Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

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1832

All of  The Immigrants’ Civil War articles are listed at the bottom of the page.

Thomas Francis Meagher was to found the Irish Brigade, one of the most famous units in the Union Army, but in the weeks before the onset of the Civil War, he sounded to his friends like a Confederate. Arguments erupted within his own family over Meagher’s soft-spot for slaveholding Southern Democrats. While he was a righteous supporter of human rights in Europe, he was uncritical of the enslavement of African Americans in the United States.

During the lead-up to the war, Meagher got into an argument over secession with some Irish New Yorkers and told the disputants, “I tell you candidly…that…my sympathy is with the South.” It was only after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter that Meagher changed his mind. He told a friend that he felt as though his emotions were “carried away on a torrent” after the firing on the United States flag there. His friend later recalled that Meagher cried, “Damn them,” when he spoke of the Southerners who fired on the United States flag.1

The friend asked Meagher what had changed his heart. “Duty and patriotism,” the Irish leader replied. He said it was his duty as a man who had been granted asylum by the United States to protect her. He added that since the United States was the “mainstay of human freedom the world over,” Irishmen were obligated to end the dismemberment of the country if they ever hoped to win freedom in Ireland. He also sketched out his idea of using service in the war as a training ground for a new breed of Irish warriors who would turn their skills at war against the British after the Confederate rebellion was suppressed.2

Meagher, without previous military or militia experience, joined the already famous Fighting Irish 69th Regiment of the New York State Militia, which was heading off to protect the capital in Washington. He was made a captain and placed in command of the regiment’s newly recruited and gaudily attired Zouave Company.3

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Captain Thomas Francis Meagher in the gaudy uniform of the 69th New York’s Zouave Company. The uniform was created in the first weeks of the war and was discarded soon after the First Battle of Bull Run.

In July 1861, Meagher and the 69th fought at Bull Run, the first major battle of the war. When the regiment’s commander, Colonel Michael Corcoran, was captured late in the fight, Meagher became the natural choice to lead the war effort of Irish New York.4

Meagher had once been sentenced to death by the British for his revolutionary activities. After Bull Run, it seemed as though the British were intent on executing his reputation. The Times of London reported that at Bull Run Meagher had run away in a panic and had declared afterward that “the Southern Confederacy ought to be recognized tomorrow, they have beaten us.” This story was reprinted in the Republican-controlled New York Tribune, humiliating Meagher. The Tribune was forced to print a retraction several days later stating that Meagher “bore himself with distinguished gallantry,” but many in the already prejudiced public read the story of cowardice and not the correction. The original article on Meagher fit the anti-immigrant Know Nothing depiction of the Irish as loud talkers but cowards at heart.5

The 69th New York State Militia Regiment, like most of the Union Army at Bull Run, was only enlisted to serve for 90 days, a period originally thought long enough to end the Confederate rebellion. On July 27, the 69th returned to a hero’s welcome in New York City, disbanded, and shortly thereafter reconstituted as the 69th New York Volunteers, enlisted to serve for three years or the duration of the war. It is important to remember that each man in the reconstituted regiment volunteered individually, knowing the horrible cost of war and without illusions that the military life was a grand parade. The fact that so many of the original members of the regiment reenlisted is a testament to pride in the unit and commitment to the cause of preserving the Union.6

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In a massive historical painting done during the Civil War depicting the return of the Fighting 69th t to New York after Bull Run, Captain Meagher, seen in this detail, is the central figure riding on horseback, saluting a large crowd with a tip of his hat.

Meagher was expected to serve as an officer in the Fighting 69th, or perhaps as the commander of one of the many other Irish regiments being organized in the Northeast. Instead, he and other officers of the 69th developed an entirely novel idea: uniting five Irish regiments into an Irish Brigade.7

In creating the Irish Brigade, Thomas Francis Meagher would help create a new identity for the Irish American.

The Wolfe Tones perform the song The Fighting 69th,  an Irish American folk song that describes the early days of the regiment’s service in the Civil War. In fact, the song only covers the first few months of the war. As with many Irish songs from the 19th century, it is as much a news report as a song describing the regiment’s send off from New York in April 1861.The song’s designation of the regiment as “the boys who fear no noise” continued to be applied to the regiment throughout its service. The song is still popular in Irish communities around the US, especially so after Celtic punk band The Dropkick Murphys recorded a rock version.

 

Here are some of the lyrics:

The Fighting 69th

Come all you gallant heroes,
And along with me combined
I’ll sing a song,
it won’t take long,
Of the Fighting Sixty Ninth
They’re a band of men brave,
stout and bold,
From Ireland they came
And they have a leader to the fold,
And Corcoran was his name

It was in the month of April,
When the boys they sailed away
And they made a sight so glorious,
As they marched along Broadway
They marched right down Broadway,
me boys,
Until they reached the shore
And from there they went to Washington,
And straight unto the war

So we gave them a hearty cheer,
me boys,
It was greeted with a smile
Singing here’s to the boys who feared no noise,
We’re the Fighting Sixty Ninth

And when the war is said and done,
May heaven spare our lives
For its only then we can return,
To our loved ones and our wives
We’ll take them in our arms,
me boys,
For a long night and a day
And we’ll hope that war will come no more,
To sweet Americay

So farewell unto you dear New York,
Will I e’er see you once more
For it fills my heart with sorrow,
To leave your sylvan shore
But the country now it is calling us,
And we must hasten fore
So here’s to the stars and stripes,
me boys,
And to Ireland’s lovely shore

Sources
1. Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher by Michael Cavanagh (1892) p. 368; The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher by Paul R. Wylie, University of Oklahoma Press (2007) pp. 117-122.

2. Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher by Michael Cavanagh (1892) p. 368-371; The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher by Paul R. Wylie, University of Oklahoma Press (2007) pp. 117-122.

3. Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America by Robert G. Athern, Arno Press (1976) p. 93.

4. Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America by Robert G. Athern, Arno Press (1976) p. 96; The Irish Brigade in the Civil War by Joseph Bilby, Combined Publishing (1995), Kindle Chapter 1; The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher by Paul R. Wylie, University of Oklahoma Press (2007).

5. Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America by Robert G. Athern, Arno Press (1976) p. 97; The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher by Paul R. Wylie, University of Oklahoma Press (2007) p. 130.

6. Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America by Robert G. Athern, Arno Press (1976) pp. 98-102.

7. Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America by Robert G. Athern, Arno Press (1976) pp. 100-101; Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher by Michael Cavanagh (1892) pp. 412-413.

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

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