'Meagher of the Sword'
Burning ambition and the growing exodus of fellow countrymen led this fiery orator to America's shores and Manassas.
By Joseph E. Gannon
WGT Managing Editor
Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish nationalist. captain in the 69th New York State Militia at 1st Manassas, and Civil War general, was born in Waterford, Ireland, on August 3, 1823.
Meagher's family was among the more well-to-do Catholics in the country, allowing him to receive a better education than most Catholics at the time. Much of this education was, of necessity, in English schools and, as a result, Meagher was said to have developed an accent taken, by some at least, to be English.
No one who listened to what he had to say most of the occasions he raised that voice for any political speech later in his life were left with any doubt of his Irishness, however. Meagher's family expected he would practice law, but he took up politics instead, joining the radical Young Ireland Party.
In 1846, Meagher made a famous speech before Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Association when the Young Irelanders broke with O'Connell's party over the issue of the possible use of physical force to free Ireland from British occupation. In this speech, Meagher, then just 23 years old, took issue with the idea of never going beyond the more passive methods favored by "The Great Liberator" in struggling for Irish freedom.
O'Connell was the undisputed leader of the Irish people at that time. Indeed, although the term is more often associated with later 19th century politician Charles Stewart Parnell, O'Connell he was sometimes called the "Uncrowned King of Ireland." For a 23-year-old to stand before several hundred of O'Connell's followers and defy him was an act of incredible political, and perhaps even physical, courage. This speech was hailed around Ireland, especially for his use of "the sword" as a symbol of armed resistance to tyranny. Such eloquence as: "Abhor the sword - stigmatize the sword? No, my lord, for at its blow, a giant nation was started across the waters of the Atlantic, … the crippled colony sprang into the attitude of a proud Republic - prosperous, limitless, and invincible!" stirred the Irish people. The speech earned him the sobriquet "Meagher of the Sword."
In 1848, Meagher traveled to Paris with a Young Irelander delegation sent to congratulate the French republicans on their successful revolution. Inspired by the tricolor French flag, he came up with similar design for the Irish flag, with orange, white and green stripes. The colors symbolized the uniting of the two traditions, Protestant orange, and Catholic green, in one new nation.
Drawing of the young Meagher.|
On April 15, 1848, in Dublin, Meagher presented the tricolor national flag of Ireland to the public for the first time at a meeting of the Young Irelander Party. In 1916, Meagher's flag was revived by the Irish Volunteers and later by Sinn Fein. Today, it is the flag of the Republic of Ireland, though Meagher's version had the orange stripe closest to the staff, while the modern version has the green stripe to the inside.
In 1848, prodded by a British crackdown on the Young Irelanders, the party attempted a rising among a people then suffering through some of the worst ravages of "The Great Hunger," which the British called "Potato Famine." The rising had no real prospects of success, and was soon crushed.
Meagher and most of the other Young Irelander leaders were captured. Many, including Meagher, were sentenced to be "Hung, drawn, and quartered." The Queen commuted these sentences to exile, however, and they were all shipped off to "Van Diemen's Land," the island of Tasmania in Australia.
He might have lived a comfortable life there, as did some others among the Young Irelander leaders, but Meagher was still young, vigorous and very ambitious. He needed a stage, and looking to America, with its burgeoning Irish population, he must have recognized that there he would find a receptive audience.
In 1852, Meagher escaped to America. He quickly became one of the leaders of the exile community. As the slavery controversy began to divide the country in the mid- to late-1850s, Meagher's sympathies were with the South. But he and the vast majority of other exiles still interested in freeing Ireland, organized as the "Fenian Brotherhood," lived in the North.
The original color scheme of the Irish tricolor, with the orange near the staff.|
When Fort Sumter was fired on, Meagher quickly made the decision to support the cause of preserving the Union, saying, "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."
Meagher organized and led a Zouave company in the 69th New York State Militia. The fancy Zouave style uniform undoubtedly appealed to his love of ostentatious display. Meagher fought at 1st Manassas and was one of the last members of the unit on the field during that disastrous defeat.
On returning to New York, he became one of the chief organizers of the famous Irish Brigade. Meagher commanded the brigade through all its battles until early '63. He resigned his command when he was not allowed to recruit to refill the ranks of the battered brigade. Meagher was appointed temporary governor of the Montana territory after the war. On July 1, 1867 Thomas Francis Meagher died, downing in the Missouri River. That much is known, but the exact cause of that downing may never be known. At the time it was thought it was an accident, but information that has come to light in the years since has cast doubt on that conclusion. It is quite possible that he was murdered and cast overboard by enemies of his polices in the Montana Territory. Whichever is true, the life of one of the most remarkable individuals produced by Ireland in the 19th century came to an end that summer night.
||"But if you'd fill your glorious part,
And glance upon your work with pride,
An image true or Meagher impart,
Oh, place a shamrock o'er his heart --
For it he lived, for it he died.
-- From Thomas Francis Meagher by James J. Bourke
- Bilby, Joe and O'Neill, Steve, My sons were faithful and they fought: The Irish Brigade at Antietam : an anthology
, Longstreet House, 1997
- Bilby, Joseph G. Remember Fontenoy!: The 69th New York and the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War
, Longstreet House, 1995
- Boylan, Henry, A Dictionary of Irish Biography
, St. Martins
- Cavanagh, Michael, Memoirs Of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher: Comprising The Leading Events Of His Career
, OKessinger Publishing, LLC
- Condon, Edward O'Meagher, Irish Race in America: Bicentennial Edition
, Ogham House, Inc., 1976
- Hickey, D.J. and Doherty, J.E., A dictionary of Irish history since 1800
, Barnes and Noble, 1981
- Jones, Paul: The Irish Brigade
- Robert B. Luce, Inc. - 1969
- Tucker, Phillip Thomas, The History of the Irish Brigade: A Collection of Historical Essay
, Sergeant Kirkland's Museum and Historical Society, Inc., 1994
- Conyngham, Capt. D. P. The Irish Brigade
, New York: 1866. Reprinted by Olde Soldier Books, Inc.
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