Thomas Francis Meagher

Thomas Francis Meagher

Meagher, Thomas Francis, was born in the City of Waterford, Ireland, on the 3d of August, 1823. At the age of 11 years he was placed under the care of the Jesuits, at Clongoweswood, County Kildare, where he displayed studious tendencies and oratorical talents. He was then sent to Stonyhurst College, in Lancashire, England, under the same order, and, after an elaborate course of general study, including classics, mathematics, history and literature, he completed his education in 1843. His first appearance in public life is thus described by Mr. D. B. Sullivan, M. P. : "Early in 1846, when the Repeal Association was still powerful, ere yet the country had ceased to throb to the magic of O'Connell's voice, a well featured, graceful young gentleman rose on the crowded platform, in Conciliation Hall, towards whom the faces of the assembly turned in curiosity. Few of them had heard of his name; not one of them - if the chairman, William Smith O'Brien, be excepted - had the faintest idea of the talents he possessed. He addressed the meeting on an ordinary topic, and at first, a seeming affectation of manner, a semi-Saxon drawl, and a total lack of suitable gesture, produced an unfavorable impression. He was boyish, conceited, and too fine a gentleman, the audience thought; but, warming with his subject, and casting off the restraints that hampered his utterances at first, he poured forth a stream of genuine eloquence, vivified by the happiest allusions, and enriched by imagery and quotations as beautiful as they were appropriate, he conquered all prejudices and received the enthusiastic applause of his audience. O'Brien complimented him warmingly, and thus the orator of Young Ireland made his debut on the political platform. When the 'peace resolutions' were introduced, Meagher found himself called on to subscribe to a doctrine which his soul abhorred, - that the use of arms was at all times unjustifiable and immoral, - and delivered a speech on that occasion, which for brilliancy and lyrical grandeur has never been surpassed. Alluding to O'Connell he said: 'I am not ungrateful to the man who struck the fetters from my limbs while I was yet a child, and by whose influence my father, the first Catholic that did so for two hundred years, sat for the last two years in the civic chair of my native city. But the same God who gave to that great man the power to strike down one odious ascendancy, and enabled him to institute in this land the laws of religious equality - the same God who gave to me a mind that is my own, a mind that has not been mortgaged to the opinion of any man or set of men, a mind that I was to use and not surrender... There are times when arms alone will suffice, and when political ameliorations call for 'a drop of blood,' and for many thousand drops of blood. ... The soldier is proof against an argument - but he is not proof against a bullet... It is the weaponed arm of the patriot that can alone prevail against battalioned despotism... Then I do not condemn the use of arms as immoral, nor do I conceive it profane to say that the King of Heaven - the Lord of Hosts! The God of Battles - bestows his benediction upon those who unsheathe the sword in the hour of a nation's peril. From that evening on which, in the valley of Bethulia, He nerved the arm of the Jewish girl to smite the drunken tyrant in his tent, down to this our day, in which He has blessed the insurgent chivalry of the Belgian priest, His almighty hand has ever been stretched forth, from His throne of light, to consecrate the flag of freedom - to bless the patriot's sword! Be it in the defense, or be it in the assertion of a people's liberty, I hail the sword as a sacred weapon; and if it has sometimes taken the shape of the serpent, and reddened the shroud of the oppressor with too deep a dye, like the anointed rod of the High Priest, it has, at other times, ad as often, blossomed into celestial flowers to deck the freeman's brow.

"Abhor the sword - stigmatize the sword? No, for in the passes of the Tyrol it cut to pieces the banner of the Bavarian, and, through those cragged passes, struck a path to fame for the peasant insurrections of Innsbruck! Abhor the sword - stigmatize the sword? No, for at its blow a giant nation started from the waters of the Atlantic, and by its redeeming magic, and in the quiverings of its crimsoned light, the crippled colony sprang into the attitude of a proud Republic - prosperous, limitless, and invincible! Abhor the sword - stigmatize the sword? No, for it swept the Dutch marauders out of the fine old towns of Belgium - scourged them back to their own phlegmatic swamps - and knocked their flag and sceptre, their laws and bayonets, into the sluggish water of the Scheldt."

"I learned it was the right of a nation to govern itself, on the ramparts of Antwerp; I learned the first article of a nation's creed, upon those ramparts, where freedom was justly estimated, and where the possession of the precious gift was purchased by the effusion of generous blood. I honor the Gelgians for their courage and their daring, and I will not stigmatize the means by which they have obtained a citizen King, a chamber of deputies."

This was all he was allowed to say, for though the audience were electrified and applauded enthusiastically, moral force resolutions were passed, and O'Brien, Meagher, Duffy, Reilly and Mitchel left the hall forever. Thenceforth "Meagher of the Sword," a designation typical of his leonine courage, ancestral escutcheon, and a presage of his military career in the United States, became the virtual leader of "Young Ireland." I 1848 he was one of the three delegates appointed to present an address of congratulations to the French Republican Government, and, in a speech delivered before his departure, he counseled his countrymen to send a deputation to the Queen, asking her to convene the Irish Parliament in the Irish capital. "If the claim be rejected, if the throne stand as a barrier between the Irish people and the supreme right - then loyalty will be a crime and obedience to the executive will be treason to the country... If the Government of Ireland insist on being a government of dragoons and bombardiers, of detectives and light infantry, then, up with the barricades and invoke the God of Battles!"

After an abortive attempt to put up barricades in Tipperary, in conjunction with O'Brien and others, they were arrested, tried for treason in Clonmel and sentenced to be "hanged, drawn and quartered." This sentence was commuted to transportation for life. His speech in the dock has since become a universal popular recitation. "I do not despair of my poor old country - her peace, her liberty, her glory. For that country I can do no more than bid her hope. To lift this island up, to restore her native powers and her ancient constitution - this has been my ambition, and this ambition has been my crime. Judged by the law of England, I know this crime entails upon me the penalty of death, but the history of Ireland explains the crime and justifies it. Judged by that history I am no criminal, and deserve no punishment: judged by that history, the treason of which I stand convicted loses all its guilt, has been sanctified as a duty, and will be ennobled as a sacrifice. To my country I offer, as a pledge of the love I bore her, and of the sincerity with which I thought and spoke and struggled for her freedom, the life of the young heart; and with that life the hopes, the honors, the endearments, of a happy, a prosperous and honorable home. Proceed, then, with the sentence which the law directs - I am prepared to hear it - I trust I am prepared to meet its execution. I shall go, I think, with a light heart before a higher tribunal - a tribunal where a Judge of infinite goodness, as well as infinite justice, will preside, and where many of the judgments of this world will be reversed."

On the 29th July, 1849, he was with O'Brien, McManus, and O'Donohue, sent to Tasmania, where he was allowed considerable liberty, and married a daughter of a gentleman named Bennett who had been a '98 rebel.

Early in 1852 he made his escape ad landed in San Francisco, arriving 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." He soon became a popular lecturer, and in 1853 published a volume of his speeches on "The Legislative Independence of Ireland."

His wife died in Waterford, 1854, leaving a son, Thomas, Jr., now in San Francisco.

In September, 1855, after preliminary study with Judge Emmet, he was admitted to the New York Bar, and shortly afterwards made a famous effort in the United States Court, in the case of Fabens and other Nicaragua "filibusters." From this episode, doubtless, he conceived the idea of an expedition to Central America, which he undertook with Don Ramon Paez, son of President Paez of Venezuela. As a result, he wrote "Holidays in Costa Rica" for Harper's Magazine, and made a report on the feasibility of a canal through the isthmus by way of Nicaragua.

On the 10th November 1855, he was married to Elizabeth Townsend, a lady of high social standing and more than ordinary mental endowments, combined with rare personal charms, unfaltering devotion, and profound religious convictions.

In 1856, he started the "Irish News," which, with assistance of John Savage and the Lalor brothers, was continued for several years.

On the secession of the Southern States, in 1861, he threw himself with ardor into the contest for union and liberty. He raised a company of Zouaves for the 69th N.Y. Regt., and at Bull run was acting Major with characteristic gallantry, having his horse shot and barely escaping death, wounds, or capture, amid the general disaster and disorder of that fateful day. He next organized the Irish Brigade, and was untiring in his support for the Union cause, by voice, pen and military service, at a time when treason was rampant in New York and other Northern States, and when thousands were in doubt what course to follow. "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 includes no scheme of conquest or subjugation, contemplates no disfranchisement of provincialism and inferiority." He delivered addresses in different parts of the country, urging his countrymen to rally under the federal flag and repay to their adopted country the debt they owed for a priceless citizenship.

On the 18th November, 1861, he left New York for Washington with the first regiment of the Irish Brigade and others followed in rapid succession. In February 1862, he was appointed Brigadier General, and in the Peninsular Campaign his brigade especially distinguished at Mechanicsville, Fair Oaks, Peach Orchard and Malvern Hill, while reinforcing Keyes, Porter, and Kearney in the nick of time; at Antietam where it sustained the hardest fighting in the "Sunk Road," of which Greely in his history writesof "Caldwell's and Meagher's steadiness and gallantry." An eye-witness thus describes its services at Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862: "To the Irish division commanded by General Meagher was principally committed the desperate task of bursting out of the town, and forming under the withering fire of the Confederates batteries, to attack Marye's Heights, towing immediately in the front. Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, or at Waterloo, was more undoubted courage displayed by the sons of Erin than during those six frantic dashes which they directed against the impregnable position of their foe... The bodies which lie in the dense masses within the forty yards of the muzzles of Colonel Walton's guns, are the best evidences of what manner of men they were." At Chancellorville, Meagher and his brigade were also distinguished by holding the broken line, stemming the tide of retreat, and dragging into action a battery of artillery, when the horses and gunners were killed and wounded; and finally bringing up the rear if the retreating army, for the second time, as once before on the Peninsula. By this time the brigade was so reduced in numbers that, failing to receive permission to recruit it, he resigned. He was shortly afterwards appointed to the command of the Etowah district, headquarters at Chattanooga, Tenn., with a force composed of infantry, artillery in field and forts, and a regiment of cavalry, all amounting to a division. His district was overrun with guerrillas, and he had to furnish supplies to divisions of the army through an unprotected country. On the conclusion of the war, he was appointed Secretary and Acting Governor of Montana, where he was again actively engaged in raising forces against the hostile Indians then on the warpath. While thus engaged, he retired to rest on the steamer Thompson at Fort Benton, on the Missouri River, where he wrote letters to his wife, then in Helena, to Harper's Magazine, enclosing an installment of his "Rides in Montana," and others. He was suffering from a bowel complaint at the time, and in consequence had to make frequent visits to the office on deck. In one of these, having to pass a place unprotected by a guard-rail, he must have slipped or tripped over a coil of rope and fallen into the river, rapid, swollen and turbid after recent rains. A sudden splash, a faint and then a loud outcry, running ten miles an hour, swept away his lifeless corpse, July 5th, 1887. The finished scholar, the genial friend, the matchless orator, the ardent patriot, the brave soldier, was no more, Thomas Francis Meagher was dead." (D. B. Sullivan)

Every effort to recover his body, made by his devoted wife, officials and friends, was utterly fruitless. But a solemn requiem mass was celebrated in St. Francis Xavier's Church, New York, under the direction of the surviving soldiers of the brigade, and was attended by representative citizens of all denominations.

General Meagher received several valuable testimonials, on various occasions. At the dinner given him in the Astor House, New York, June 25, 1863, a magnificent gold medal was presented to him by the citizens of New York. It was about three inches in diameter; in the center a Celtic Cross; around the outside, and bound with wreaths of shamrocks to the points of the cross, is a scroll of gold edged with enamel, and bearing the motto of the General's family, "In periculis audacia et firmitas in coelo - Boldness in dangers and trust in Heaven;" behind this appear golden rays typifying the "Sunburst." A red, white and blue ribbon, edged with green, is attached with two pins and bars, the upper one bearing the words "Irish Brigade, U.S.," the lower one is formed of a bundle of Sgians and Sparths, bound together by a wreath of laurel, which forms the loop for the ring of the medal. On the ribbon are twelve clasps, each bearing the name of one of the battles in which the Brigade was, thus far, engaged. On the reverse is the inscription - "To General Meagher from the Citizens of New York, June, 1863."

The officers of the Brigade also presented him a splendid gold medal, depicting the Irish harp resting on American and Irish flags, surrounded by a wreath of shamrocks. The presentation was made at the residence of General Meagher, Fifth avenue, New York, by Colonel Nugent, in the presence of several officers of the Brigade, and a number of distinguished citizens.

The hospitalities of the city were tendered by the Civic Council, through a committee headed by Mayor Opdyke, at the Astor House; and, on that occasion, the "Kearny Cross," on which was the inscription - "To General Meagher, Kearny's friend and comrade," was presented by Aldrerman Farley, in behalf of General Birney, commanding Kearny's Division. These medals are now in the Museum of Arts, Central Park, New York, having been presented by Mrs. Meagher, with characteristic wisdom, for the public benefit. She also presented other relics to the City of Waterford, where, on the 1st of August 1886, a very extraordinary demonstration occurred. The inhabitants, in a monster procession, headed by the Mayor and Civic Council, followed by Civic societies, and swelled by delegations from adjacent towns and villages, numbering in all about 100,000, marched though the principal streets, under triumphal arches, the houses profusely decorated with evergreens, American and Irish flags, bands of music playing national airs, proceeded to the City Hall, where a portrait of General Meagher, in the uniform of a Major-General, painted by T. F. Gallagher, of New York, a native of Waterford, presented by him and other citizens of New York, with two swords presented by Mrs. Meagher, one given him by the officers of the Brigade, and the other a valuable Revolutionary relic, used by him at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville; the Brigade battle-flag with the motto - "Death if you will - victory if God will, but no defeat and no retreat," and a "sprig of green" similar to that worn in their caps by the soldiers of the Brigade at Fredericksburg, by which their dead bodies were recognized after the battle, as nearest to the enemy's works, were all duly unveiled amid repeated outburst of enthusiastic applause and universal rejoicing.

To make room for the popular and patriotic presentation, the portraits of Kings William III. And of Georges II. and III. Had been removed, and in their places Meagher's portrait and relics were solemnly installed, beside the portrait of his honored father. Never was such political and poetical retribution seen in Waterford; the Irish rebel, convict, felon, fugitive, outlaw, had returned to his native city in the garb of an American general, territorial governor and republican citizen, and in one charge knocked out three royalties into the lumber room or the auction shop! The inspiration of the whole movement originated with the artist, an enthusiastic Nationalist, who was assigned by the veterans of the Brigade and other citizens of New York, more especially Mr. Ford of the Irish World, who organized and equipped the delegation from New York. On the other side, the "Young Ireland Society" took the initiative, and they were powerfully assisted by the Mayor, Richard Power - late member of the Parliament, and recently deceased - the Civic Council, Civic Societies and citizens of Waterford generally. The "Urbs Intacta" - ancient Cuan-Na-Grain, "Harbor of the Sun," covered itself with a halo of glory that may never fade, until the "Sunburst" of Independence illuminates the whole island.