The McMahon Brothers: John, James & Martin
Classes of 1848, 1853 & 1855
Commanders, US Infantry, Civil War
They loved God, they loved their country and they loved Fordham.
The McMahon brothers took a long and circuitous route to the Prep, or as was called in their day, the Second Division of St. John’s College. The two older brothers, John Eugene McMahon and James Power McMahon, were born in Waterford, County Wexford, Ireland in 1834 and 1836, respectively. They would immigrate with their parents, Patrick McMahon and Mary Power McMahon, to Laprarie, Canada, where the youngest of the three brothers, Martin Thomas, was born in 1838.
When Martin was just three weeks old, the family moved to the United States, where they eventually settled in New York. Though they never forgot their Irish roots, the McMahons immediately embraced their new country and were proud to become Americans. Patrick and Mary had six children, three sons and three daughters. John, James and Martin, whom history would remember as Civil War heroes, all attended the Prep, from which they graduated in 1848, 1853 and 1855 respectively. As for the boys’ sisters, it seems the McMahon girls, Anna, Mary and Ella Jane, would live fairly adventurous lives as well. At least one would spend time as a lay nurse working alongside Prep Hall of Honor inductee Sr. Hieronymo O’Brien at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, and later on, all three sisters would travel with their brother Martin as part of the US diplomatic mission to Paraguay. Ella would go on to author and translate several devotional texts.
The brothers’ Rose Hill years were happy times. As recalled in an 1899 Catholic World article, all three McMahon boys had reputations at Fordham for “manliness and scholarship.” Few records remain of the quotidian triumphs and tragedies of the older brothers’ boarding school days at the Prep — John would graduate with honors; James studied bookkeeping under Rev. Thomas Ouellet, SJ — but as for Martin, the youngest of the McMahon brothers, a number of his Second Division accomplishments are still noted as
With their Fordham graduations behind them, the McMahon brothers had embarked on their careers by the early 1860s, all eventually settling into the legal field. John would serve for a stint as secretary to Governor Horatio Seymour of New York before setting up a law practice in Buffalo. He had also married. He and his wife, Esther Bryant McMahon, would have three children, Mary, Edward (who would die in infancy) and John, Jr., who, after his father’s death, would go on to have an outstanding military career of his own despite his widowed mother’s reservations.
After his time at Fordham, the second McMahon brother, James, would return to Cattaraugus County in western New York to help their father manage the family lumber business. In 1856, he would leave for Albany where he would apprentice himself to the law firm of Matthew McMahon, his uncle, eventually becoming a member of the practice.
Meanwhile, Martin would make a life for himself in California, where he first worked as an agent for the United States Postal Service, and then entered into a law practice with former governor John Weller in 1860.
When they heard the news about the shelling of Fort Sumter, all three brothers joined the military. Martin helped assemble a cavalry in California and assumed the rank of captain. John became an officer with the 164th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which he soon commanded. And atop his swift horse Blue Bird, James rode valiantly to war, first a member of Meagher’s Irish Brigade, then a colonel in the 155th New York State Volunteers and provost-martial of the Corcoran Legion. When Martin was informed that his company would not be sent to the front lines, he decided to return east. He must have been an impressive character, because in short order, Martin was made aide-de-camp to General George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac, eventually attaining the rank of brevet major general.
As with many families, the Civil War took a staggering toll on the McMahon family. John died in Buffalo, New York, while being treated for battlefield injuries he sustained at the front in 1863. James then assumed command of the 164th in his brother’s place. He died heroically in 1864 at the Battle of Cold Harbor in Hanover County, Virginia, felled by a hail of Confederate gunfire as he attempted to plant the colors of the 164th atop a rebel fortification. According to one account, one bullet split the sword he had raised over his head, and two other bullets shattered his left and right arms. He urged would-be rescuers to save themselves, and even declined whisky. Historians have remarked that James would have been a candidate for the Medal of Honor, but the award was not given posthumously at that time. The valiant death of James McMahon is the subject of the poem “How the Young Colonel Died,” by David Gray a 19th-century New York journalist and poet.
Sadly for the family, Patrick McMahon, father of John, James, and Martin, also passed away during the war, succumbing to sickness and grief. The boys' mother had passed some years before.
Of the three brothers, only the youngest, Martin would survive, though he, too, would prove heroic in battle. On June 30, 1862, Martin McMahon destroyed a strategically valuable but disabled wagon supply train that was under heavy enemy fire at White Oak Swamp, Virginia. He prevented it and its valuable contents, mostly documents, from falling into Confederate hands. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery. In the words of one of his fellow officers, “McMahon soon became my idol. Born of Irish ancestry and wonderfully educated by the Jesuits, [he was] of high and chivalrous aims.”
After the war, Martin returned to law, taking up a position in New York City as a corporate lawyer. Then, together with his sisters, he traveled to Paraguay, where he headed the US diplomatic legation for about a year. He is still celebrated in that country as an outsider who took great interest in its people during their ultimate crisis: la Guerra de la Triple Alianza, the Triple Alliance War. As recent as October 2007, during a celebration marking the Peace Corps’ time in Paraguay and the friendship between that country and the United States, the Paraguayan government issued a stamp bearing the likeness of Martin McMahon. After his time overseas, Latin American affairs would remain a concern of McMahon’s. Several years later, he became president of the Cuban League in New York City, a lobbying organization that supported Cubans in their efforts to free themselves from Spanish rule.
Returning to the States, Martin courted and married Louise Claire Hargous in 1872. Her brother, Peter Hargous, Jr., had been a Fordham man as well and for a time had taken over the Goose-Quill after Ham's graduation. The same year, another Hargous sister, Isabella, married John Rose Greene Hassard, Martin’s longtime friend and co-editor from their Second Division days. Louise would tragically pass away only a few months later.
Martin served for a long stint as receiver of taxes for New York State. He was then appointed US marshall for the Southern District of New York from 1885 to 1889. In 1890, the General was elected to the New York State Assembly, and a year later, he was elected to the State senate. Finally, in 1896 the Honorable Martin T. McMahon became judge of the New York Court of General Sessions.
McMahon remained a strong and passionate advocate for veterans of the Civil War. His personal experiences, including the losses not only of his brothers, but also of subordinates, superior officers, and one of his closest friends — General John Sedgwick, who died in his arms— made him a crusader for the well-being of battlefield survivors. As a member of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, the Army and Navy Club, the Society of the Army of the Potomac, the governing board of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, and President of the National Soldier’s Home, he frequently gave speeches on behalf of veterans and their families. A passionate orator, he spoke of the sacrifices of soldiers dying slowly on the field, their families, who agonized with little or no information about their loved ones, and about those who died as unknowns: “They went to the field and they came not back, where they fell, or how, a mystery forever here but not unmarked by Him who notes even a sparrow’s fall.”
Throughout his life, Martin was a loyal and active member of the Fordham Alumni Association, attending many Fordham functions, and making frequent visits to his old Rose Hill stomping grounds. He spoke often at Fordham, where he was given an honorary doctorate in 1866. He was a great supporter of St. John’s College, living to see his beloved Second Division slowly grow into its newly emerging name: Fordham Prep. Though he had no children of his own, he would see to it that his nephew, John, Jr., the son of his late brother, would continue the McMahon family tradition and attend Fordham University.
Martin Thomas McMahon died in 1906 in Manhattan and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was survived by his sisters and nieces and nephews, including John, Jr., as well as his namesake, Martin McMahon Ramsay, the son of his sister Anna and Admiral Francis Ramsay.
During his time with the Alumni Association, Martin was one of the key figures in commissioning the bronze statue of Archbishop Hughes to mark the 50th anniversary of the school's founding in 1891. That statue remains on the Rose Hill Campus to this day, as does the memory of the courage and sacrifices of John, James and Martin McMahon, true Fordham heroes.