Remembering Thomas Francis Meagher
Thomas Francis Meagher was born on August 3rd, 1823, in Waterford City in what is now the Granville Hotel on the Quay.
His father, Thomas Meagher (1796–1874) from Newfoundland in present-day Canada, was a wealthy merchant who had retired to enter politics. He was twice elected Mayor of the City, which he represented in Parliament from August 1847 to March 1857.
Meagher was educated at Roman Catholic boarding schools. When Meagher was eleven, his family sent him to the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare where he developed his skill of oratory, becoming at age 15 the youngest medalist of the Debating Society.
After six years, Meagher left Ireland for the first time, to study in Lancashire, England, at Stonyhurst College, also a Jesuit institution.
While Meagher was at Stonyhurst, his English professors struggled to overcome his "horrible Irish brogue"; he acquired an Anglo-Irish upper-class accent that in turn grated on the ears of some of his countrymen.
Meagher returned to Ireland in 1843, with undecided plans for a career in the Austrian army, a tradition among some Irish families.
In 1844 he travelled to Dublin intending to study for the bar. He became involved in the Repeal Association, which worked for the repeal of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. Meagher was influenced by writers of The Nation newspaper and fellow workers in the Repeal movement.
The movement became nationwide. At a Repeal meeting held in Waterford on December 13th, at which his father presided, Meagher acted as one of the Secretaries. Any announcement of Meagher's speaking would ensure a crowded hall.
In January 1847, Meagher, together with John Mitchel, William Smith O'Brien, and Thomas Devin Reilly formed a new repeal body, the Irish Confederation also known as the Young Irelanders.
In 1848, Meagher and O'Brien went to France to study revolutionary events there and returned to Ireland with the new Flag of Ireland, a tricolour of green, white and orange made by and given to them by French women sympathetic to the Irish cause.
This flag was first flown in public on March 1st 1848, during the Waterford by-election, when Meagher and his friends flew the flag from the headquarters of Meagher's "Wolfe Tone Confederate Club" at No. 33, The Mall, Waterford.
Following the incident known as the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 or "Battle of Ballingarry" in August 1848, Meagher, Terence MacManus, O'Brien, and Patrick O'Donoghue were arrested, tried and convicted for sedition.
Meagher and his colleagues were sentenced to be "hanged, drawn and quartered". It was after his trial that Meagher delivered his famous Speech From the Dock.
But, due to public outcry and international pressure, royal clemency commuted the death sentences to transportation for life to "the other side of the world".
In 1849 all were sent to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania, Australia).On July 20th, the day after being notified of his exile to Van Diemen's Land, Meagher announced that he wished henceforth to be known as Thomas Francis O'Meagher.
Meagher accepted the "ticket-of-leave" in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), giving his word not to attempt to escape without first notifying the authorities, in return for comparative liberty on the island.
On February 22nd 1851, in Van Diemen's Land, Meagher married Catherine Bennett. Less than a year after his wedding in January 1852, Meagher abruptly surrendered his "ticket-of-leave" and planned his escape to the United States.
Meagher sent his "ticket-of-leave" and a letter to the authorities, along with notifying them he would consider himself a free man in twenty-four hours.
When he escaped, Catherine was in an advanced stage of pregnancy and stayed behind. Following Meagher's departure from Van Diemen's Land, their daughter was born, but she died at four months of age, shortly after Meagher reached New York City.
Meagher arrived in New York City in May 1852. He studied law and journalism and became a noted lecturer. His wife Catherine joined him for a while, but because of ill health, she moved to Waterford where Meagers family looked after her.
Catherine gave birth to Meagher's only child to reach adulthood: Thomas Francis Meagher, named after his father. She died in Ireland on May 12th 12th 1854, at the home of Meagher's father.
Meagher never met his son, who was raised by the senior Meaghers and relatives and remained in Ireland all his life.
In the United States, Meagher had become an American citizen and founded a weekly newspaper called the Irish News. Despite having close ties to the South, Meagher joined the Union side during the American Civil War as he disagreed with slavery.
Meagher began recruiting in newspapers urging his fellow Irishmen to join the Union army. On April 29th 1861, his recruits were enlisted as Company K of the 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York State Militia (the "Fighting 69th").
Under the command of Colonel Michael Corcoran, another leading Irish political figure, the 69th fought in the First Battle of Bull Run, a Confederate victory. Corcoran was captured, and Meagher succeeded him as colonel.
After Bull Run, Meagher returned to New York to form the Irish Brigade.
In lectures, including a famous speech made at the Boston Music Hall in September 1861, he implored the Irish of the North to defend the Union. He was commissioned brigadier general to lead the Brigade in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
At the Battle of Fair Oaks in May, Meagher first led the Brigade in battle. The Union won a defensive victory, and the Irish Brigade furthered their reputation as fierce fighters.
But his regiment would suffer huge losses at battles such as the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Fredericksburg which led to some questioning his ability to lead.
Meagher was injured at the battle Antietam with allegations that he was drunk which caused him to fall off his horse, but the official report was that his horse was shot. Meagher resigned his commission on May 14th 14th 1863.
After the war, Meagher was appointed Secretary of the new Territory of Montana; soon after arriving there, he was designated Acting Governor.
Meagher attempted to create a working relationship between the territory's Republican executive and judicial branches, and the Democratic legislative branch. He failed, making enemies in both camps. Further, he angered many when he pardoned a fellow Irishman who had been convicted of manslaughter.
In the summer of 1867, Meagher travelled to Fort Benton, Montana, to receive a shipment of guns and ammunition sent by General William Tecumseh Sherman for use by the Montana Militia which had been set up by Meagher.
On the way to Fort Benton, the Missouri River terminus for steamboat travel, Meagher fell ill and stopped for six days to recuperate. When he reached Fort Benton, he was reportedly still ill.
Sometime in the early evening of July 1st 1867, Meagher fell overboard from the steamboat G. A. Thompson, into the Missouri river.
The pilot described the waters as "...instant death – water twelve feet deep and rushing at the rate of ten miles an hour." His body was never recovered.
There where many conspiracy theories about his death including been murdered by native Americans, confederates, and political opponents etc. By the late 20th century, John T. Hubbell suggested that Meagher had been drinking, and fell overboard.
Meagher was survived by his American second wife, Elizabeth "Libby" (née Townsend; 1840–1906). He was also survived by his second son by his first wife, Catherine.