Character Assassination in 'Gods and Generals': Shaara Book Portrays T.F. Meagher as Bumpkin

Character Assassination in 'Gods and Generals':
Shaara Book Portrays T.F. Meagher as Bumpkin
Jeff Shaara took on a daunting task when he choose to write a 'presequel' to his father's Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Killer Angels." One of the characters in Shaara's book is a man well-known to WGT readers -- Irish Brigade commander and Young Irelander Thomas Francis Meagher. WGT Managing Editor Joe Gannon examines Shaara's portrayal of the fiery orator and revolutionary.

With the release this Friday of the major motion picture "Gods and Generals," we thought this an opportune time to review the book by author Jeff Shaara that gave rise to the film, focusing on the book's portrayals of the Irish.

Shaara's book is a "prequel" to Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Killer Angels," which chronicled the battle of Gettysburg, concentrating on several of the key officers from both sides. The book by Jeff Shaara, Michael's son, tells their stories from just before the start of the war through the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.

Only one of the major characters in "Gods and Generals" is conspicuously Irish: Buster Kilrain. But Kilrain is a fictional character, and Shaara inherited him from his father's book. So, though he is a rather stereotypical . 

By Jeff Shaara
Hardcover: 498 pages Publisher: Ballantine Books; (July 1996) 
ISBN: 0345404920 

$25.95 US (Buy now at AMAZON.COM for just$8.40 )

Irishman, the author had little leeway with him.

So we will consider the one minor character in his book who is among the most notable Irish participants in the war from either side, Thomas Francis Meagher. How accurately does Shaara portray Meagher? I'm afraid the answer is: rather poorly. He has the Waterford native in places where he was not, has things happen to him that didn't, and has him uttering words Meagher would never say, in a way he would never say them.

Library of Congress
Thomas Francis Meagher in his Federal Army brigadier general's uniform.

Fiction, of course, allows for a certain poetic license, but historic fiction does, or at least should, put some restraints on that license. For example, one should certainly not put historic figures in places we know they couldn't have been.

Meagher makes his first appearance in "Gods and Generals" in a place he couldn't have been. Hancock meets him as Hancock is taking command of the 1st Division of the 2nd Corps at the battle of Antietam. The problem is that Hancock came to take command of the division at about 3 p.m., after General Israel Richardson was mortally wounded. Meagher was back behind the lines then, as he had already sustained an injury to his leg when he was knocked off his horse. Shaara's plight worsens. He has the misplaced Meagher tell Hancock that his brigade is "waitin' for a fight."

By the time Hancock came to take command of the division, the Irish Brigade had just finished what was probably as good a fight as any brigade on the field had that day, or perhaps any other day. They had been shot to pieces in the assault on "Bloody Lane." To have someone say to Hancock that the Irish Brigade was "waitin' for a fight" at 3 p.m. that day is to mischaracterize one of the most famous actions in the Brigade's history.

Shaara continues to place Meagher incorrectly at the next battle, Fredericksburg. He portrays Meagher accompanying his men on horseback as they assaulted the Confederates upon Marye's Heights. He then describes Meagher receiving a wound in the leg and falling from his horse as Hancock looks on. Meagher's earlier knee injury did prevent him from 

g&guard.jpg - 136 K
Photograph by Jim Wassel
The Irish Brigade color guard before the filming of the assault on Marye's Heights on the set of "Gods and Generals," due to open nationwide on Friday.

continuing up the Heights on foot, and the canal at the bottom of the hill prevented Meagher from advancing with a horse. He dismounted and had to remain at the foot of the hill.

Perhaps most unfortunate though is the simple fact that Shaara has Meagher shot from his horse during a battle in which he was not wounded at all. That's an egregious failure of the writer to keep faith with the known history that buttresses the story.

An author should also not have a historical figure saying things he would never say, or speaking in a way we are sure he would not speak. I bring this up because Shaara portrays Meagher as an apparently half-educated Irishman with a thick Irish accent. Here is an example of the words Shaara has Meagher speaking to Hancock at Fredericksburg: "... I will lead me Brigade. We are a-headin' up that there hill. ...," and "I will be leadin' this here Brigade." Meagher would have never spoken that way.

'Gods and Generals'
Reinvents Meagher

Shaara's Meagher: "We are a-headin' up that there hill."

The historical Meagher:"Abhor the sword -- stigmatize the sword? No, my lord, for at its blow, a giant nation was started across the waters of the Atlantic. ..."

Read more of Thomas Francis Meagher's famous "Sword Speech."

Most Irish Catholic immigrants at the time were uneducated, but in "Gods and Generals," Shaara has accepted the stereotype, apparently not doing adequate research. In fact, Meagher was a highly educated man. His was among the few well-off Irish Catholic families on the island. As a result, he received a very good education in the only place available to monied Irish families, in British schools. I'm sure that Meagher would be outraged to see phrases like "me Brigade," "that there hill" or "this here Brigade" put into his mouth. There's simply no way he would have spoken in that inarticulate manner.

Those schools also made it their business to eliminate Irish accents. According to Meagher's first biographer, Michael Cavanagh, they succeeded with Meagher. Cavanagh didn't come by this information second-hand -- he was a personal friend of Meagher's. Chapter VI of Cavanagh's book is titled "In Stonyhurst [college] - Eradication of the Irish Brogue." Even a small amount of research on Meagher should have revealed that he was highly educated, was, in fact, "Meagher of the Sword," one of the great orators of his time, and did NOT have an Irish accent.

g&gfred.jpg - 142 K
Photograph by Jim Wassel
The Irish Brigade begins their assault on Marye's Heights during the filming of "Gods and Generals."

I do not believe these are unfair or nitpicking criticisms. While Meagher is a minor figure in Shaara's book, his role -- in the book and in the history portrayed -- is significant. Shaara had an obligation to research him. Meagher is a one of the major Irish figures of the war, and information on him is readily available. There are several widely published books on the Irish Brigade and Meagher. A 10-minute phone call and conversation with any number of historians could have eliminated these obvious errors.

All that said, "Gods and Generals" is an entertaining book. While it falls well-short of "The Killer Angels," most books would.

Editor's Note: The movie "Gods and Generals," based on Jeff Shaara's book, will open in theaters nationwide Friday. Next week, WGT will review the film and the accompanying soundtrack, now available from Sony Classical.


  • Read more about Thomas Francis Meagher.
  • Read about the Irish at the Battle of Antietam.
  • Read about the Irish at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
  • See more photography by Jim Wassel at the website of Sykes Regulars.
    WGT Managing Editor Joe Gannon, otherwise a researcher in a corporate library in Connecticut, has been participating in Civil War reenacting for 12 years and is currently a mainstay of the 27th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. Gannon and many other members of the unit worked as extras in both "Gettysburg," based on "The Killer Angels," and "Gods and Generals."
    From the Publisher

    Jeff Shaara, right, explores the lives of Generals Lee, Hancock, Jackson and Chamberlain as the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg approaches. Shaara captures the disillusionment of both Lee and Hancock early in their careers, Lee's conflict with loyalty, Jackson's overwhelming Christian ethic and Chamberlain's total lack of experience, while illustrating how each compensated for shortcomings and failures when put to the test. The perspectives of the four men, particularly concerning the battles at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, make vivid the realities of war. Buy GODS AND GENERALS atAMAZON.COM . .

    Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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Tags: American, Civil, Generals, Gods, Meagher, Shaara, T.F., War, and


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