American Civil War General
Thomas Francis Meagher, who was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1823, eventually became a leading figure in the Irish independence movement of the early 19th century, due much to his extraordinary oratorical abilities. In the Irish Uprising of 1848, this gifted political activist was tried and convicted of treason along with eight other Irish patriots. All were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered by the English courts. Passionate protests from all over the world convinced Queen Victoria to commute the death sentences and, fortunately, all were banished to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), an island off the coast of Australia. Within four years Meagher escaped and eventually made his way to New York where he would rise to prominence as a journalist and lawyer. Incidentally, all of Meagher’s co-defendants also escaped and, to a man, would later become significant political or military leaders in Australia, Canada, or the United States.
The people of New York welcomed Meagher with open arms as a young, handsome, and romantic victim of British tyranny. He soon earned himself a nationwide reputation as a lecturer, traveling across the nation, addressing huge audiences wherever he went.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Meagher formed a company composed of 145 men of Irish descent, was chosen captain, and led his company to join the 69th Regiment at New York. This became a very popular military unit that attracted thousands of recent Irish immigrants as well as Irish-Americans. Meagher appealed to them to fight as Irishmen for the Union they believed in. To this end he proposed the formation of an Irish Brigade. He received permission from the Secretary of War to raise the brigade and immediately began recruiting. In February of 1862, President Lincoln himself appointed Meagher a Brigadier General in this unit of the Army of the Potomac. “The Irish Brigade”, as it was soon known under its colorful Commanding General, proceeded to fight in and bring much glory upon itself at such historical battles as Fair Oaks, Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, White Oak Swamp, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. This hard-charging outfit, with Meagher always at its lead, was involved in some of the fiercest acting of the Civil War. Meagher’s fame and military record prompted President Andrew Johnson to appoint him Secretary of the Montana Territory in 1865, and eventually he became the Acting Territorial Governor, a post he held from September of 1865 to July 1867.
Meagher’s tenure a Territorial Governor in Montana was marked by turmoil due to the political nature of the times. The Territory was a political maelstrom. Lawlessness was rife in these post-war years and the lawless were little worse than the vigilantes who were supposed to protect the innocent. In addition, the legislature and the executives were at each other’s throats. In the meantime, refugees from the Confederate armies were pouring in. But in spite of all, Meagher is given greatly deserved credit for leadership in the progress that Montana made toward statehood. He called for the second legislative session in the state’s history, and shortly after summoned a constitutional convention to meet in Helena.