Thomas Francis Meagher

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Meagher, Thomas Francis, Irish nationalist and Brigadier-General in the United States service, was born in Waterford, where his father was a respectable merchant, 3rd August 1823. He was educated by the Jesuit fathers at Clongowes and Stonyhurst, and entered upon the world in 1843 with a reputation for rare talents and great oratorical powers. He early became a zealous Repealer, and with O'Brien, Mitchel, Davis, and others, joined the Young Ireland party. His fiery and impassioned eloquence stimulated the people to hope for a restoration of their national rights by force of arms.

In the spring of 1848 O'Brien and Meagher were sent as a deputation to France to congratulate the French people on the establishment of the Republic. On their return they were received by an enthusiastic meeting, and Meagher presented to the citizens of Dublin, with glowing words, an Irish tricolor flag — green, white, and orange. In May he was brought up for trial before the Queen's Bench in Dublin, "for exciting hatred and contempt against the Queen, and inciting the people to rise in rebellion." On the 16th the jury disagreed, as in W. Smith O'Brien's trial on the same occasion on a similar charge. The Habeas Corpus Suspension and Treason-Felony Acts having been passed, in July, Smith O'Brien, Meagher, Dillon, and a few others, unsupplied with arms or ammunition, and almost without plan of operations, took the field in Tipperary.

The struggle was short and decisive. Meagher was one of those arrested and, with MacManus and O'Brien, was tried at Clonmel for high treason, found guilty, and on 23rd October sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The capital sentence was subsequently commuted to penal servitude for life. On 29th July 1849, he was, with his friends O'Brien and MacManus, sent to Tasmania, where he was allowed considerable liberty, and married the daughter of a squatter. Early in 1852 he made his escape from the colony, and landed in New York in the latter part of May. He was tendered a public reception, which he declined to accept, because of his "country remaining in sorrow and subjection," and so many of his companions being still in confinement.

Meagher soon became a distinguished popular lecturer, and in September 1855, after preliminary study, was admitted to practise at the Bar of New York. Shortly afterwards he undertook an exploring expedition to Central America, and gave his experiences in a series of lectures, afterwards published in Harper's Magazine. He had already, in 1852, published a volume of his Speeches on the Legislative Independence of Ireland. On the secession of the Southern States in 1861, he threw himself with ardour into the support of the Union, and in a series of letters to the Dublin Nation endeavoured to impress his view of the case upon his fellow-countrymen, in opposition to Mitchel and other Irishmen who upheld the Confederates.

He raised a company of zouaves for the 69th New York Regiment, and after the battle of Bull Run formed an Irish Brigade. He was untiring in the cause of the Union: "Never," he declared, "never, I repeat it, was there a cause more sacred, nor one more great, nor one more urgent; no cause more sacred, for it comprehends all that has been considered most desirable, most valuable, most ennobling to political society and humanity at large; no cause more just, for it involves no scheme of conquest or subjugation, contemplates no disfranchisement of the citizen, excluding the idea of provincialism and inferiority."

He delivered addresses in different parts of the Union, urging his countrymen to rally under the Federal flag. On 18th November 1861 he left for Washington, with the first regiment of the Irish Brigade; and in February 1862 he was created Brigadier-General. In the ensuing operations his brigade specially distinguished itself at Fair Oaks(1st June 1862), and in the manoeuvres that followed the Seven Days' battles. At the battle of Antietam (16th September) his command played a prominent part. Greeley writes of "Caldwell's and Meagher's (Irish) brigade vieing with each other in steadiness and gallantry."

An eye-witness thus describes its services at the battle of Fredericksburg, 13th December 1862: "To the Irish division, commanded by General Meagher, was principally committed the desperate task of bursting out of the town of Fredericksburg, and forming, under the withering fire of the Confederate batteries, to attack Marye's Heights, towering immediately in their front. Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, nor at Waterloo, was more undoubted courage displayed by the sons of Erin than during those six frantic dashes which they directed against the almost impregnable position of their foe... The bodies which lie in dense masses within forty yards of the muzzles of Colonel Walton's guns are the best evidence what manner of men they were."

Meagher was himself distinguished for his cool bravery. Of the 1,200 men he led into action, only 280 appeared on parade next morning. The annihilation of the brigade was completed at Chancellorsville, on the 3rd May 1863. There for two days and nights they held their ground in front of a line of defence, and on one occasion dragged into action a battery of guns, the horses and drivers of which had been killed. Five days afterwards Meagher tendered his resignation, on the ground that it was "perpetrating a public deception " to keep up a brigade so reduced in numbers, and which he had been refused permission to withdraw from service for a time and recruit." He was immediately appointed to the command of the Etowah district (his head-quarters at Chattanooga), with a force of 12,000 infantry, 200 guns on the forts and in the field, and a regiment of cavalry.

His district was overrun with guerillas, and he had to furnish supplies to divisions of the army through an unprotected country. On the conclusion of the war in 1865, he was appointed by President Johnson, Secretary (or Acting-Governor) of the territory of Montana, and until his death satisfactorily discharged the duties of the office. He was accidentally drowned off a steamer in the Mississippi, 1st July 1867, aged 43. His body was never recovered.

Sources

7. Annual Register. London, 1756-1877.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

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