Civil War Travels With Ms. Rebelle

Civil War Connections in Montana


Does Montana have Civil War significance? Well, there’s Little Big Horn, where Custer and his men were killed, many of whom served in the Civil War. There is Helena where there is a large equestrian statue of Union General Thomas Francis Meagher in front of the capitol, and also in Helena is the grave of Union General Benjamin Franklin Potts. There is also Fort Belknap named for Union General William W. Belknap and former Forts Custer (George Armstrong Custer, Keogh (Myles Keogh), Logan (John Logan), and C.F. Smith (Charles F. Smith).

                  Union General Thomas Francis Meagher

Thomas Francis Meagher, son of Thomas Meagher, was born on August 3, 1823 in Waterford, Ireland.  The elder Meagher was a wealthy merchant who retired to enter politics. Young Thomas was educated at Catholic boarding schools.  At age 11 he was sent to Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare for further education. He excelled at oratory, and when he was 15 years old, he was the youngest medalist of the Debating Society. 

He left Ireland for the first time to study in England at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. His professors had quite a time trying to rid Thomas of his thick Irish brogue. He later spoke with an Anglo-Irish upper class accent. Returning to Dublin in 1843 he decided to study for the bar but became involved with the Repeal Association to repeal the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland.

He and John Mitchel, William Smith O’Brien, and Thomas Devin Reilly formed the Irish Confederation in 1848.  O’Brien and Meagher travelled to France to study revolutionary events there. They returned to Ireland with a new flag – a tricolor of green, white, and orange given to them by a French woman who was sympathetic to the Irish cause. It is similar to the present day flag of Ireland. After the Battle of Ballingarry in August, 1848, Meagher and O’Brien along with Terence MacManus and Patrick O’Donoghue were arrested and tried for sedition. They were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Their death sentence was commuted, and they were all sent to Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania, Australia. 

Thomas was sent to Campbell Town and his friends were sent to other locations.  He married Katherine Bennett while in Tasmania on February 22, 1851. In January, 1852, Thomas planned an escape to the U.S. He did manage to escape, but Katherine stayed behind as she was pregnant with their first child.  Unfortunately the child died before his father even got to New York City.  Katherine came to America to be with her husband for a short time but ended up going back to Ireland in poor health and pregnant with their second child.  Meagher never met his son, who lived with his relatives. Katherine died in May, 1854. Soon thereafter Meagher married Elizabeth Townsend.

When tensions were mounting before the U.S. Civil War, Meagher originally supported the South. His friend John Mitchel had settled in the South. Finally the friends split over their allegiance, and Meagher joined the Union Army. In September, 1861 he made a speech at the Boston Music Hall for the Irish to join the Union Army. He recruited Irish men for Company K of the 69th Regiment of the New York Militia. His ad read: “One hundred young Irishman – healthy, intelligent and active – wanted at once to form a company under the command of Thomas Francis Meagher.” The regiment was assigned to General Irvin McDowell’s Army of Northeastern Virginia. After First Bull Run, Meagher returned to New York to form the Irish Brigade.

He was commissioned a brigadier general on February 3, 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign. His first battle as a general was Fair Oaks, where he was defeated, but his Irish Brigade gained a reputation as fierce fighters. For a time he was given a regiment of non-Irish men but said he would only command Irish men. 

The Irish Brigade sustained large losses at Antietam on Bloody Lane.  Meagher fell off his horse, and there were rumors of him being drunk but his horse had been shot.  Meagher lead 1,200 men into battle at Maryre’s Heights at Fredericksburg but there were only 280 men left the next day. After the battle of Chancellorsville, he resigned on May 14, 1863. His 69th Irish Brigade fought at the Angle at Gettysburg but Meagher wasn’t there. His resignation was rejected in December, 1863, and he was sent to the Western theatre.  He resigned again on May 15, 1865. President Andrew Johnson appointed him Secretary of the Montana Territory in 1865, and he later became acting territorial governor of Montana.

On July 1, 1867 while travelling on a steamboat near Fort Benton, Montana, he fell off the boat into the Missouri River. His body was never recovered. There are two schools of thought on his death. Some say he was drunk and fell overboard.  Others say that he was sick with an intestinal problem and accidentally fell overboard. There is no burial marker for Meagher. He does have the statue in Helena and a monument at Fort Benton alongside the Missouri River. He also has a monument at Antietam.

                 Union General Benjamin Franklin Potts

Benjamin Franklin Potts was born in Carroll County, Ohio on January 29, 1836.  He attended Westminster College but ran out of funds to complete his education.  He taught school and read the law under Ephraim R. Eckley who later became a U.S. Congressman. Potts was a Democrat supporting President James Buchannan.  After passing the bar exam in Canton, Ohio, he started his law practice in Carrollton. He was a member of the Ohio delegation to the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, SC and supported Stephen A. Douglas for president against Abraham Lincoln.

Potts was mustered into service in the Civil War on August 29, 1861 as the captain of the 32nd Ohio Infantry. He served at Cheat Mountain, Greenbrier River, McDowell, and the Shenandoah Valley in pursuit of Stonewall Jackson, Cross Keys, Port Republic, Winchester, and Harpers Ferry. His company was part of the largest surrender of the U.S. Army at Harpers Ferry until World War II.  Potts was sent to the prison Camp Douglas in Chicago. After being paroled, he refitted the 23rd Ohio for service again. They fought at Vicksburg, Atlanta Campaign, Port Gibson, Raymond, and Champion Hill where his unit captured an eight-gun Confederate battery. Most of his war service was in the Western Theatre.  He was also with Sherman’s March to the Sea taking Savannah. He received his rank of brigadier general in January, 1865. He marched in the Grand Review of the Army in Washington, D.C. 

After the war he returned to Carroll County, Ohio to practice law and resume his political career. He changed parties to the Republican Party and was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1867. In 1870 President Grant appointed him as governor of the Montana Territory, where he served until 1883. General Potts died in Helena on June 17, 1887 where he is interred in the Forestvale Cemetery. His grave is on the same row as Montana native, actress Myrna Loy.


To add a postscript to my Myles Keogh/Little Big Horn article of last month, my sister and I met a young male descendant of Curly, who was a Crow scout for General Custer. 

Curly survived Little Big Horn as Custer let him and other Indian scouts go before the battle. He told us where to found Curly’s grave at the Custer National Cemetery at Little Big Horn. There are several Indian scouts (Goes Ahead, White Man Runs Him, White Swan, Two Whistles) buried there as well as Major Marcus Reno (reinterred from Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, D.C.) , Lt. J.J. Crittenden, and Captain William Fetterman (of the Fetterman Massacre before Little Big Horn on December 21, 1866). Our Union ancestor, Daniel Smothers, was in the same 18th U.S., Army of the Ohio, with Fetterman. Lucky for us, our Great Grandfather Daniel went back to Ohio after the Civil War to farm and wasn’t at Little Big Horn.

Ms. Rebelle is a member of the The Bull Run Civil War Round Table, which meets every second Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. at the Centreville Regional Library. The public is invited to attend at no cost and visit the website www.bullruncwrt.org  for additional activities (tours, etc.)

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