Every once in a while, I force myself to read Civil War history from a Unionist perspective in order to keep a broad vision of the war. I was happy to pick up Timothy Egan’s The Immortal Irishman, which chronicles the life and times of Thomas Francis Meagher, because it not only gives a Unionist perspective but even an Irish perspective to the war. This general was famed for commanding the Irish Brigade (New York’s Fighting 69th descended from this unit), which suffered the third highest casualty rate of any in the war. Only Vermont’s 1st Brigade and Wisconsin’s Iron Brigade suffered higher casualties.
Meagher was originally an Irish citizen and advocated vociferously for an independent Ireland. One thing this book does well is depict the tyrannical laws England imposed on Ireland in order to destroy its culture and religion. England’s repression of their Irish neighbors make America’s persecution of various Indian tribes look almost benign in comparison. During Meagher’s time in school, he earned himself beatings merely for speaking with a brogue and refusing to doff his Irishness. He eventually joined the Young Ireland movement in order to further his efforts to preserve Irish culture and advocate for political rights.
The strife between the Irish and their English overlords exploded during the Irish Potato Famine. The majority of the British had no wish to help the Irish in their plight. Those who were not cheerful at the Irish death toll believed that the Irish exaggerated their suffering. Despite the famine, English landlords still exported tons of foodstuffs from that country, unlike their conduct in the famine of 1782-83. When the international community responded by sending food to Ireland as a form of charity, the English Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston–the individual most gleeful over Ireland’s plight, declared that the food would have to be purchased. The starving Irishmen could not keep a roof over their heads let alone raise the money to purchase food, which caused rioting. The soldiers were only too happy to put the rioters out of their misery with a bullet. One million Irishmen died of the famine, and one million emigrated. This genocide of the Irish people counts as one of the darkest pages in British history.
Against this backdrop of suffering, Meagher and his friends attempted to lead a revolt; but, poets make poor military leaders. They so lacked in organization that they spent most of the time running from the authorities. Without having accomplished anything besides vexing the authorities, Meagher and three compatriots were exiled to Tasmania. Better planned revolts would occur after Meagher’s lifetime, but England would not relinquish its claim on the island until December 6, 1921.
After a year and a half of imprisonment on Tasmania, Meagher escaped and immigrated to America in 1852. During the nine years before the Civil War, Meagher was treated as a celebrity and renowned for the eloquence of his speeches. From the onset, he saw the Civil War as one fought to liberate the slaves and a means for the Irish to prove their loyalty to America. Also, he felt that training for war against the South would prepare Irish veterans to return to the Emerald Isle in order to fight the Crown, but campaigns of Irish veterans against the English never materialized except in a half-baked plan to conquer Canada and thereby force the English to grant Ireland independence.
The two salient themes in Egan’s treatment of the war are representing the South as “the slaveholding republic” and Southerners as “slave owners”and describing how the North basically wasted Irish lives during their campaigns. The latter lead to the worst riot in American history: the Draft Riot of 1863, in which New York City saw 120 persons killed and 2,000 wounded. Most of Meagher’s fellow Irishmen were not as staunch Unionists or abolitionists. Many Irishmen even supported the South’s right to secede before the war. Fighting for the freedom of black slaves, whom the Irish assumed would take their jobs, did not endear large portions of Irishmen to Meagher, and he lost popularity over the course of the conflict.
Slavery is an ugly stain upon American history, and people understood this both in the North and in the South. Only about five percent of Southern whites owned slaves by 1860. (Some advocates say 20% of whites because they include everyone in the household of the slave owner as a slave owner too. But, this is like calling everyone who lives in a house a gun owner if but one tenant owns a gun.) Founding Fathers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Randolph of Roanoke, and others set the standard of freeing one’s slaves after death. Significant persons like Generals Patrick Cleburne, Richard S. Ewell, and Robert E. Lee voiced the opinion that slavery should be abolished during the war. Also, the North and South had been at loggerheads since the Revolutionary War because of their divergent cultures and economic interests. Despite some ardent advocates of slavery in the Confederate government–especially Vice President Alexander Stephens, there existed plenty of other reasons to “march away to the firing line and kill that Yankee soldier” as the opening stanza of “The Southern Soldier” declares.
Be that as it may, Meagher led a fascinating life, and Egan does it justice in this biography. Meagher was forced to resign his commission during the war due to drunkenness–no doubt trying to dull the pain of the severe losses of his brigade. But, he earned a post in the Montana Territory, where he would meet his unfortunate demise at the hands of Radical Republican vigilantes in 1867. What a shame for such a brilliant orator and man of principle to have his life cut short at the age of 43!