By Karen M Cox
Every once in a while, I’ll read a biography that ignites a fire of interest in my soul. The protagonist’s life experiences, thoughts and ideas keep rolling around in my mind, sometimes for months. Bits of his or her life story will come back to me and filter through my subconscious into my awareness as I write, read or have life experiences of my own, even years later. I call these people historical crushes.
And I’ve just found my newest one: Thomas Francis Meagher, as written in The Immortal Irishman, by Timothy Egan.
Let me start with this important point: Not all the biographies I read and like become historical crushes. For example, I read the excellent biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, but Jefferson doesn’t make the crush cut. I admire him for many things, such as his intellectual curiosity and his inspirational writing, but not so much for other aspects of his character. He was a fascinating and complex man, and that very complexity, along with his particular faults removed him from my”wow!” list of historical figures.
Nor do my crushes have to be male. I had one of these historical obsessions with Mary Chesnut several years back after reading Diary from Dixie.
The objects of my infatuation don’t have to be perfect. In fact, I prefer it when they aren’t, because this only highlights their exceptional qualities.
Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced mahr) had a short but epic life that spanned revolutions, war, exile, and three continents. He was born into privilege in Waterford, Ireland, in 1823. His grandfather had made his fortune in Nova Scotia and returned to Ireland as what might be termed nouveau riche. Meagher’s father was the first Irish mayor of Waterford since Cromwell. Meagher himself was bright and well-educated for an Irish lad of his time. He also had a gregarious personality and a penchant for trouble that would influence the path of his entire life. He developed his oratory skills and used his eloquent speeches and impassioned voice to bring awareness to the plights of downtrodden people in each place he lived. But his first, most lasting love was Ireland, at that time caught in the grips of the Great Hunger—the Irish Potato Famine.
The Young Tribune, as he was called, was banished from his home country to Tasmania in 1848, one of the “Young Irelanders” who broke from the more pacifist Repealers working for Irish independence. The sentence was considered merciful, as it had been commuted from the original “hang by the neck until dead, beheaded and quartered.” (Dear Lord, the barbarity with which we treat one another!) In the mid 1850s, he escaped to the United States, where he married his second wife, Elizabeth Townsend, who was from a wealthy Protestant family of English lineage. (His first wife, Catherine Bennett, was a young governess, the daughter of a stagecoach robber banished to Tasmania. She died shortly after giving birth to their son, Meagher’s only child, whom he would never meet because the boy lived in Ireland with the grandfather.)
Meagher entered the Civil War rather agnostic on slavery, but over the war years he decided that the end of that inhumane institution must be the reason for this great sacrifice by his new country. He was a brigadier general in the revered Irish Brigade of the Union army, which was virtually obliterated at the battle of Fredericksburg. In fact, the Irish Brigade waded through several devastating battles: Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville. After fighting in the Wilderness, Meagher tendered his resignation of “what was once known as the Irish Brigade,” now down to a couple hundred men. He was a Democrat among a throng of Union Army Republicans, yet he supported President Lincoln and the Emancipation. His political beliefs most likely kept him from advancement in his military career (along with his status as an immigrant, and a Catholic.) He hated mob violence, and was disgusted with the Irish immigrants and citizens who participated in the 1863 New York City riots following the army conscription lottery.
After the war, he was made Governor of Montana territory, where he angered the nativist, Protestant carriers of “frontier justice”—men who secretly met and became prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner without the benefit of trial for dozens of men.
Meagher was working toward Montana statehood when he died under mysterious circumstances in Fort Benton, Montana in 1867. His body was never found, and many historians, including Egan, believe he was the victim of a conspiracy by the territory’s vigilantes to kill him. He was 43 years old.
The Immortal Irishman leaves no doubt regarding the identity of the hero in this tale. Timothy Egan is a persuasive defender and fan of “Meagher of the Sword” and he made me a fan as well. Although Meagher had his faults—there were times in his life when he drank heavily, he was rather slow to commit to the end of slavery, some would say he was impulsive and perhaps argumentative—he was a man who for the most part lived his principles, usually to the detriment of his own self-interest. All through his life, there were times when he could have chosen an easier path: as a privileged young man in Ireland, as an ‘upper crust’ exile in Tasmania, as the son-in-law of a rich New York businessman. Yet he could not turn from the suffering of ordinary people and not say or do something about it. Was part of it his ego? Perhaps, if ego is what spurs us on to find a sense of purpose, a raison d’être. Yet Meagher imbued the appealing characteristics of intelligence, eloquence, integrity, empathy and devotion (to his cause and his wife) with a roguish sort of charm that I personally find irresistible.
So, yeah, I developed a historical crush on Thomas Francis Meagher, the man. But beyond that, I see in him, an Irish immigrant, the best of America: tolerance, separation of church and state, belief in the contribution of the common man to the whole, and belief in the possibility of a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Our history is not all glory and righteousness, and The Immortal Irishman does not shrink from the ugly events that are a part of us. But the book gave me a much needed perspective on my time, when society is over the top and politics are reduced to extremist soundbites on all sides. America has been through widespread upheaval (and worse) before now. Our country was fundamentally changed as a result, and we nearly broke under the sacrifices that were required. We survived that tide of change, and now our history provides us a glimmer of hope for the future.
It is also our warning.