By John E. Carey
Peace and Freedom
In one magical and sweeping moment, an Irishman that had been exiled from Britain for attempting to overthrow the King of England, approached the Governor of New York and asked his permission to raise and equip a body of troops. Practically all the volunteers would be Irishmen.
Thomas Francis Meagher, the controversial and flamboyant commander of the famed Irish Brigade (2nd Brigade, 1st Division,
Meagher (pronounced Mahr) was born in Waterford, Ireland, on Aug. 23, 1823. He grew up amid the Irish independence movement. He learned discipline and logic from Irish Jesuits at the Clongowes Wood boarding school in Kildare. He studied law in England at the Jesuit Stonyhurst College, where he honed his oratorical skills.
He became so convinced of the legitimacy of the violent opposition to oppression, and gave so many eloquent speeches detailing his logic, that he became knows as “Meagher of the Sword.”
Many, perhaps most of his contemporaries in Ireland, considered him a patriot and a hero. He became the spokesman of the independence movement. As famine destroyed Ireland and thousands departed for America, Meagher toiled tirelessly for his cause. Early in 1848, at age 25, he was brought before the bar of justice ostensibly for inciting revolt. He was acquitted by just two votes – in essence, a hung jury.
Later that year, implicated as a conspirator in the rebellion, Meagher was imprisoned, and charged with “levying war against the Queen” and “compassing [in this case, scheming or conspiring] the death of the Queen.” Despite his protestation that the jury had been packed, he was convicted and sentenced to death.Queen Victoria “graciously” ordered that the sentence should be “mitigated to transportation for life.”
Meagher was exiled to Tasmania off the coast of Australia. In 1852, he escaped and made his way to New York City, where he was greeted with a hero’s welcome by his countrymen.
Meagher Clubs were formed and he became a lecturer, co-founder of a journal called the Citizen, and founder and editor of the New York Irish News. He lived for a year in Central America, participating in a plan to put arailroad across Panama. He hunted big game. He spoke everywhere to enthusiastic audiences, becoming one of the best-known speakers of his day.After the death of his first wife, the handsome and eloquent Meagher courted Elizabeth Townsend, daughter of a wealthy New York businessman who tore up his will when he learned of his daughter’s intention to marry the firebrand Meagher. Nonetheless, they were married.
In the late 1850s, Meagher traveled through the South frequently, expressing sympathy for the Southern cause. He wrote editorials and campaigned for Democratic candidates. But as war broke out, he understood the need to bring Irishmen to arms in support of the Union. He knew well how the Union had accepted so many Irish exiles and poor immigrants. He knew the importance of America’s toleration for all religions and peoples.
“Duty and patriotism alike prompt me to it. The Republic that is the mainstay of human freedom, the world over, that gave us asylum and an honorable career, is threatened,” he wrote.
“It is the duty of every liberty loving citizen to prevent such a calamity at all hazards. Above all it is the duty of us Irish citizens, who aspire to establish a similar form of government in our native land.”
In 1861, he raised a company of “Irish Zouaves,” to be attached to the 69th New York militia. The colonel of the 69th, Michael Corcoran, was being court-martialed for insubordination at the outbreak of the war – having refused to march his men in a parade honoring the Prince of Wales. Corcoran’s trial dissolved amid the need to put troops into the field.
Meagher, 38 and a captain in the 69th, took his Zouaves along to Bull Run, where he attained recognition and praise in battle. A sergeant under his command wrote, there was “not on this continent a braver man than Thomas Francis Meagher.”
Mustered out at the completion of their 90 days of service, Meagher and many of his allies immediately set out to recruit a unit of Irish volunteers to serve for three years. In his appeals, he reminded young Irish immigrants that their ancestors, divided and unable to unify, had allowed England to conquer their homeland.
Meagher’s persuasive talents as a recruiter eventually led to the creation of the Irish Brigade: the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York regiments. The brigade later included the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania. In camp near Alexandria, Meagher and the Irish Brigade attained instant notoriety. Meagher adorned his headquarters with the skin of a jaguar he had brought home from Central America. The troops were well-drilled and finely turned out – but sometimes rambunctious and fond of their whiskey.
Meagher made St. Patrick’s Day an event talked about by the entire Army of the Potomac. Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker, when commanding the Army of the Potomac, was the honored guest at one celebration. Festivities began on the eve of the holiday, with the night of March 16 devoted to music and song.At dawn on March 17, according to Meagher’s biographer, Michael Cavanagh, preparations were made for Roman Catholic Mass.
“A new and elegant vestment had been purchased by the men for their beloved chaplain, Rev. William Corby,” he wrote.
After Mass, the brigade challenged units of the Army of the Potomac to athletic contests, followed by food and drink.The Irishmen carried green flags into battle alongside the Stars and Stripes. Their distinctive green flags were adorned with the harp of Erin embroidered in gold, “with a sunburst above it and a wreath of shamrock below. Underneath, on a crimson scroll, in Irish characters, was the motto, `They shall never retreat from the charges of lances.’ “The Irish were fighters, and Meagher led them in the Peninsula Campaign, and at Antietam, Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville.
Before Antietam, Meagher displayed again the leadership and sense of style he had established in camp. One of his officers wrote, “On Wednesday, September 17, 1862, General Meagher, gotten up most gorgeous in a somewhat fancy uniform, with a gold shoulder belt, was carefully brushed by an orderly, and remarked that `we’d all have a brush soon.’ And we had it.”
At Antietam, Meagher and the Irish Brigade achieved immortality. Attacking the Sunken Road, the Irish Brigade’s hard fighting became the stuff of legend. Wrote Brevet Brig. Gen. Ezra Carman of the 12th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, “The ranks of Meagher’s Brigade had been greatly thinned. The 69th New York had nearly melted away but a few heroic Irishmen were left, huddling about its two colors, when one of the enemy shouted from the Sunken road: `Bring them colors in here’; upon which the two color bearers instantly advanced a few steps, shook their colors in the very face of the enemy and replied: `Come and take them you damned rebels.’ “Brigade historian David Conyngham tells the story from a different angle:”The fight here was terrific. The rebels were entrenched and screened in the sunken road, all the time pouring a deadly fire into the advancing column of the Brigade. The green flag was completely riddled, and it appeared certain death to any one to bear it, for eight color-bearers had already fallen.”
According to Mr. Conyngham, with the green flag of the Irish Brigade in the dirt, “Meagher called out `Boys, raise the colors, and follow me!’ ” Capt. James McGee took up the colors, and “as he raised it, a bullet cut the standard in two in his hand; and, as he again stooped down, another bullet tore through his cap. He jumped up, waved the flag, shook it at the rebels, and cheered on the troops.”After seeing the Irish Brigade valiantly attack the formidable Rebel forces at Fredericksburg, Confederate Gen. George Pickett wrote to his fiancee, “The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. . . . We forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”At Chancellorsville, an unknown writer described the attack of the Irish Brigade:
“With Meagher at its head the brigade marched as coolly and steadily as if on parade. As we marched through the wood shot and shell were poured like hail upon us. When the General reached the end of the road he turned the head of the column and deployed into the woods. . . . Though the men were falling on every side, he boldly rode on . . .”
After Chancellorsville, Meagher intended to return to New York on a recruiting effort to refill his decimated ranks. Army leaders, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Gen. Henry Halleck, did not agree. They needed Meagher and his men in the field. The hot-tempered Meagher resigned over the dispute, and the Irish Brigade continued toward Gettysburg without him. It was an impetuous act, but not completely out of character for Meagher.
Meagher sat out the war from May 1863 until he was reinstated at the end of 1864. He actively campaigned for President Abraham Lincoln and Vice President Andrew Johnson during the 1864 election. His military glory days were over, however.
After the war ended and Lincoln’s death, Johnson appointed Meagher as secretary of the Montana Territory. Gov. Sidney Edgerton had been using personal funds to run the territory. Upon Meagher’s arrival, the governor departed for the East, never to return. Meagher served as acting governor through 1866 and into summer 1867.
In July 1867, Meagher fell from a riverboat during the night and drowned. His body was never recovered. Historians debate his death as an accident that befell either a drunken man or a man seriously impaired by illness.
A magnificent equestrian statue stands as a tribute to Meagher in Montana, far from any Civil War battlefield. He gave the nation the Irish Brigade – a unit filled with men who accredited themselves admirably throughout the Civil War.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee noted his respect for the Irish who served on both sides of the conflict: “The Irish soldier fights not so much for lucre as through the reckless love of adventure, and fights, moreover, with a chivalrous devotion to the cause he espouses.”
John E. Carey is a writer in Virginia. He is a descendant of the Corby family.