Sunday, March 12, 2017

Honoring General Thomas Meagher, 'quintessential Irishman'

Sculptor Michael Keropian crafts the clay bust of Union General Thomas Meagher, a step in
 the process of creating a bronze sculpture. On July 1, 2017,  the 150th anniversary of the
 Irishman's drowning, the sculpture will be permanently placed next to the grave of his wife.
IMAGES OF MEAGHER SCULPTURE COURTESY OF MICHAEL KEROPIAN.
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Exiled Irish hero, world traveler, journalist, lawyer, politician, Union officer, scalawag -- Thomas Francis Meagher wore many hats during his short, colorful and well-chronicled life.

At Antietam, Brigadier General Meagher's Irish Brigade suffered 60 percent casualties as it helped drive well-concealed Confederates from the Sunken Road. "Never were men in higher spirits," he wrote in his after-action report. "Never did men with such alacrity and generosity of heart press forward and encounter the perils of the battle-field. " During the battle, Meagher's horse was shot out from under him on William Roulette's farm. Later, he was dogged by stories that his fondness for drink led to less-than-optimal decision-making.

Weeks after the battle, an Irish newspaper reprinted a letter from a 63rd New York soldier that it said "unwittingly dashes to atoms ... the malicious and sneering tones of some journals and people as to the conduct of our young gallant fellow-citizen" at Antietam. "I never saw a man nor read of one," the soldier wrote, "that in my opinion surpasses Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher for true heroism."

Brigadier General Thomas Meagher. "Never
were men in higher spirits," he wrote of his
Irish Brigade soldiers' attack at Antietam.
At Fredericksburg, where the Irish Brigade suffered more than 500 casualties in the attack on the Stone Wall, Meagher wore a tailor-made green suit with a yellow silk scarf around his chest. Suffering from an ulcerated knee, he missed the ill-advised charge because he had gone back to town to fetch his horse.

In his journal, 5th New Hampshoire Colonel Edward Cross had a particularly scathing evaluation of Meagher at Fredericksburg:
"... let me record the opinion formed after more than one year's observations in the field -- that there is not in the United States, certainly not in the Army of the Potomac, another such consumate humbug, charlatan, imposters [sic] , pretending to be a soldier as Thos Francis Meagher! Nor do I believe him to be a brave man, since in every battle field he has been drunk and not with his Brigade. I venture the prediction that the drunkenness & incompetence of General Meagher will sooner or later be exposed."
After the war, Meagher (pronounced Mar) was named acting governor of Montana Territory, a position he held until he drowned on July 1, 1867, in the Missouri River on his way to Fort Benton to receive a shipment of arms for the Montana Militia. His body was never recovered, leading to conspiracy theories that he may have been murdered, perhaps by a Confederate veteran. Meagher's wife, Elizabeth, searched for weeks along river banks for her husband's remains before she finally headed back East.

Meagher's demise led to an outpouring of sympathetic coverage in newspapers from Montana to his native Ireland, where he never returned after his exile by the British in 1848.

"His death is greatly lamented," The New York Times noted about the 43-year-old veteran, "and the public demonstration in honor of his distinquished character are general."

"Gifted with talents of a high order, and endowed with a liberal education, his efforts on the rostrum or in the study were among the most brilliant of the day," The Montana Post gushed in black-bordered coverage five days after Meagher's death. "Rich in the lore of ancient days, a ripe scholar, an observing traveler; uniting with the quick wit of his native land a fervid fancy and ideality toned by the pathos of an exile's life, his forensics appeals were models of beauty and eloquence. In social life, he was courteous, amiable and hospitable, and a welcome guest in every circle. The intelligence of his untimely death spread a shadow of gloom over every heart, and the public tributes of respect are but the exponents of the sincerest sorrow by the people."

Clay bust of Meagher, clad in a Civil War officer's uniform. 
In Waterford, Ireland, where Meagher was born in 1823, the local newspaper devoted four columns of coverage to his death, even publishing text of an address the gifted orator gave there in a courthouse in 1848.

Near Bloody Lane at Antietam, Meagher and his Irish Brigade are remembered with a monument that was dedicated in 1997. Sporting a thick mustache and wavy hair, a determined-looking Meagher appears in bas-relief on the back. (Rub his nose for good luck the next time you're there.)

On July 1, 2017, the 150th anniversary of the death of the "Prince of Waterford," Meagher will be honored in New York, his adopted state. The County Waterford Association of New York and Waterford Hurling Club are raising money to place a massive head-and-shoulders bronze sculpture of the revered Irishman next to the grave of his wife in Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery. (A centotaph for Meagher sits in the family plot there.)

"To me, he is the most quintessential Irishman ever produced by Waterford and one of the greatest produced by Ireland," association president Peter Albert McKay, 71, a third-generation Irishman told me over the phone. "He has been inspiration to me."

The association has contracted Michael Keropian to create the sculpture of Meagher, which will be symbolically "buried" in a ceremony at Green-Wood Cemetery on July 1. Timothy Egan, author of The Immortal Irishman, an acclaimed 2016 biography of Meagher, will be principal speaker at the event.

"It should be a wonderful moment for Ireland -- and for us." said McKay, who relishes talking about Meagher and his own Irish roots. McKay's ancestors were from Dunmore East, on Ireland's East Coast. "So close to England, so far from God," the still-practicing lawyer quipped, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye.

Keropian said the clay bust should be completed in the next week or so for McKay's review. Then he will make a rubber mold that will be used to create a wax cast. The wax is used for the "lost wax" bronze casting process, one of many steps before the general is ready for prime time. Keropian hopes to have the cast done by the end of April. A stone monument for the bronze bust to rest on, he said, will be made soon, too.

On Friday in New York City, McKay and many of his other fellow Irish will march in the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. Naturally, Meagher won't be far from their hearts. Or, for that matter, from their heads -- literally.

Thomas Francis Meagher's mug will be emblazoned on their parade banner.

Check out Damian Shiels' Irish in the American Civil War blog for more on Meagher's Waterford roots.


SOURCES

-- The New York Times, July 8, 1867.
-- The Waterford News, Waterford, Ireland, Nov. 7, 1862, July 6, 1867.
-- United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.
-- Stand Firm and Fire Low: The Civil War Journal Writings of Colonel Edward Cross, Edited by Walter Holden, William E. Ross and Mark Travis, Lebanon, N.H., University of New Hampshire, 2003.

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