MacGahan Papers
Janarius MacGahan, 1876

Read Part 1: Cheating Death in France and Spain.

By Joseph E. Gannon

As hundreds of 'embedded' war correspondents traveled across Iraq, 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

Accompanied by his friend and American diplomat Eugene Schuyler, Januarius MacGahan departed from Constantinople for Bulgaria in late summer of 1876. What they found as they crossed into Bulgaria was appalling. At Batak on August 7th, MacGahan reported, "Between the church and school there were heaps (of bodies). The stench was fearful. ... There were 3,000 bodies in the church yard and church." Commenting on the now untended crops in the fields around Batak, MacGahan wrote, "The harvests are rotting in the fields and the reapers are rotting here in the church yard." It appeared the Turks' idea of pacification was death. This was the work of the bloodthirsty bashi-bazouks, an undisciplined rabble of irregular soldier whom the Turks were allowing to run amok in the Bulgarian countryside. 

MacGahan's reports to the London Daily News, backed shortly afterwards by the release of Schuyler's corroborating official report, caused a sensation in Great Britain. Disraeli's government, ever mindful of containing the Russians, was supporting the Turks. As long as they did, the Russians, who dearly wished to aid the Bulgarians in their fight, held back, fearing war with the British. Suddenly, supporting the Turks was becoming akin to supporting mass murder. Even Queen Victoria was said to be distressed by MacGahan's reports. 

This Punch cartoon reflects the influence of MacGahan.
Turkey: "Will you not still befriend me?" 
Britannia: "Not with your hands ofthat color!"

MacGahan had already seen the horrors of war in many places in his short life, but they had not prepared him for this. In that first dispatch, he included this personal note to the publishers, "I fear I am no longer impartial ... There are things too horrible to allow anything like calm inquiry." The Bulgarians knew their only salvation lay in Russian intervention. Before he left Bulgaria in late August, Januarius was heard to tell Bulgarian peasants, "In less than a year, you shall see the soldiers of the Czar here." His dispatches were no longer written merely to report facts, his compassion for the suffering of the Bulgarian people had compelled him to attempt to influence events, and he was succeeding. Just before the Russians declared war on the Turks, MacGahan wrote to his mother, "I can safely say I have done more to smash up the Turkish Empire than anybody else ... except the Turks themselves." 

An attempt was made to resolve the Bulgarian issue through diplomacy through the winter and early spring of 1877, but they failed. Thanks to their appalling atrocities in Bulgaria, the Ottomans' faith in British opposition to Russian military intervention was now misplaced, however. MacGahan's reports had helped set the British public firmly against the Turks. On April 24th, the Turks received a note from the Czar informing them that he "sees himself compelled, to his regret, to have recourse to force of arms." The British reaction was a declaration of neutrality, surely a much different one than would have been the case before MacGahan's reports. 

Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, Personal Reminiscences
Gen. Michael Skobelev

Januarius now joined the Russian army for their advance on the Turks. He had befriended a Russian officer, Michael Skobelev, during his previous time with their army. Skobelev was now a general and on his way to becoming one of the most famous Russian officers of the 19th century. This friendship and acquaintance with other Russian commanders, along with a good knowledge of Russian, would prove invaluable to MacGahan in reporting the ensuing Russo-Turkish War. His friend and colleague from the Daily News, Archibald Forbes, noted that when it came to dealing with the Russians, "... it was the next best thing to being MacGahan himself to be MacGahan's friend." 

Forbes would soon discover that the respect MacGahan got from high-ranking Russians paled in comparison to the reaction of Bulgarian peasants in villages they passed through. In locales where MacGahan was known from his earlier investigation, "... people thronged about him, fondly treating him as their liberator and kissing his hands with a devotion that was thoroughly sincere," said Forbes. The farm boy from Pigeon Roost Ridge, Ohio, was now hailed as the champion of a people who had no idea where Ohio might be. 

I could distinguish one slight skeletal form still enclosed in a chemise, the skill wrapped with a colored handkerchief and the bony ankles encased in the embroidered footless stockings worn by Bulgarian girls. The ground was strewn with bones in every direction, where the dogs had carried them off to gnaw them at their leisure. At the distance of a hundred yards beneath us lay the town. As seen from our standpoint, it reminded one of the ruins of Herculaneum or Pompeii.

-- A portion of MacGahan's report from Batak

The Russo-Turkish War was a savage one. The Russians advanced rapidly until they reached Plevna in July, but then had two assaults repulsed with heavy casualties. This casualty rate was made worse by the fact that the Turks gave no quarter to Russians who tried to surrender, nor to those wounded on the battlefield. The infamous bashi-bazouks would roam the fields like vultures following the fighting, killing the wounded and stripping all valuables from the dead. Though he had many friends among the Russian generals, MacGahan did not shrink from telling the truth as he saw it regarding the battle for Plevna. The Russians would win in the end, he said, unless the Russian generals, "conduct the attack with the sort of imbecile neglect which allowed the Turks to get possession of Plevna." 

In spite of these attacks, MacGahan remained popular with the Russian officers and men. It seems that he was one of those rare individuals whom it is nearly impossible for anyone to dislike. One of the qualities others admired in him was an ability to memorize song lyrics and a penchant for bursting into those songs at the drop of a hat. "Dawn was heralded by MacGahan's cheerful song, which scarcely ceased throughout the day and chases us to our beds at night," said fellow correspondent Frederick Boyle. 

Henty Forbes, Battles of the Nineteenth Century 
The Turks final, futile charge at Plevna

In mid-September, the Russians attacked and suffered another bloody repulse, with Januarius' friend General Skobelev performing brilliantly even in defeat. In the end, the Turkish lines could not be broken, so they were surrounded and starved into submission instead. On December 10th, after a failed attempt to break out of their trap, the Turks surrendered. MacGahan's health had begun to falter at this point, but he insisted on following the Russians' now nearly unencumbered advance toward Constantinople. Finally on March 3, 1878, with the Russian army at the gates, the Turks capitulated and the Treaty of San Stefano was signed, ending the war. 

MacGahan enjoyed a well needed rest in and around Constantinople for a several weeks after the treaty, regaining some strength, and even sending for his wife and son to join him. In late May, he was making preparations to leave for Berlin when he learned a friend, American military observer Lt. Francis Greene, was sick with typhoid fever. 

Though MacGahan's wife urged caution, he rushed to Greene's bedside and nursed him for two days. "I have not been ill a day since I was in America," Januarius had written his mother just before departing to cover the Russo-Turkish war.A few day later, MacGahan himself fell ill, but with typhus, a more dangerous disease than typhoid. Perhaps a few years earlier, before his extended exposure to the rigors of campaigning, he would have survived it, but his body was now weakened. On June 9, 1878, 3 days short of his 34th birthday, Januarius MacGahan died. 

MacGahan Papers
Barbara MacGahan and their son, Paul, around 1880. She would have a successful writing career of her own in America, and Paul would graduate from Columbia University in 1896.

He was buried in Pera, with dozens of correspondents, diplomats, and military officers in attendance. None was more affected by the loss of their friend than Michael Skobelev, who weep openly at his graveside. His remains were returned to the United States on the warship "Powhatan" in August 1884, and he was buried in Maplewood Cemetery in New Lexington, Ohio, on September 12, 1884. Gen. Phil Sheridan, whose advice had helped send Januarius to his destiny, was there to honor his memory. 

For those who would like to learn more about MacGahan's incredible life, the most authoritative source is Dale L. Walker's "Januarius MacGahan: The Life and Campaigns of an American Correspondent," published by the Ohio University Press in 1988. Unfortunately only a small number were printed at the time. It is possible to find a used copy on occasion. We urge anyone out there affiliated with a publisher who has read this short article and finds MacGahan's life as fascinating as we do to consider suggesting that their company reprint Mr. Walker's book. 

It is tragic that only a handful of Americans, even Irish-Americans, know the name of Januarius Aloysius MacGahan today. It has been left to the Bulgarians, and Bulgarian-Americans to keep alive his memory, via organizations such as the MacGahan Bulgarian-American Foundation of New Lexington, Ohio, and they deserve praise for their efforts. But it is past time, that Irish-America joins them in recognizing and celebrating the life of the Irish-American "Liberator of Bulgaria," as well. 

Their website will be updated with details of this years schedule shortly, but you can see pictures and a report on past festivals at their site now: The MacGahan American-Bulgarian Foundation -- MacGahan Festival


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

Views: 1005

Tags: A., Bloom, Bulgaria, Correspondent, David, East, Europe, France, Iraq, JANUARIUS, More…Kelly, Liberator, MacGAHAN, Michael, Middle, Spain, War


You need to be a member of The Wild Geese to add comments!

Join The Wild Geese

The Wild Geese Shop

Get your Wild Geese merch here ... shirts, hats, sweatshirts, mugs, and more at The Wild Geese Shop.

Irish Heritage Partnership


Extend your reach with The Wild Geese Irish Heritage Partnership.

Congrats to Our Winners


  • Add Videos
  • View All

© 2021   Created by Gerry Regan.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service