I promised you one more strange story from Helena and then the guided tour is finished for this year. There are still so many things to see in this town but they are going to wait until next summer.
On the front lawn of the capitol is a statue of General Thomas Francis Meagher. He was one of the Civil War's most colorful generals. Meagher (pronounced Mar) successfully led the legendary Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac through some of the fiercest battles of the Civil War, including the Seven Days' campaign, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Thomas was born into a wealthy family in Waterford, Ireland, on August 8, 1823. He was often described as 'truculent, noisy, brash, verbose, and belligerent.'
Barely out of his teens, the well-educated Meagher became a leading spokesman on behalf of the Irish independence movement. A skilled orator, he also demonstrated a lifelong propensity for making enemies and creating public furor.
His first major speech was in 1846, when he spoke before a hostile audience in Dublin and urged the violent overthrow of British rule on the Emerald Isle. Interrupted in midspeech by moderates in the crowd who disagreed with his position, Meagher and his supporters in the Young Ireland movement stormed out of the hall. It didn’t take long before Meagher attracted the notice of British authorities.
On March 21, 1848, he was arrested and charged with seditious libel. The charge was eventually dismissed, but British authorities were becoming increasingly concerned about his revolutionary activities. He was again arrested during the summer of 1848, and this time he was found guilty of sedition and treasonous activity. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but his sentence was later commuted to banishment for life, and Meagher was shipped to the penal colony of Tasmania, where he lived uneventfully for several years.
However, Meagher was not content to live out his life in exile, and with two other sailors he secretly rowed to a tiny island between Australia and Tasmania, where he was picked up by boat. He arrived in New York City at the end of May 1852 and found himself an instant celebrity. The large Irish community in New York welcomed his arrival with wild enthusiasm. Thousands of people cheered him in the streets, and parties were thrown in his honor.
In the spring of 1861 Meagher advertised in the newspapers for 100 Irishmen to form a company under his leadership. His Irish Brigade fought in several battles for the Union but Meagher’s drinking was getting him in trouble.
On February 5, 1865, Major Robert N. Scott delivered orders to Meagher and found the general so drunk that he could not understand them. Three weeks later Meagher was relieved of further duty, amid rumors of court-martial proceedings. As the Confederacy was driven to its knees, Meagher returned to New York and resigned his commission on May 15, 1865.
With his military career ended in near disgrace, the silver-tongued Meagher began looking for civilian work, preferably a long way from New York. Shortly after leaving the military, Meagher embarked on the last great adventure of his life. In response to a veritable flood of letters from the Irishman, President Andrew Johnson appointed Meagher to be the new secretary of Montana Territory.
Meagher, as usual, managed to involve himself in controversy almost from the beginning. He arrived in the gold-mining camps of Montana in September 1865 and immediately found himself the acting governor of Montana. True to form, Governor Meagher did his best to incite a war with the Sioux. Seeking arms for the militia he had raised, Meagher traveled to Fort Benton to meet a Missouri River steamboat that was bringing cases of rifles. A friend, finding the general ill after several days' travel, offered him a berth on board a docked steamboat.
Late that night, a watchman aboard the steamboat saw an indistinct white figure plummet from the upper decks of the boat. When he heard a splash in the water, he roused the crew. Searchers with lanterns checked both banks of the Missouri around Fort Benton, but no trace of the missing governor was ever found.
The incident that ended the life of the colorful, combative Irishman has been shrouded in mystery ever since. Some people theorized that Meagher had been drinking and had accidentally fallen off the boat. Others thought he had committed suicide, or that he had been murdered by his political enemies in Montana Territory. No one knows for sure.