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The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher

by Paul R. Wylie, University of Oklahoma Press.

Few Civil War commanders have evoked such conflicting assessments as Thomas Francis Meagher. In life the Union general’s supporters were effusive and many, but his detractors were just as numerous and quite damning. His historical reputation has been a source of contention, too. Some writers portray him as a noble, gallant officer, others as an unbearable blow hard. Fortunately, in The Irish General, Paul R. Wylie’s exhaustive research has allowed him to deliver a judicious, balanced account of this flawed and sometimes mercurial commander from Waterford, Ireland, who first became a household name during the Seven Days’ Campaign.

Born in 1823, Meagher embraced the cause of Irish independence as a young man. His fiery orations, in fact, earned him the sobriquet “Meagher of the Sword” and exile to Tasmania by the British in 1849. Two years later he escaped and made his way to New York, where he was lionized by the Irish-American community and rose in Democratic circles. Though generally pro-Southern until 1860, he reversed course after Fort Sumter. Michael Corcoran, leader of the New York Fenians and colonel of the 69th New York Militia, convinced Meagher that service in the Federal Army would create a force of Irish veterans who could eventually wrest Ireland away from British control. Meagher got his first taste of combat at Bull Run. After that battle, with Corcoran imprisoned in Richmond, Meagher organized the Irish Brigade and became its first commander as a brigadier general.

The brigade was in constant action during the Seven Days, and the commander’s performance seemed solid and competent. But he became despondent due to the heavy casualties, and his drinking, already a source of gossip before the war, apparently increased.

Criticism and denunciations of Meagher’s conduct accelerated after Antietam and Fredericksburg. Some of this stemmed from anti-Irish prejudice, some from divisions within the Irish-American community and some Meagher brought on himself. A tumble from his horse at Antietam, for example, was quickly attributed to drunkenness, an unproved but credible charge.

Meagher resigned from the brigade after the Battle of Chancellorsville. In August 1865, he tried to restart his career as territorial secretary of Montana but was done in by political intrigue, sectarianism, Indian policy, money woes and alcohol. On July 1, 1867, while drinking, he died by falling from a docked steamer at Fort Benton.

Wylie argues convincingly that Meagher’s ignominious end should not outweigh his lifetime accomplishments. Handsomely produced and well illustrated, The Irish General seems destined to endure as the definitive study of the dynamic and highly complex Meagher for some time.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.