Thomas Francis Meagher

On July 1, 1867, three nations mourned the loss of one of their heros  Ireland, Australia and the United States.  The heros name was Thomas Francis Meagher and he was born on August 3, 1823.  His grandfather’s successful trading business made it easy for his father to own a small hotel and pub in Waterford, where he was educated at a Jesuit boarding school.  Later at a Jesuit college in England he earned a reputation as an effective orator. He returned to Ireland in 1843, just two years before a blight hit the potato causing a great starvation among his people.  Watching his countrymen starve while the landlord’s crops grew in abundance for export, infuriated young Meagher and he became a vocal opponent of the Crown’s policy of Laissez Faire.  As the Irish starved on the roadside, Meagher 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 a failed rising in 1848, Meagher was arrested on the charge of treason and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment at the British penal colony in Australia.  After three years of imprisonment, he escaped to New York, where he received a hero’s welcome from the New York Irish for his part in the Young Irelander movement and 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, the 69th New York were the first to volunteer. Captain Meagher and the regiment marched away under their commander, Colonel Corcoran.  The Union army were badly battered at Bull Run and Colonel Corcoran was captured, but the regiment fought a successful rear guard action that saved the army. Meagher was asked to exercise his considerable influence with the American Irish community, and reorganize the 69th regiment. He did better than that; he formed a Brigade, and the re-formed 69th regiment became an integral part of that famed Irish Brigade under the command of the newly-appointed General Thomas Francis Meagher.  From Bull Run, the Brigade fought heroically at the bloodiest battles in that tragic conflict. At Fair Oaks, Gaines Mill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and virtually every major engagement fought by the Army of the Potomac, the figure of General Meagher was seen leading his men into battle. By the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox, 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’s life took a new direction as he and his wife, Elizabeth, left for Montana. It was a difficult life. Far from the comforts of their eastern existence, Meagher was reminded of the rough, wild, and backward life he had escaped in Australia.  Upon arrival, Territorial Governor Edgerton handed him the official papers of office, saying that he was unable to stomach the rigors of the frontier and was heading back east to Ohio.  Meagher thus became the acting Governor of the Territory. Having seen more danger and heartache 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 not a quitter; President Johnson had asked him to bring Montana into the Union as a state, and he was determined to do it.

Acting Governor Meagher was immediately opposed by powerful men who had carved a profitable empire out of the Montana wilderness, for statehood would threaten their private domains.  Self-appointed vigilante groups threatened Meagher’s life and slanderous rumors were spread in an attempt to reverse his popularity and frustrate his efforts. Yet, Meagher persevered. He became immensely popular with the people of Montana, especially the considerable number of Irish who had migrated west after the Civil War.

Still torn by memories of Ireland in bondage, Meagher wrote to a friend back east that, although he still desired to see Ireland free, he could not turn his back on the job he had been assigned. He called for a territorial legislature, which angered the profiteers. With danger on all sides from vigilantes and local Indians, he convinced his old friend General Sherman, to send a shipment of muskets 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 violently ill on arrival, Meagher retired to a stateroom aboard the G.A.Thompson, a 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 just six months earlier, Look out, 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 the rumor mongers spread the story that he had been drinking and fell overboard in a drunken stupor and drowned.  There was no one to dispute the claim, but few who knew the man ever believed it.  His loving wife walked the banks of the Missouri for two months 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 Meaghers demise, swore that Diamond was an irresponsible liar, but men dont 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 recanted his confession.  No more was said about the incident.  Thus, the exact details of Meaghers 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 Australias Van Diemans Land, and ended as an American legislator. Yet the brightest page in his exciting career will always be the page he wrote as the Commander of America’s most celebrated, most durable, and most beloved fighting force – the Irish Brigade.

On Sunday, June 28, 2009, 3 days before the 142nd anniversary of his death, the Thomas Francis Meagher Division of the AOH in Helena, Montana dedicated a memorial they erected to their namesake at Fort Benton.  It was a slim, black granite base, 6 7 tall, topped by a heroic sculpted bronze upper torso and head of Meagher, 2 9 high.  A bronze plate on the front of the stone bears an appropriate proclamation.  The site is on the levee, nearly directly  across Main Street from the house where Meagher spent his last hours prior to boarding the riverboat.  The  dedication was part of an annual 3-day Fort Benton observance of their Summer Celebration.  The undertaking had the enthusiastic support of the Montana Historical Society.

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