Januarius A. MacGahan: Daring to Tell the Truth, Part 1 OF 2: Cheating Death in France and Spain.

By Joseph E. Gannon

As hundreds of 'embedded' war correspondents traveled across Iraq in 2003, WGT remembered a 19th century Irish-American correspondent whose reports on a Turkish massacre shocked the entire world, compelling world leaders to place humanitarian concerns above geopolitical ones. Ohio native Januarius MacGahan's accounts eventually led to a new nation in Eastern Europe.

Across the road from the New Lexington Courthouse in central Ohio is a large statue of a walking figure carved by Bulgarian-American Lubomir Daltchev. It is probable that since June 1984, when it was unveiled, many people have walked by and read the name beneath it without a flicker of recognition. No doubt they wondered why a man they never heard of would have so large a monument. 

(Left: The MacGahan American-Bulgarian Foundation-  Statue of Janarius MacGahan in New Lexington.)

Were a group of Bulgarians to find their way to this tribute to a man who grew up on a farm three miles south, their reaction would be much different. Their instant recognition of him would likely be accompanied by gestures of honor and respect. For here, thousands of miles from their homes, they would be at gazing at a monument to one of the greatest heroes of their country: Januarius Aloysius MacGahan, the Irish-American war correspondent who is considered by many to be "The Liberator of Bulgaria." 

The short life of Januarius MacGahan is so brimming with world travel, romance, and adventure that it would most likely be rejected as "over the top" if submitted to a publisher as a work of fiction. Like many American works of fiction, his story has a humble farm-boy beginning. He was born in the also fictitious sounding town of Pigeon Roost Ridge, Ohio, on June 12, 1844. MacGahan's father, James, was a British navy veteran, born in County Derry, Ireland, while his mother, Ester Dempsey, was a devote Catholic of mixed Irish/German background. Unfortunately, James died when Januarius was just six, causing great hardship for the family. 

Library of Congress
Gen. Phil Sheridan, whose advice sent MacGahan on his life's adventure.

MacGahan proved an excellent student, and before he was out of his teens he was teaching in Indiana. But he had ambitions far beyond the scope of rural Midwestern farm life, and so traveled to St. Louis. He found work as a bookkeeper there, and also as a writer, and is, in fact, listed in J. Cutler Andrews' definitive tome, "The North Reports the Civil War," as a wartime correspondent for the St. Louis Democrat, ironically, a newspaper that staunchly supported the the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln. 

At 22, a chance meeting with another famous Irish-American and fellow Ohioan, Civil War general Phil Sheridan, directed Januarius' life off in a totally unimagined direction. While many were advising America's youth, "Go West, young man," Sheridan advised MacGahan to do the opposite to find the adventure he sought. Go East, he said, far to the East, in fact, all the way to Europe. MacGahan decided to take this advice. 

In December 1868, he was off to Europe. He knew no one there, and had no definite plan beyond a vague idea to study languages and perhaps to return to the United States later to practice law. Living in Paris most of the time but traveling extensively around Europe over the next two years, Januarius did learn a number of languages. Not surprisingly, he became most fluent in French, and in 1870, with his funds running low, this skill would lead him to the next chapter of his eventful life. He had just eight years to live, but those would be filled with enough melodrama for several novels. 

The event that next altered the course of his life was the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Once again, Sheridan would have a hand in this change, though not directly this time. Sheridan came to France to observe the war for the U.S. War Department, and while visiting Sheridan, Januarius fell in with the newspapermen in Sheridan's entourage. Speaking French, and also some German, Russian, and Spanish -- he would eventually learn nine languages -- MacGahan attracted the attention of reporters and he was offered a job reporting the war for The New York Herald. Here at last was an assignment to get MacGahan's heart pumping. He could hardly vault on a horse fast enough to make his way to the front. Fate had finally conspired to place him in the job he was born to do. 

A contemporary cartoon depicting Prussia's defeat of France.

Soon after he arrived at the front near the Swiss border, events began to go badly for the French army, but very well for MacGahan. He did not begin this career brimming with confidence. In a letter written just after reaching the front, he wrote, "I had supposed it took somebody like [William] Russell of the Times to be a war correspondent and did not think it worthwhile for an unknown person like myself to try it." 

But eventually MacGahan's reports on the war, where he was said to fearlessly move among the troops under fire, were so well received that he was hired by the London News as well. France soon surrendered, and near anarchy followed. Reporting on the upheaval in Paris, Januarius was nearly killed on at least two occasions and then found himself arrested and charged with being a Communist. More than 60 suspected Communists were executed during this period. Elihu Washburne, of the United States ministry in Paris, intervened to get MacGahan released, perhaps saving his life. 

Over the next few years, MacGahan would travel much of Europe and Asia on reporting assignments. He accompanied U.S. general William T. Sherman on a tour of Europe in 1871-72 and then had a famous adventure following the Russian army into Central Asia 1873. Denied permission to accompany its expedition when it departed from St. Petersburg to pacify Muslims in Khiva, MacGahan set out alone, following the army hundreds of miles across the Kizil Kum desert. So impressed were the Russians with this accomplishment that they congratulated him and allowed him to remain and cover their conquest of Khiva. 

Campaigning on the Oxus and the Fall of Khiva

The citadel of Khiva.

MacGahan later published a book on this Russian campaign called "Campaigning on the Oxus and the Fall of Khiva." U.S. diplomat Eugene Schuyler, a friend of MacGahan's, said of this exploit, "His ride across the desert was spoken of everywhere in Central Asia as by far the most wonderful thing that had ever been done there." British reporter Archibald Forbes called it "the most remarkable and daring exploit in all the annals of war correspondence." 

Somehow, in the midst of all that, MacGahan found time for a Russian adventure of a more personal nature. After being thrown from his horse near St. Petersburg in 1871, he had been nursed by to health by several young daughters of the local gentry. He shortly fell in love with one of them: Varvara Nikolaevna Elagin. 

At one point, later in the year, after MacGahan had recovered, he offered her a bet that they "would be married in two years." It was a bet he would have won. Early in 1873, in Paris, they were married, but before the year was out he was on his way back to St. Petersburg to follow the Russian army to Khiva, and he left Varvara in Paris, pregnant. She would suffer a miscarriage, but in 1875 they would have a son, Paul. 

MacGahan had several more exciting escapades in the next few years, including a trip to the Arctic aboard the "Pandora," and he cheated death again when he was nearly executed as a Carlist while covering the fighting in Spain in 1874. U.S. government intervention saved him once again, as it had in Paris. Then, in 1876, writing now for the Daily News of London, MacGahan received a fateful assignment to cover the Turks' pacification of Bulgarian rebels. What MacGahan found in Bulgaria, and his skill in reporting it, would do more than merely inform a curious public. It would change the course of Eastern European history. 

Read Part 2: Becoming "The Father of Bulgaria"


The MacGahan American-Bulgarian Foundation -- MacGahan Festival

The Life and Times of Januarius MacGahan: A One-Man Play by Rick So...


MacGahan and Bulgaria, 1878-1978: A Centennial Commemoration, New Lexington, June 3, 1978. MacGahan American-Bulgarian Foundation, 1979.

MacGahan, Januarius. Campaigning on the Oxus and the Fall of Khiva. Arno Press, 1970.

Sowash, Rick. Heroes of Ohio: 23 True Tales of Courage and character. Gabriel's Horn Publishing Co., 1988.

Walker, Dale L. Januarius MacGahan: The Life and Campaigns of an American War Corre... Ohio University Press, 1988. (Walker's book is the most authoratative source, and the only full-length biography ever done of MacGahan.)

Waker, Dale L. The Search for Januarius MacGahan. Carl Hertzog Lecture Series, No. 1, 1989. 

More on The Wild Geese in Europe's Wars

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 permissions@garmedia.com

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Tags: A., Bulgaria, Correspondent, Europe, France, JANUARIUS, Liberator, MacGAHAN, Spain, War


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