Union forces they marched through the retreating troops to the front line where they continued to engage Confederate forces until ordered to pull back. The Brigade continued to burnish its reputation as a fighting machine at the Battle of Savage Station on June 29 and at the Battles of Glendale and White Oak Swamp on June 30.

On September 17, 1862 at the Battle of Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg in Maryland, the Irish Brigade led by Meagher was ordered to try to clear four South Carolina regiments from protected positions on the Sunken Road, later know as "The Bloody Lane".  Although unsuccessful, the Brigade's attack gave supporting troops enough time to flank and break the Confederate position. The Brigade suffered 450 casualties during the assault.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862 the Brigade, led by Meagher assaulted the sunken road in front of Marye's Heights. Coincidentally, that section of the sunken road was defended by fellow Irishmen of Col. Robert McMillan's 24th Georgia Infantry. Of the 1,400 or so men who took part in the assault  545 became casualties

At Chancellorsville, Meagher and his Brigade performed their duty honorable and with courage. They held the line when the Union army broke into a disorderly retreat. They also retrieved an abandoned battery of artillery and guarded the rear of the retreating army.

The casualties suffered at Chancellorsville left Meagher with only the remnants of a Brigade.  Denied permission to recruit replacements, he resigned his commission and returned to his home in New York.

Towards the end of 1864 the War Department rescinded Meagher's resignation. He was assigned to duty in the Western Theater as commander of  the District of Etowah in the Department of the Cumberland from November 1864 to January 1865. Shortly afterwards he briefly commanded a Provisional Division within the Army of the Ohio. 

He resigned from the U.S. Army on May 15, 1865 after the end of the Civil War.

In June of 1865 Meagher met Captain Fisk who had led a number of pioneer wagon trains from Minnesota to the Idaho and Montana Territories. Meagher who, in 1858, visited Costa Rica to ascertain its viability as a suitable destination for Irish emigrants was now interested in the Montana Territory for the same reason. Having received letters of introduction from Catholic Hierarchy in New York he agreed to accompany Fisk's on his next wagon train west.  Shortly before he departed New York he was appointed  Secretary of the Montana Territory by President Johnson.

Upon his arrival the Governor of Montana Territory returned to the east coast without a timetable for his return. In his absence Meagher became Acting Governor. For the next 18 months he tried to broker a working relationship between the Territory's Republican led executive and judicial branches and the Democratic legislative branch of government; to no avail. 

In the aftermath of the Civil War many Irish born veterans migrated west to seek work in the Idaho and Montana gold mines.  Many of these veterans  were Fenians who openly touted their sympathies to the cause of Irish Freedom and looked to Meagher as a fellow traveler. This was not lost on an Englishman, Thomas Dimsdale, the editor of the Montana Post, who befriended Meagher on his arrival, but shortly started a campaign to discredit him.

In the summer of 1867, Meagher journeyed to Fort Benton to take possession of a shipment of guns and ammunition sent by General Sherman for use by the Montana Militia.  On July 1, aboard a Missouri River steamboat he, purportedly, fell overboard and was washed away. His body was never found.  How that happened is in dispute.  Many accounts question the prevailing assumption that he stumbled and fell overboard-- pointing out that he had many enemies not the least the British who did not take kindly to his earlier seditious activities in Ireland and his ensuing escape from Tasmania.  They may  also have concerns that the shipment of guns he was enroute to collect would be used by the Montana Fenian's to invade Canada as was happening in the east. 

Thomas Francis Meagher's death was a welcome development from a British standpoint

Click here to view a statue of  Meagher, on horseback with sword raised. The statue is located on the front lawn of the Capitol grounds in Helena, Montana.

Contributor: Tomás Ó Coısdealbha

Back to Biographies                                                                                                    Posted  07/15/2008   Updated 2/9/2015