Timothy Egan, the New York Times columnist, is one of the most accomplished nonfiction writers alive. He has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines and he is the author of seven books. His new book, The Immortal Irishman, may be his finest work yet.
Egan uses the life of Thomas Francis Meagher to tell the story of Irish immigration to the United States during the Civil War Era. Meagher was a revolutionist, a romantic liberal dreamer and poet, a heroic fugitive from the world’s most powerful empire, and a Union general in the Civil War. His life spanned three continents and his travels, compelled and compelling, covered thousands of miles in an age of slow moving sailing ships.
Meagher was both an exceptional character and one representative of the hundreds of thousands of Irish who would be forced to leave their homeland under the yoke of British oppression. The Ireland that Meagher was born into was a nation without a country. The indigenous Irish population lived on land their ancestors had owned, but which had been taken from them by the English. Egan gives a masterful summation of the place of the indigenous Irish in the years leading up to Meagher’s birth:
For the better part of seven centuries, to be Irish in Ireland was to live in a land not your own. You called a lake next to your family home by one name, and the occupiers gave it another. You knew a town had been built by the hands of your ancestors, the quarry of origin for the stones pressed into those streets, and you were forbidden from inhabiting it. You could not enter a court of law as anything but a criminal or a snitch. You could not worship your God, in a church open to the public, without risking prison or public flogging. You could not attend school, at any level, even at home. And if your parents sent you out of the country to be educated, you could not return…If orphaned, you were forced into a home full of people who rejected your faith. You could not play your favorite sports. You could not own land in more than 80 percent of your country; the bogs, barrens and highlands were your haunts. You could not speak your language outside your home.1
The prohibition on the use of the Irish language was designed, writes Egan, so that the Irish would stop thinking in Irish. Irish music, art, and folkloric presentations could bring down the law upon the head of the artist. As Lord Bowles, the 17th Century British Chancellor for Ireland wrote; “The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.” A century later, the great British conservative politician Edmund Burke described the English system of controls on the Irish as; “A machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well-fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”
Thomas Francis Meagher was born into this most distressful country, but he had unique advantages. His father had emigrated to Canada, made a fortune there, and reimmigrated to Ireland. The elder Meagher was among the richest of the Catholics in Ireland. At the time of Meagher’s father’s return to Ireland, the British were under intense pressure to end the disenfranchisement of the Irish and to allow for their education. Meagher was part of the first generation to be able to take advantage of these changes.
Thomas Francis Meagher studied abroad and returned to Ireland with a fine hand for writing. He joined a circle of young Irish men and women who advocated for liberal changes in their land, decolonization of Ireland, and greater equality. Meagher also fell into an intellectual romance with the poet who would later give birth to Oscar Wilde.
The potato blight of the mid-1840s turned the reformers into revolutionists. Because most of what the Irish produced went to their English overlords, the Irish relied on growing calorie rich potatoes for their own food. Successive years of blight left blacked potatoes rotting in the fields. The blight killed the potato, said the Irish, but the British caused the Famine. Egan describes the chilling economy of the Famine:
here was the tragedy: there was plenty of food in Ireland while the people starved. Irish rains produced a prodigious amount of Irish grains. Almost three fourths of the country’s cultivable land was in corn, wheat, oats and barley. The food came from Irish land and Irish labor. But it didn’t go into Irish mouths. About 1.5 billion pounds of grain and other foodstuffs were exported…Famine-ravaged Ireland exported more beef than any other part of the British Empire.2
The British lord that Queen Victoria appointed to oversee the Irish during the Famine wrote that “It forms no part of the functions of government to provide supplies of food,” a policy that threatened the extinction of the Irish. He believed in free trade, even if it meant shipping food out of a starving country. He described the mass deaths of Irish, who were starving a rate of 5,000 per week, as “an effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.” An English Quaker reported on how effectively the British program was working. He described the Irish peasantry as “walking skeletons, the men stamped with the livid mark of hunger, the children crying with pain, the women too weak to stand.” Ireland would see a quarter of its population die of starvation or be driven into immigration in half a decade.
In 1848, with revolutions rocking the kingdoms of Europe, Meagher advocated a turn from civil discourse to revolutionary violence before the Irish were too weak from starvation to make a stand. His rebellion of poets and dreamers was crushed before it ever got off the ground. He was hunted down, tried by an English-controlled court, and sentenced to hang and have his body cut into four quarters. At the last minute, the English decided to send him and a half-dozen other prominent Irish radicals to their prison colony of Australia.
The Australian phase of Meagher’s life is one of the best parts of Egan’s book. Meagher is surprisingly given relatively liberal treatment by the British there, and he is applauded as a hero by other Irish condemned to live in Tasmania with him. The prisoner occupies a house by a lake where he builds a boat to sail its waters. He marries the daughter of an Irish convict. Forbidden from travelling outside his county, he arranges to have dinner with another Irish rebel at a point where the two men’s counties meet. Neither violates his parole, while both thumb their noses at the British.
In spite of his relatively favorable situation, Meagher plots his escape. This is one of the most slow- motion escapes of all time. Meagher sends a letter to Ireland to arrange for a ship to be sent to rescue him. It takes three months to arrive. Every other step in the escape is similarly done at the speed of a sailing ship.
When Meagher finalizes his arrangements to escape, he feels honor bound to notify his jailers that he will revoke his promise not to escape that he gave when he accepted his parole. He informs them that if they try to capture him before the date of revocation, he will consider the British to have violated the terms of the agreement. He then awaits the British until he hears they are at his house seeking to arrest him. He finally flees, freed from his parole pledge, but only after stopping to repay a debt to a shepherd who had assisted him.
It took Meagher a year to get from Australia to New York, but when he arrived he was the hero of the city. Immigrant and native alike wanted to see one of the world’s most famous fugitives. Parades and parties were given in his honor. But the celebration of the young Irishman began to take a backseat as the Know Nothing party rose in power and Civil War threatened.
For all his radicalism, by 1860 Meagher was a fairly conventional Irish American Democrat. He disapproved of the abuses of slavery, but he opposed the Abolitionists as divisive Puritans likely to plunge the United States into civil war. His Protestant Irish comrade in the Young Ireland movement John Mitchell went even further and, after a move to Richmond, endorsed slavery and urged new immigrants to come South and buy slaves.
When war came, Meagher joined the Fighting 69th New York regiment and fought at the first major battle of the war at Bull Run. After the Union defeat, he organized the famous Irish Brigade and became a national hero in the North. His experiences during the war both convinced him that slavery must end and left him depressed over the great loss of life among immigrant soldiers. The eruption of riots against the draft by thousands of Irish in New York City left him a pariah among a sizable segment of the disaffected in his own community. Meagher wrote sadly that if he had been set upon by the rioters he would have been “torn limb from limb if they caught hold of me.”
Meagher courageously took on those Irish Americans who demanded that the war be ended by allowing slavery to continue in the South. He wrote in an Irish newspaper that the war was started by the “Slave Lords, the kings and princes of the cotton fields and rice swamps.” Meagher insisted that slavery was “the cancerous disease, the glaring disgrace of this great nation and a violent contradiction of the principles on which it was established.”
Meagher continued to serve the Union cause in various roles until the end of the war. He was then given a position in the government of the Montana territory. When he travelled there with his native-born wife, he found that the governor of the territory was on his way out and that he was to be the acting governor. He also found that real power in the territory was held by a group of wealthy Republicans who headed a secretive organization of vigilantes. The vigilantes, under the guise of maintaining order, executed dozens of men, many of whom were immigrants.
In 1867, while Meagher was travelling on a steamboat at night, he disappeared into a Montana river. His body was never found. The vigilantes claimed that he committed suicide, or that he was the victim of his own drinking and had stumbled overboard. Egan presents interesting evidence that he may have been murdered.
Meagher had tried to impose law and order in Montana and end the reign of vigilante terror. For that he had been threatened with death and Egan introduces evidence that a vigilante leader had discussed silencing Meagher permanently. That leader was one of the last men Meagher ever saw on the day of his death. A career criminal later confessed to assassinating the acting governor at the behest of the vigilantes. The confessed hitman later renounced his confession.
Timothy Egan has written a compelling book about a uniquely American immigrant character. There are some quibbles with minor factual inaccuracies that Harold Holzer pointed out in his review of the book. I also think that Egan should have discussed Meagher’s controversial exit from the battlefield at Fredericksburg which led to whispers of cowardice by his enemies. But apart from these issues, this book is an excellent introduction not only to Thomas Francis Meagher, the most famous Irish immigrant of his day, but to immigrant life at the time of the Civil War.
The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2016)
1. Egan, Timothy (2016-03-01). The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero (Kindle Locations 148-156). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
2. Egan, Timothy (2016-03-01). The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero (Kindle Locations 710-730). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
157. A Scottish Socialist and a German General Work to Help Slaves Become Freedpeople-Robert Dale Owen, Carl Schurz and the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861 to 1865 by Susannah Ural Bruce
Jews and the Civil War: A Reader Edited by Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn
Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah Ural Bruce
Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich
A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War By Amanda Foreman
Irish Green and Union Blue by Peter Welsh
Lincoln and the Immigrant by Jason Silverman
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites