In 1823, a boy was born who became a hero to three lands: Ireland, Australia, and the United States. His grandfather’s successful trading business made it easy for his father to own a small hotel and pub in County Waterford, where, on August 3,Thomas Francis Meagher was born. Young Tom was educated at a Jesuit boarding school, and later at a Jesuit college in England where he earned a reputation as an effective orator. He returned to Ireland in 1843, just two years before the Great Hunger, and saw his countrymen starve while the landlord’s crops grew in abundance for export.
Infuriated, he became a vocal opponent of the Crown’s policy of Laissez Faire, joined the Young Ireland movement, and began to preach insurrection. He wrote for The Nation newspaper, and earned respect as a spokesman for the nationalist cause. Upon his return from a visit to post-revolutionary France, he introduced a tricolor which Ireland eventually adopted as her national flag. After an aborted rising in 1848, Meagher was arrested, and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life at the penal colony in Australia.
After three years, he escaped to New York, where he received a hero’s welcome from the New York Irish for his part in the rising of 1848. Meagher married in 1855, became an American citizen in 1857, and commanded a company in New York’s 69th Militia, locally known as Corcoran’s Irish Legion. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, New York’s 69th was the first to volunteer, but were badly battered at the first Battle of Bull Run, where Colonel Corcoran was captured. Meagher was asked to reorganize the 69th regiment, but he did better than that; he organized a Brigade, with the re-formed 69th regiment as a part. The Irish Brigade under the command of the newly-appointed General Thomas Francis Meagher, fought heroically at the bloodiest battles of the war. At Fair Oaks, Gaines Mill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville – almost every major engagement fought by the Army of the Potomac, the figure of General Meagher was seen leading his men into battle. By the war’s end Meagher had earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most effective leaders.
After the war, President Johnson appointed him Secretary of the new Montana Territory. In August 1865, the young Irishman and his wife, Elizabeth, left for Montana. Upon arrival, the Territorial Governor handed him the papers of office, saying he was unable to stand the rigors of the frontier and was heading back to Ohio. Meagher thus became the acting Governor of the Territory. Having seen so much danger in his young life, one could hardly have blamed Meagher if he had turned his back on the responsibility just thrust upon him, but he was no quitter; President Johnson had asked him to bring Montana into the Union as a state, and he was determined to do it.
He was immediately opposed by powerful men who had carved a profitable empire out of the Montana wilderness, for statehood threatened their control. Vigilante groups threatened Meagher’s life and slanderous rumors were spread in an attempt to reverse his popularity. Yet he persevered. He became popular with the people of Montana, especially the Irish who had migrated west after the Civil War, but when he called for a territorial legislature, he angered the profiteers. With danger on all sides from vigilantes and local Indians, he convinced his friend General Sherman, to send a shipment of rifles up the Missouri to Fort Benton. Meagher and a few of his officers rode overland for six days in the heat of a Montana July to meet the shipment. Dehydrated and ill on arrival, Meagher retired to a stateroom aboard the boat piloted by an old friend, Johnny Doran.
As he lay his fevered head on the shipboard berth, he may have reminisced on the words spoken at a Virginia City rally six months earlier, “Beware young Chief; you have done too much to bring the traffickers in the political market into disrepute and bankruptcy, not to have provoked their vengeance.” That night July 1, 1867, Thomas Francis Meagher disappeared. His body was never found, and rumor mongers spread the story that he had fallen overboard in a drunken stupor and drowned. There was no one to dispute the claim, but few who knew the man ever believed it. For the remainder of July and into August, his loving wife walked the banks of the Missouri seeking his body in vain.
Then, in May of 1913, a dying man in Missoula, Montana, called for the local newspaper to witness his deathbed confession. He was a local ne’er-do-well named Frank Diamond, and he swore that he would not go to judgement without clearing his conscience of an awful deed that he had been paid to do many years before. He told the startled press that he had murdered Thomas Francis Meagher, under orders from the local vigilantes, and thrown his body overboard on that hot July night, 46 years earlier. Members of old and prominent Montana families, who had descended from the early Vigilantes and profited from Meagher’s demise, swore that Diamond was an irresponsible liar, but men don’t lie on their deathbed. Those who knew the character of Thomas Francis Meagher were relieved that the truth had finally been revealed, yet Frank Diamond, was never prosecuted for the crime. He unexpectedly recovered from his malady, and immediately recanted his confession, and said no more about the incident. Thus, the exact details of Meagher’s demise remain clouded by time and temperament, yet one positive consequence evolved from the controversy surrounding the confession. In the eyes of many, the character of Thomas Frances Meagher had been exonerated. He had not fallen overboard in a drunken stupor, but fallen in service to others: as he had served all his life – a life that began as an Irish patriot, continued as he broke his chains of bondage in Australia, and ended as an American legislator. He was truly a hero in three lands.