“I now bid farewell to the country of my birth – of my passions – of my death; a country whose misfortunes have invoked my sympathies – whose factions I sought to quell – whose intelligence I prompted to a lofty aim – whose freedom has been my fatal dream.” –Thomas Francis Meagher
Born in Co Waterford, Thomas Francis Meagher, Fenian, Nationalist and leader of the Young Irelanders in the Rebellion of 1848, with his fierce Irish nationalism, managed to get himself into difficulties on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1848, Meagher and William Smith 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. The acquisition of the flag is commemorated at the 1848 Flag Monument in the Irish parliament. This flag was first flown in public on 1 March 1848, during the Waterford by-election, when Meagher and his friends flew the flag from the headquarters of Meager’s “Wolfe Tone Confederate Club” at No. 33, The Mall, Waterford.
Meagher opposed British rule and was exiled to Tasmania in 1849. He fled to the United States in 1852, eventually settling in New York, where he was active in the Irish independence movement. When the American Civil War started, he was instrumental in forming the Irish Brigade, which fought so valiantly in numerous conflicts including Chancellorsville, Fair Oaks and Fredericksburg.
The ‘Sons of Erin’ carried distinctive green flags, embroidered in gold with a harp, shamrock and sunburst. Officers wore green plumes in their hats, while the colourful Meagher was partial to green jackets, embroidered with far more gold lace than regulations called for, set off by a yellow silk scarf. According to one Pennsylvania soldier, he was ‘a picture of unusual grace and majesty.’Meagher was a brave leader and loved by his men who ultimately fell foul of Ulysses S. Grant ironically because of his drinking.
When the war ended, he was appointed Acting Governor of Montana. He drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton on 1 July 1867. His body was never recovered. The incident that ended the life of the colourful, combative Irishman has been shrouded in mystery ever since. Some people theorised that Meagher had been drinking and had accidentally fallen off the boat. Others thought he had committed suicide, or that he had been murdered by his political enemies in Montana Territory. No matter, Thomas Francis Meagher had made his last exit from the world stage.
Despite a life of militarily accomplishment and otherwise, Meagher never achieved the grand success he sought. One solid reminder of his achievements remains, however. On the front lawn of the Montana Capitol in Helena, a bronzed statue of the fiery general sits on horseback, saber raised, ever ready to charge into battle.
A monument at the Antietam battlefield was dedicated in his honor. The inscription on the granite monument reads:
The Irish Brigade commander was born in Waterford City, Ireland on August 23, 1823; a well-educated orator, he joined the young Ireland movement to liberate his nation. This led to his exile to a British Penal Colony in Tasmania Australia in 1849. He escaped to the United States in 1852 and became an American citizen. When the Civil War broke out, he raised Company K, Irish Zouaves, for the 69th New York State Militia Regiment, which fought at First Bull Run under Colonel Michael Corcoran. Subsequently Meagher raised the Irish Brigade and commanded it from February 3, 1862 to May 14, 1863 til later commanded a military district in Tennessee. After the War Meagher became Secretary and Acting Governor of the Montana Territory. He drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton on July 1, 1867. His body was never recovered.
Photo: Thomas Francis Meagher statue with Reginald’s Tower in background, The Mall, Waterford