In Ireland, he was known as “Meagher of the Sword” because he believed the only path to freedom from British rule was through violent action.
At age 20, he’d joined the Young Ireland Movement and took part in the Rebellion of the Young Irelanders of 1848 aimed at Irish independence.
Born in County Waterford, Ireland, in 1823, Thomas Francis Meagher led an adventurous life — from the potato famines and political unrest in Ireland, to punitive exile in Australia, the battlefields of the American Civil War and the western frontier of Montana.
On an 1848 trip to France to learn about revolutions, Meagher returned with a flag made by French women sympathetic to the Irish cause. It was the tricolor green, white and orange banner that would later be modified into today’s Ireland flag.
He raised the flag at 33 the Mall in Waterford, triggering swift conflict with the British authorities. The flag was pulled down and he was arrested along with 10 others.
Accused of sedition by an Irish court, Meagher and six other Irish revolutionaries were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but before they prepared the gallows and assembled the horses to pull them apart, public outcry was so great that the court commuted the sentence to spending the rest of their lives in Van Diemen’s Land — now Tasmania — an Australian island state that was then a penal colony.
Some accounts say Queen Victoria ordered the sentence commuted.
The others sentenced were William Smith O’Brien, John Mitchel, Terrance Bellew McManus, John Martin and Patrick O’Donohoe. All were herded aboard the cramped sailing ship Swift and headed for Tasmania — 11,000 miles away.
Conditions on board were terrible and many died on the four- to six-month journey — some severely weakened by scurvy, dysentery and fever.
“Convicts were taken aboard in chains and shackles,” according to an Australian report. “Once aboard these were unlocked. A hatch was opened and the convicts went below to the prison deck and the hatch was locked. Sometimes, however, they were kept in chains and behind bars even on board.
“In the early days discipline was brutal, with regular use of the lash. In later days, if the convicts misbehaved they would get ‘boxed’ — put in a small confined space in the bows, in which a man could neither lie down nor stand.”
Meagher and the others arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1849 and given “tickets-of-leave” (a document of parole issued to convicts who had shown they could be trusted with some freedoms — including working for wages) on the provision that no one tried to escape from their assigned living location. All accepted the ticket except Smith O’Brien, who was then sent to Maria Island colony for convicts on probation.
O’Meagher — who adopted the name prefix “O” — was confined to Campbell Town, later moving to a cottage on the shore of Lake Sorrell, 50 miles north of Hobart.
There, he would secretly meet with fellow Irish at a hut on the lake, owned by a local shepherd named Cooper; married Tasmanian Catherine Bennett, built a cottage on the shore of the lake, had a son who died in infancy, and plotted his escape from the penal colony.
In 1852, he escaped on board a whaling ship to San Francisco, then making his way to New York, where in the years following, he studied law, became a journalist and an American citizen and a leader of the Irish-American community supporting the Irish independence movement.
Two years after Meagher arrived in America, he was joined by his Australian wife, Catherine, who was not in good health. Four months later she left for Ireland, gave birth to Thomas Bennett Meagher and subsequently died.
Meagher never met his second son — Thomas Junior — who was raised by the family in Waterford and emigrated to America in 1872 at age 18 to find his fortune. He died in 1909 in Manila and is buried there.
In 1856, Meagher married Elizabeth “Libby” Townsend of a wealthy New York Protestant family who opposed their daughter marring an Irish Catholic. She converted to Catholicism; the family relented and she married him.
Always promoting the Irish cause, he and fellow revolutionary John Mitchel — who also escaped from Tasmania and came to New York — started the pro-Irish and anti-British newspaper “Citizen.” Meagher traveled to Costa Rica to determine if Central America was suitable for Irish immigration.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, he commanded the 69th New York State Militia, and later the Irish Brigade — leading them in the Seven Days Campaign at Fair Oaks and Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
He was promoted to brigadier general in 1862.
He did not lead the Brigade at Gettysburg, having resigned seven weeks earlier in protest to not being allowed to take leave and recruit new troops after his units were devastated in earlier campaigns. Col. Patrick Kelly led at Gettysburg. He personally recruited the 69th, 88th and 63rd NY Volunteer Infantry Regiments and participated in the Battle of Bull Run.
Immediately prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania Regiments were added to the “Irish Brigade” in the Army of the Potomac.
Meagher commanded the Brigade through the Peninsula Campaign — Seven Days Battles, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. When his requests for leave to recruit replacements for the depleted Brigade were denied, he resigned in protest on May 8, 1862.
Seven months later, he was recalled and assigned to the Western theater. Then he resigned for good in May 1865 — one month after Lincoln was assassinated.
Meagher is credited with arming the Irish Brigade with smooth bore muskets for close-range combat instead of long-range rifles — following George Washington’s tactic of using them.
With enemy troops advancing in tight-pack formation as they did in those days, the muskets were loaded with “buck and ball” .50 to .75-caliber shot fired with devastating effect at close range targets — much like a shotgun.
At Gettysburg, the Irish Brigade was armed with Springfield, Model 1842, smooth-bore muskets loaded with .69-caliber “buck and ball” shot.
After the Civil War, Meagher was sent to Montana Territory as acting governor and worked to help the territory become a state.
In the summer of 1867, Meagher was traveling to Fort Benton, Mont., (end of the Mullen Trail) to receive a shipment of guns and ammunition for the Montana Militia sent by Gen. Sherman. He fell ill during the trip and stopped for six days to recuperate.
On the night of July 1, 1867, at Fort Benton, he had allegedly been drinking too much while on board the docked paddle-wheeler G.A. Thompson and mysteriously fell overboard — never to be seen again. (Some accounts disagree that he had been drinking.)
John T. Doran the steamer’s pilot described the waters as “…instant death—water twelve feet deep and rushing at the rate of ten miles an hour.” They searched for hours but his body was never found.
To this day, no one really knows what happened, but there are many theories. Many reports blame whatever happened to his drinking. In 1913, a man claimed he was paid $8,000 to murder him, but later recanted the story.
Meagher no doubt had plenty of enemies in Montana who had strong feelings about the Civil War, slavery, the Indians, the Catholics and Irish.
One report says maybe an angry ex-Confederate soldier murdered the ex-Union general.
Murder was a credible option, “Given the circumstances in the region at the time and the men involved,” writes history journalist Timothy Egan in The Immortal Irishman. Others say he committed suicide due to depression, or was kidnapped by vigilantes.
The Irish who came to the United States in the 1840s to escape the Irish Famine and find a better life were not always welcomed, but scorned and faced widespread prejudice.
In a letter to his fiancé, Elizabeth Townsend written Jan. 2, 1855, he said, “I have fought my own way through the world and will fight it to the end. I am… a homeless exile, dependent on my own good name for a fortune.”
He indeed earned a good name in America — and played an important role in establishing the Irish as an important and honored part of the fabric of a new nation.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The design of the Irish flag was inspired by the 1848 Revolution in France, in which King Louis Philippe was overthrown. The blue, white and red of the French flag was flown alongside the Irish flag at gatherings here, in recognition of their achievement. It was a year of upheaval, as many revolutions took place in cities across Europe. An alternative theory suggests that the tricolour design was influenced by the flag of Newfoundland, Canada, where Meagher’s father was from.”
— Daniel Fortes, DublinTown
Thomas Francis Meagher’s father didn’t send him to Trinity College, Ireland’s only university, believing it was too anti-Irish and anti-Catholic. Instead, he sent him to the Jesuit Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England, to study — and get rid of his Irish brogue and learn to speak with a cultured upper-class Anglo-Irish accent. He became an exceptional public speaker.
Banner of peace?
“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,” said Thomas Francis Meagher in 1848 when he presented the new Irish flag to the people of Dublin. No brotherhood yet. An April 2018 report says, “Rioting and violence break out following an illegal dissident republican march in Londonderry. Five were arrested.”
Enemies in Montana…
Being Acting Governor of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Montana Territory was a rough assignment for Thomas Francis Meagher. There were many Southern sympathizers still agitated after the Civil War, and he was a Union general. He also advocated unpopular stands favoring voting rights for African-Americans and better treatment of Native Americans. Also, vigilantes roamed the territory to enforce their brand of law-and-order.
Meagher the recruiter…
General Meagher was a good recruiter for the Union Army. One ad he put 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.”
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