The Irish in the Civil War

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Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish Brigade General Thamas Francis Meagher led the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. Item Link

Thomas Francis Meagher was born in 1823 near Waterford, Ireland. His mother died when he was three and half years old. He also lost an older brother and two sisters in infancy. After schooling in England, the Catholic Meagher dedicated to Irish nationalism returned to Ireland in 1843. He became a lawyer in Dublin and in contrast to Daniel O’Connell’s home rule movement joined the group that became known as Young Irelanders, which promoted independence from England. In 1846, Meagher gave a speech supporting violence if necessary, earning him the nickname “Meagher of the Sword”. In 1848 in the midst of the Great Potato Famine, Meagher was tried for his views under the Treason Felony Act but was acquitted by a jury. However, later that year (a year of failed revolutions throughout Europe) he was re-arrested and convicted along with three associates of fomenting an abortive rebellion. Sentenced to death, following public protests, Meagher and the others were instead sentenced to life in the Tasmania penal colony in Australia. After three years there in exile, he escaped to New York City by way of Brazil. Meagher was greeted as a hero by Irish-Americans.

Meagher became a well-known Irish-American, a lecturer and publisher of the Irish News. President Franklin Pierce invited him to his home and then to his inauguration in 1853. As a lawyer, he was recruited to the defense of New York City Congressman Dan Sickles (and future general in the Army of the Potomac) for the murder of U.S. Attorney Phillip Barton Key (grandson of Francis Scott Key), killed when Sickles discovered his affair with his wife. Sickles was acquitted on the basis of the first successful use of the temporary insanity defense. As war loomed, Meagher was sympathetic to the South. However, after the attack on Fort Sumter, Meagher supported the Union cause. He joined the 69th New York Militia regiment, enroute to the defense of Washington, D.C.

In the 69th’s baptism under fire at First Bull Run, Meagher was accused by some of cowardice and drunkenness after he was toppled from his horse. This accusation was fueled by the pro-Southern correspondent of the London Times. With the capture of the regiment’s commander, Meagher succeeded him. When the regiment returned to New York City, Meagher started to recruit an Irish Brigade. With the prospect of Meagher being able to recruit Irish immigrants, President Lincoln made him a brigadier general and he was appointed commander of the Irish Brigade. He led it through McClellan’s Peninsula campaign and then returned to New York City to recruit replacements to make up for its losses. He returned in time to join the reinstated McClellan to face Lee’s first invasion of the North. On September 17, 1862, Meagher led the Irish Brigade in its heroic attempt to dislodge the Confederates from the Sunken Road. In the midst of the fighting, Meagher fell from his horse. Later, some charged that this was because he was drunk, a story repeated by Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette. However, he was lauded for his bravery by others, including his corps commander Edwin Sumner. Nevertheless, the charge followed him later.

At Fredericksburg, Meagher struggled on foot with his men against Longstreet’s Confederates on Marye’s Heights. However, he was again accused by some of failing to lead his troops in their valiant but hopeless charges. He soon returned to New York City as an invalid on medical leave. When he returned to the brigade in February, 1863, only 600 of the 2,250 men were left of the original three New York City regiments that made up the brigade. After the battle of Chancellorsville, a discouraged Meagher resigned. He left still having the support of the officers and men of the brigade. His subsequent efforts to recruit the Irish, including new immigrants, were crippled by the New York City draft riots of July, 1863, which Meagher condemned and blamed on the Copperheads (Peace Democrats).

In the election of 1864, Meagher supported Lincoln against McClellan, along with New York City’s influential Catholic Archbishop John Hughes. It wasn’t until Spring, 1864, that Meagher rejoined the Army of the Potomac but without a command. After a drinking bout in August, he returned to New York City. In September he was sent West to Nashville but not given any responsibility until November, when he was told to organize convalescents into a provisional division. It was to proceed East to be shipped to the Carolinas to join Sherman. However, it met with mishaps and delays, for which Meagher was blamed by Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck and Commander-in-Chief Grant. Combined with renewed charges of drunkenness, Meagher was relieved of his command on February 20, 1865. Again without a command, Meagher spent St. Patrick’s Day, 1865 with the remnant of the Irish Brigade near Petersburg..

After the war, Meagher headed west. He became the territorial secretary (acting governor) of Montana. Amidst political disputes, conflicts with General Sherman (his nemesis after First Bull Run) over Indian policy, and financial problems, he drank heavily. On July 1, 1867, the 44-year old Meagher died when he fell overboard from a docked steamboat on the Missouri River and drowned. The most likely cause was drunkenness, although the circumstances remain mysterious. This was an ignominious end for the dedicated Irish nationalist and Irish-American patriot. Nevertheless, he was remembered by his admirers. Statues in his memory were erected in Butte, Montana in 1905 (mostly paid for by Irish miners) and later in his birthplace of Waterford, Ireland.