The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan: Book Review

Thomas Francis Meagher's statue outside of the Montana State Capitol.
Thomas Francis Meagher's statue outside of the Montana State Capitol.

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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.

immortal irishman

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.

Thomas Francis Meagher as a student.
Thomas Francis Meagher as a student.

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.

Meagher at the time of the failed 1848 Uprising.
Meagher at the time of the failed 1848 Uprising.

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.

Meagher introduced the national flag to Ireland.
Meagher introduced the national flag to Ireland.

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.”

General Meagher
General Meagher

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.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

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.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

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.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

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.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

139. Immigrant German “Hamburgers” Tormented and Captured at Petersburg

140. German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

141. Irish Regiment at the Beginning of the End of the Confederacy at Five Forks

142. Richmond Burning: The German Immigrant and Black Troops Who Saved the City

143. Appomattox: The Capture of a Confederate Army & the Fall from Grace of an Immigrant General

144. Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirators

145. Immigrants Hunt Lincoln’s Killers and Help Capture the Confederate President

146. Lincoln’s Murder and the New York Irish American

147. Lincoln’s Funeral in Immigrant New York

148. German General Carl Schurz Begins His Investigation of the Post-War South

149. Carl Schurz Warned That a “System of Terrorism” Was Taking Hold in the Post-War South in 1865

150. Immigrants in the Union Navy: Minorities in the Majority

151. How Immigrants Were Recruited into the United States Navy

152. African Canadian Sailors in the Union Navy

153. High School Student Proves Professor Wrong When He Denied “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Existed

154. The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

155. No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

156. Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

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.

158. Our Man in Sweden: Recruiting Immigrants to Strengthen the Union War Effort

159. German Immigrants and the End of Slavery in Missouri

160. 13th Amendment: Immigrants and the end of slavery in America

161. Finding Civil Immigrants Where You Wouldn’t Expect Them: The Irish and German Harvard Men

162. Recovering the memories of Jewish Civil War soldiers

163. Kate Cumming Confederate Immigrant Nurse and the Shiloh Disaster

164. Immigrant nurse reports on Civil War hospital organized by Nursing Nuns after Shiloh battle

165. Sarah Emma Edmonds: The Immigrant Woman As “Male Nurse”

166. Immigrant Women Struggled to be Recognized as Nurses After the Civil War


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

Blog Posts

The Real Story Behind The Immigrants’ Civil War Photo

Why I’m Writing The Immigrants’ Civil War

The Five Meanings of “The Immigrants’ Civil War”

No Irish Need Apply: High School Student Proves Yale PhD. Wrong When He Claimed “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Never Existed

The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

Books for Learning More About The Immigrants’ Civil War

Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War

New Immigrants Try to Come to Terms with America’s Civil War

Important Citizenship Site to be Preserved-Fortress Monroe

Should Lincoln Have Lost His Citizenship?

The First Casualties of the War Were Irish-Was that a Coincidence?

Civil War Anniversaries-History, Marketing, and Human Rights

Memorial Day’s Origins at the End of the Civil War

Germans Re-enact the Civil War-But Why Are They Dressed in Gray?

Leading Historians Discuss 1863 New York City Draft Riots

The Upstate New York Town that Joined the Confederacy

Civil War Blogs I Read Every Week

First Annual The Immigrants’ Civil War Award Goes to Joe Reinhart

Damian Shiels Wins Second Annual The Immigrants’ Civil War Award

Mother Jones: Civil War Era Immigrant and Labor Leader

Juneteenth for Immigrants

Book Reviews

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

The Immortal Irishman: Thomas Francis Meagher by Timothy Egan

Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites

Fort Schuyler-Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained

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