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Tasmanian Convict

Thomas Francis Meagher was born in the City of Waterford, Ireland, on August 3, 1823. At the age of 11 years he was placed under the care of the Jesuits, at Clongoweswood, County Kildare, Ireland where he displayed studious tendencies and oratorical talents. He was then sent to Stonyhurst College, in Lancashire, England, under the same Jesuit order.

Thomas soon entered political life and was a founder and member of the ‘Irish Confederation';  an Irish nationalist independence movement, established on January 13, 1847 by members of the ‘Young Ireland’ movement. Being a fervent nationalist, who believed in an armed uprising, Meagher was arrested after a failed uprising in 1848 and was sentenced to death by the British government. Evidence against him was given by constables John Doran and Robert Alfred, stationed at Rathkeale, County Limerick, Ireland, before Justice of the Peace George Goold, in support of the case against Thomas Francis Meagher for treason.

Meagher was but one of the Young Irish rebels in Ireland in 1848 to be arrested. The following eight men were also captured at the same time, tried and convicted of treason against Her Majesty, the Queen, and were also sentenced to death; John Mitchell, Morris Lyene, Pat Donahue, Thomas McGee, Charles Duffy, Richard O'Gorman, Terrence McManus and Michael Ireland. 

Before passing sentence, the judge asked if anyone had anything they wished to say, and  Meagher, speaking for all of them said: 

"My lord, this is our first offense, but not our last. If you will be easy with us this once, we promise, on our word as gentlemen, to try to do better next time. And next time ---sure we won't be fools to get caught." 

The indignant judge quickly sentenced them all to be hanged by the neck until dead; drawn and quartered. 

Meagher’s speech after the sentence was handed down has since become a universal popular recitation;

"I do not despair of my poor old country - her peace, her liberty, her glory. For that country I can do no more than bid her hope. To lift this island up, to restore her native powers and her ancient constitution - this has been my ambition, and this ambition has been my crime. Judged by the law of England, I know this crime entails upon me the penalty of death, but the history of Ireland explains the crime and justifies it. Judged by that history I am no criminal, and deserve no punishment: judged by that history, the treason of which I stand convicted loses all its guilt, has been sanctified as a duty, and will be ennobled as a sacrifice. To my country I offer, as a pledge of the love I bore her, and of the sincerity with which I thought and spoke and struggled for her freedom, the life of the young heart; and with that life the hopes, the honors, the endearments, of a happy, a prosperous and honorable home. Proceed, then, with the sentence which the law directs - I am prepared to hear it - I trust I am prepared to meet its execution. I shall go, I think, with a light heart before a higher tribunal - a tribunal where a Judge of infinite goodness, as well as infinite justice, will preside, and where many of the judgments of this world will be reversed."

Heated protest from around the world, however, forced Queen Victoria to commute their sentences and they were transported, for the rest of their lives to Van Dieman’s Land penal colony in southern Australia. 

The sentence being commuted, they were sent to Van Dieman's land, today known as Tasmania, to serve life sentences. On the July 29, 1849, Meagher was in the company of O'Brien, McManus, and O'Donohue, and were indeed sent to Tasmania aboard the ship “Swift”, arriving on 27 Oct. 1849, where he was allowed considerable liberty; and ended up marrying the daughter of a man named Bennett, who had also been an 1898 rebel.

In early 1852, however, Meagher made his escape and landed in San Francisco, arriving in New York in the latter part of May; where he became active in the Irish independence movement there. He also became a prominent journalist and lecturer. He was tendered a public reception which he declined to accept, "because of his country remaining in sorrow and subjection," and "so many of his companions being still in confinement." He soon became a popular lecturer, and journalist and in 1853 published a volume of his speeches on "The Legislative Independence of Ireland."

His wife died in Waterford, 1854, leaving a son, Thomas, Jr., of San Francisco.

In September, 1855, after preliminary study with Judge Emmet, he was admitted to the New York Bar, and shortly afterwards made a famous effort in the United States Court, in the case of Fabens and other Nicaragua "filibusters." From that episode he conceived the idea of an expedition to Central America, which he undertook with Don Ramon Paez, son of President Paez of Venezuela. As a result, he wrote "Holidays in Costa Rica" for Harper's Magazine, and made a report on the feasibility of a canal through the isthmus by way of Nicaragua.

On the 10th November 1855, Thomas married Elizabeth Townsend, a lady of high social standing in the community who had more than ordinary mental endowments, combined with rare personal charms, unfaltering devotion, and profound religious convictions.

In 1856, Meagher began operation of the "Irish News," which, with assistance of John Savage and the Lalor brothers, continued for a number of years.

On the secession of the Southern States, in 1861, Meagher threw himself with ardor into the contest for union and liberty. Meagher, being a Democrat, was highly critical of politically "Republican"-generals. That may have contributed to the later refusal by Union authorities to grant him permission to recruit for his own ranks.

Meagher did though raise a company of Zouaves for the 69th N.Y. Regt., and at Bull run was acting Major with characteristic gallantry, having his horse shot and barely escaping death, wounds, or capture, amid the general disaster and disorder of that fateful day. He was mustered out with his militia regiment on August 3, 1861.

He next organized the ‘Irish Brigade’ which was assigned to Sumner's Division. Early the following year his commission as a Brigadier-General came through. He then led the Irishmen in the fighting at ‘Seven Pine’s and during most of the ‘Seven Days’. At ‘Antietam’ he was injured in the fall of his wounded horse but was able to return to duty the following day. At Fredericksburg his command was slaughtered in the assaults on ‘Marye's Heights’. Meanwhile Meagher had become embroiled in army politics. After the Battle of Chancellorsville Meagher resigned, on May 14, 1863, in protest over the proposal that the regiments of his brigade be distributed among other commands. His resignation was rejected on December 23, 1863, and he returned to duty, holding minor commands in the Western theater until he finally resigned on May 15, 1865.

Meagher was unyielding in his support for the Union cause, by word of mouth, pen and military service, at a time when treason was rampant in New York and other Northern States.  When thousands were in doubt what course the North should follow he declared; 

"Never,"; "never, I repeat it, was there a cause more sacred, nor one more great, nor one more urgent; no cause more sacred, for it comprehends all that has been considered most desirable, most valuable, most ennobling to political society and humanity at large; no cause more just, for it includes no scheme of conquest or subjugation, contemplates no disfranchisement of provincialism and inferiority."

Meagher delivered speeches in all parts of the country, urging men to rally under the federal flag and repay to their adopted country the debt they owed for their priceless citizenship.

On November 18, 1861, he left New York for Washington with the first regiment of the ‘Irish Brigade’ and others followed in rapid succession. In February 1862, he was appointed Brigadier General, and in the Peninsular Campaign his brigade especially distinguished itself at Mechanicsville, Fair Oaks, Peach Orchard and Malvern Hill, while reinforcing Keyes, Porter, and Kearney just in the nick of time. Then again at Antietam where the ‘Irish Brigade’ sustained the hardest of fighting in the "Sunk Road,". An eye-witness described its services at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862 by saying; "To the Irish division commanded by General Meagher was principally committed the desperate task of bursting out of the town, and forming under the withering fire of the Confederates batteries, to attack Marye's Heights, towing immediately in the front. Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, or at Waterloo, was more undoubted courage displayed by the sons of Erin than during those six frantic dashes which they directed against the impregnable position of their foe... The bodies which lie in the dense masses within the forty yards of the muzzles of Colonel Walton's guns, are the best evidences of what manner of men they were."

At Chancellorville, Meagher and his brigade again distinguished themselves by holding a broken line, stemming the tide of retreat, and dragging into action a battery of artillery when the horses and gunners had been killed and wounded; and finally by bringing up the rear if the retreating army as they had done before, on the Peninsula. By that time the brigade was so reduced in numbers that, failing to receive permission to recruit it, Meagher resigned. He was shortly afterwards appointed, however, to the command of the Etowah district, headquartered at Chattanooga, Tennessee, with a force composed of infantry, artillery in field, fortifications and a regiment of cavalry; all amounting to a division.

Meagher’s district was overrun with Confederate guerrillas and he had to furnish supplies to divisions of the army through unprotected country. On the conclusion of the war, he was appointed Secretary and then Acting Governor of Montana; where he was again engaged in raising forces against hostile Indians on the warpath. While doing so, and after having served just over a year as acting governor of Montana, Meagher retired to rest on the steamer ‘Thompson’ at Fort Benton on the Missouri River, where he wrote letters to his wife and to Harper's Magazine in Helena, enclosing an installment of his "Rides in Montana," and others. He was suffering from a bowel condition at the time, and as such had to make frequent visits to the ‘office’ on deck. Some said it was due to his drinking and that he may in fact have been drunk. In any case, during one such journey he had to pass by a section unprotected by a guard-rail. It was there he was said to have slipped or tripped over a coil of rope and fell into the river, which was rapid, swollen and turbid after recent rains. There was a sudden splash and a loud outcry, but the river running some ten miles an hour swept away his lifeless corpse; on July 5th, 1887. It was also reported that he had thrown himself off of a steamboat while ill and deranged, and later two men confessed that they had been involved in a plot to murder him. The truth of the matter never was resolved as to whether his death was suicide, murder or an accident and remains a mystery to this day. The scholar, orator, patriot, soldier and General was gone; Thomas Francis Meagher was dead.

Tremendous efforts to recover his body was made by his wife, officials and friends; but was all in vain. His body was never recovered. A requiem mass was held in St. Francis Xavier's Church in New York, under the direction of the surviving soldiers of the Irish Brigade, and was attended by representatives and  citizens of all denominations.

General Meagher received many testimonials on various occasions. At one dinner given him in the Astor House, New York on June 25, 1863, a magnificent gold medal was presented to him by the citizens of New York. It was some three inches in diameter; had a Celtic Cross  in the center and was bound around the outside with wreaths of shamrocks. It was scrolled on its gold edges with enamel and bore the motto of the General's family, "In periculis audacia et firmitas in coelo - Boldness in dangers and trust in Heaven;" behind that appeared golden rays of a "Sunburst." A red, white and blue ribbon, edged with green was attached with two pins and bars, the upper one bearing the words "Irish Brigade, U.S.;" the lower one formed of a bundle of Sgians and Sparths, bound together by a wreath of laurel, forming the loop for the ring of the medal. On the ribbon were twelve clasps, each bearing the name of one of the battles in which the Brigade was  engaged. On the reverse was the inscription - "To General Meagher from the Citizens of New York, June, 1863."

The officers of the Brigade presented him a gold medal, bearing the Irish harp resting on American and Irish flags; surrounded by a wreath of shamrocks. That presentation was made at the residence of General Meagher on Fifth avenue in New York, by Colonel Nugent, in the presence of officers of the Brigade and a number of distinguished citizens.

In 1874, word reached Queen Victoria that several of the men she had doomed to Van Dieman’s Penal Colony in Australia, including Meagher, had escaped; which infuriated her to no end. One individual, by then known as Sir Charles Duffy and had been elected Premier of the colony of Victoria, Australia, was in fact the same Charles Duffy who had ordered transported to Van Diemen’s Land by Her Majesty 25 years before.  On the Queen's demand, records of the all the transported convicts lives were researched for her and revealed;

Thomas Francis Meagher – became a Brigadier General in the United States Army
and later the Governor of Montana. 

Terrence McManus – became a Brigadier General in the United States Army. 

Patrick Donahue – became a Brigadier General in the United States Army. 

Richard O'Gorman – became Governor General of Newfoundland. 

Morris Lyene - became Attorney General of Australia

Michael Ireland - succeeded Morris Lyene as Attorney General of Australia

Thomas D'Arcy McGee – became a Member of Parliament in Montreal, Canada; Minister of Agriculture and President Council, Dominion of Canada.  John Mitchell – became a prominent New York politician and later the father of John Purroy Mitchell, Mayor of New York City at the outbreak of World War I

All eight had gone on to become prominent and influential individuals; far beyond what she or anyone would expect.

Meagher’s military assignments included: major, 69th New York Militia [ca. April 20, 1861]; Brigadier General, USV [February 3, 1862]; commanding 2nd "Irish" Brigade, Sumner's Division [November 25, 1861-March 13, 1862]; and commanding 2nd "Irish" Brigade, 1st  Division, 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac [March 13-June 28, June 29-July 16, August 8-September 17, September 18-December 20, 1862, and February 18-May 8, 1863].

Unfortunately, there is no grave for Thomas Francis Meagher, in the United States or Australia; as his body was never recovered from the Missouri River. All we have today is the memory and history of an escaped Irish convict from Australia who went on to leave his mark on the world, build a remarkable military career and die as a Brigadier General and Governor of Montana.


A compendium of the War of the Rebellion

Generals in Blue, Lives of the Union Commanders

Memoirs of General Thomas Francis Meagher, Cavanagh, Michael

Register of the United States Army, 1789 – 1903

Report of the Adjutant General, New York

The American Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events

The Civil War Dictionary

The Irish Brigade and Its Campaign, David Powers

Who Was Who In The Civil War, Stewart Sifakis


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