Some of you may ask: what is a Fenian? The name derives from the ancient Fianna Éireann, a legendary band of Irish warriors led by Finn MacCumhaill that roamed over ancient Ireland acting as a bodyguard for Ard Ri – the Irish High King. But the Fenians on which I will speak were the members of Fenian Brotherhood, whose mandate it was to create a free and independent Ireland and who, beginning in the late 1860s, set out to invade and conquer Canada.
The Potato Famine that devastated Ireland from 1845-1848 led thousands to leave their homes and travel to the New World. It also gave rise to the Young Ireland Movement, a militant group that wanted their country to be free of English rule. In the aftermath of the Young Ireland Uprising of 1848, which saw 6000 Irish men and boys use pitchforks and pikes to battle the British army, only to be quickly defeated, those thousands of Irish immigrants would come to include those leaders of the Uprising that escaped capture, including James Stephens and John O’Mahoney. Once they had found refuge in the United States, these Young Ireland leaders would join together to form the Fenian Movement in North America.
The Movement was launched as part of a ceremony in front of Tammany Hall in New York in October 1858. The movement attracted many volunteers from the large Irish immigrant populations in Boston, New York and the Northeast United States with many of its members gaining military experience while serving in the American Civil War. According to reports, 14000 dues-paying members of the Fenian Brotherhood served in the Union Army, while an almost equal number served the Confederacy. O’Mahoney himself served as a Colonel in the 69th New York of the Irish Brigade.
With the end of the Civil War in the spring of 1865, the Fenian Brotherhood’s numbers continued to swell as many of those discharged from armies both north and south believed that another war was coming, one that would free their Irish homeland.
In October 1865, a Fenian Congress Convention was held in Philadelphia, to determine their course of action. O’Mahoney, who had been named President of the Brotherhood, wanted to land troops in Ireland and attack the British on their home soil.
But not all was going smoothly for the Fenians, as O’Mahoney’s leadership was challenged by a former New York Militia Colonel named William Randolph Roberts, who had been named Vice President. Roberts, had his own faction of supporters, and after another convention, this time in Cincinnati, advocated to make a series of coordinated raids against Canada. The goal would be to capture Canada’s transportation network, with the hopes that they could use that for leverage against the British government, and, in doing so, gain independence for Ireland.
The American government took no active steps to stop the build up for these raids. In fact, they allowed T.W. Sweeney (commissioned as a Fenian general and Roberts’ Secretary of War) to leave the ranks of the American army from January to November 1866 to help organize the raids. In November 1865, Roberts met with U.S. President Andrew Johnson, who assured Roberts that should the Fenians succeed in capturing Canada, the American government would recognize their leaders as the Irish Republic in exile, proof that ill feelings between the American and British government remained.
The Fenian Raids were not to come as a total surprise to the military in Canada. On St Patrick’s Day in 1866, the Fenians held another massive meeting in New York and were already threatening to come north to invade Canada. Soon, as many as 10 000 Canadian militia were placed under arms as a precaution to an anticipated attack and ordered to patrol Canada’s southern boundaries. Indeed, many men from this area answered the call for volunteer militiamen and were posted along the Canadian-U.S. borders in Sarnia and Fort Erie.
For his part, O’Mahoney chose F.F. Millen for his secretary of war. Millen was a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Mexican Army’s Irish Legion of St. Patrick, which had battled the Americans during the Mexican War, and was sent to Ireland with the idea that he would lead a mutiny of the 8000 Fenians serving in the British Army of Occupation and the further 7000 Fenians in the British militia. However, such a mutiny never came about and in the 1950s, when British secret files were opened, it was revealed that Millen had been a British spy.
The initial Fenian Raid was as much a power play by John O’Mahoney to regain control of the movement as it was a serious attempt to begin the invasion of Canada. Before Roberts’ faction could launch its attack, O’Mahoney decided to beat him to the punch. About 700 men under his command would attack Campobello Island, New Brunswick, .an island off the coast of Maine located at the mouth of the St. Croix River and at the entrance to Passamaquoddy Bay. The attack would come on April 19, 1866, in the first action of the Fenian Raids.
As I stated, the Island lay between New Brunswick and Maine, although it was closer to the United States than Canada. Because of this, the ownership of the island was the subject of some dispute between the United States and England. It was that dispute that O’Mahoney hoped to exploit, believing his actions might spark a clash between the two nations. O’Mahoney also hoped to use the Island as a future point of embarkation when the Fenians would cross the Atlantic and free Ireland.
On that April day, the 700-man force led by Bernard Doran Killian, left Calais and Eastport, Maine and headed north to New Brunswick. American and British gunboats did, in fact, converge on the Island. However, it was to turn back the Fenians, rather than battle each other. Thanks to the information gained by spies, both the British military in Halifax and the American government rushed troops, both regular and volunteer to New Brunswick.
That “invasion” would result in the capture of a single customs officer, the burning of some government warehouses and the theft of a Union Jack flag from a customhouse. The customs officer, a Mr. Dixon, further burdened with a sick wife, in addition to facing the Irish onslaught, put up little resistance.
American President Andrew Johnston sent General George G. Meade, the victor at Gettysburg, and 20 artillerymen aboard an American warship to, it is believed, try and dissuade the Fenians in a peaceful manner. The American government also seized the Ocean Spray, a former Confederate schooner that had been converted into a Fenian arms carrier. During the coming Fenian retreat, several officers would be detained by American officials.
Confronted by militia and regular troops, as well as naval forces from both sides of the border, and deprived of their supply of arms and ammunition (with the capture of the Ocean Spray), the Fenians quickly retreated back to the United States, their first attempt to capture Canada a complete disaster. While the Campo Bello Island raid may have been devastating to Fenian morale, it was a major factor in New Brunswick joining Confederation in 1867.
The focus of defending Canada shifted west to Upper Canada as in the early morning hours of June 1st, 1866, a group of about 800 men, led by former Union cavalry officer and Fenian general John O’Neill landed on the banks of the Niagara River just above Fort Erie. These were units of the Fenian Army including the 7th Buffalo (NY), 18th Ohio, 13th Tennessee, and 17th Kentucky Fenian Regiments, and an independent Company from Indiana.
O’Neill’s troops referred to themselves as the “Irish Republican Army”, believed to be the first use of the term. They were described as wearing elements of U.S. uniforms and green jackets. While 800 arrived, as many 3000 more had been prevented from leaving the U.S. by the arrival of an American gunboat, the U.S.S. Michigan.
By 5:00, the Fenians had occupied Fort Erie and were sending out patrols, and the bulk of that first day was spent trying to enlist the local citizens into the Fenian cause and gather supplies. In addition to tearing up telegraph and railway lines, they demanded food and horses, offering Fenian bonds as payment. But for all their success, the Fenian force was plagued by desertions, leaving O’Neill with perhaps 500 men by the end of the day.
Meanwhile, the alarm went out across Upper Canada, and the British forces mobilized both militia and regular troops to meet this challenge, rushing them to the scene by steamship and rail.
The troops were then divided, with 800 militia, including 2nd Militia Battalion, Queen’s Own Rifles, the 13th Battalion of Infantry (Hamilton), and the York and Caledonia rifle companies under Lt. Colonel Dennis being deployed at Port Colbourne, while a combined force of British regulars and Canadian militia including the 16th and 47th Regiments of Foot, numbering 1450 infantry, a 6-gun battery and 55 cavalry, formed at Chippawa under the command of Colonel Peacocke. The plan was for the two forces to move against the Fenians on June 2nd, joining forces just outside of Stevensville, to the northwest of Fort Erie.
However, when Dennis left with 80 men to undertake an independent (and unauthorized) amphibious operation against the Fenians at Fort Erie, Lt. Colonel Alfred Booker, an auctioneer from Hamilton, was left to lead the militia to Stevensville.
With the British and Canadian force not keeping their approach a secret, the Fenians marched through the night across Frenchman’s Creek to take up positions on Lime Ridge near what is now Ridgeway, Ontario.
It was there that the Fenians would collide with the Canadian militia (including the Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto, the 13th Hamilton Battalion and rifle companies from Caledonia and York) under Booker’s command, resulting in the largest engagement of the Fenian Raids.
The first shots were fired around 7:30 am on June 2nd, with the 5th Company of the Queen’s Own Rifles getting the better of the Fenian skirmishers, due to the militia being equipped with Sharpe’s repeating rifles.
The battle began well for the Canadian defenders, although some began to run out of ammunition, until the militia mistook Fenian scouts (who had captured some local horses) for cavalry. They formed square to defend against a cavalry charge. The order was quickly countermanded, which only led to confusion. After a short battle (lasting between one and three hours), Booker ordered his militia to retreat. The Fenians responded with a bayonet charge and gave chase back to Ridgeway, but no further.
The Canadians would suffer casualties of nine killed and 37 wounded. O’Neill’s Fenians, which soon fell back to Fort Erie, claimed four or five dead, but six Fenian bodies were found on the battlefield afterwards.
By that afternoon, O’Neill and his troops had returned to Fort Erie, where they clashed with the Welland Canal Volunteer Artillery Regiment, the small force of Canadian troops led Lt. Colonel Dennis, who had landed and were rounding up stragglers. Expecting to face only defeated Fenians closely pursued by British and Canadian troops, Dennis’ contingent were quickly overwhelmed, with most of the landed militia being captured. Dennis himself evaded capture by shedding his uniform and hiding at a friend’s house and was later court-martialed (but acquitted).
As the gunboat and remaining militia fled to Port Colbourne, the Fenians retained their temporary control of Fort Erie. However, with Peacocke’s troops of British regulars and other Canadian militia converging on his position, O’Neill ordered a retreat back into New York, where most surrendered to a naval party from the USS Michigan.
A week later, on June 7th, 1866, another Fenian force, later numbered at anywhere between a few hundred to 2000 men, would crossed the border and headed towards Pigeon Hill in Missisquoi County in Lower Canada, later known as Quebec.
These Fenian soldiers, part of the Right Wing of the Irish Republican Army’ had begun moving out from various locations across New England on the evening of May 31st, with their primary destination being St. Alban’s, Vermont. Perhaps the irony was lost on many of those Fenians that St. Albans had been the target of an 1864 Confederate raid, led by Rebel troops operating out of Canada. The troops that gathered at St. Albans were to be led by Fenian General Samuel Spier, with General Mahon, from Boston, acting as his chief of staff.
As Spier led his advance guard some six miles into Canadian territory, stopping at St. Armand, and planning a bright green flag into enemy soil, before he set up his headquarters at nearby Pigeon Hill.
The Canadian troops in the area consisted of three infantry companies, made up of nine officers and 110 non-commissioned officers and soldiers. This force of raw volunteers, mostly untrained, was led by Captain W. Carter of the 16th Regiment. When Carter saw of the Fenians’ approach, he led his troops in retreat, an action that led to a reprimand and the anger of those under his command.
With the departure of local defenders, Spier’s Fenians soon captured the nearby towns of Frelighsburg, Slab City and East Stanbridge. They plundered these villages, stealing chickens, pigs and liquor from farmers in the area.
But while the Fenians may have had success in this latest raid into Canada, word came that they would not be able to survive in enemy country for long. Back in Vermont, American officials had seized the Fenians supply of arms and ammunition, and no further reinforcements were forthcoming.
As the days progressed, Spier’s troops in Canada became restless and disheartened, leading to many desertions. Spier himself knew that, without reinforcement and further supplies, his troops would not be able to fend off the British counter attack that he knew must be coming.
By June 9th, in fact, a force of British and Canadian troops had begun their advance from St. Alexandre and so Spier ordered his men to retreat back to the United States. It was a very unorderly retreat, with many of the men downcast and angry at having to pull back from their positions. Some 200 stragglers were left behind breastworks at Pigeon Hill when 40 volunteer cavalrymen of the Royal Guides under Captain D. Lorne MacDougall came across them. The cavalrymen charged the enemy positions and captured sixteen Fenian soldiers, with no losses to the Canadian troops.
As the retreating Fenians crossed the American border, they were apprehended by U.S. troops, stationed along the roads leading to St. Albans, who confiscated weapons from those who had not already tossed away their rifles, etc, in their haste to retreat. General Spier and his staff surrendered to these troops as well, and were taken to St. Albans to await trial for violation of neutrality laws. Most of the rest were simply sent home.
In the continued pursuit of some of the retreating Fenians, the Royal Guides were given permission to continue the pursuit into St. Albans. When a local woman came out to see what was going on, she was inadvertently shot and killed by the advancing Guides. The American commander received a severe reprimand and no further pursuit was to be allowed.
On June 22nd, several of the Fenians that had remained in the area returned to Pigeon Hill, and engaged in a skirmish with a detachment of Richelieu Light Infantry stationed there. As the Fenians retreated, the Canadian troops gave chase but the Fenians fled into a nearby swamp and made good their escape.
Three years would pass before the Fenians would attempt to invade Canada. The American government actually purchased railway tickets for the Fenians to return to their homes if they promised not to take part in future invasions of Canada.
But despite the early losses and setbacks, the Fenian movement would not lose momentum. In 1868, another Fenian convention was held, this time in Philadelphia. 400 delegates attended while 6000 more uniformed Fenian soldiers paraded throughout the streets. It was determined that another invasion of Canada would be attempted. That attempt came in 1870.
But, in the same year that the Philadelphia convention was held, perhaps the most tragic consequence of the Fenian movement was played out. In the early morning hours of April 7th, 1868, Canadian politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee was shot in the doorway of his Ottawa rooming house. Patrick James Whelan was convicted of the crime and sentenced to hang. His execution was the last public hanging in Canada.
McGee, who had at one time been a leader in the Young Ireland Uprising, had moderated his views in the years prior to his assassination and had been outspoken in his opposition to the Irish movement, denouncing the Fenians’ attempts of a violent and hostile takeover of Canada.
“Secret Societies are like what the farmers in Ireland used to say of scotch grass,” he wrote in the Montreal Gazette. “The only way to destroy it is to cut it out by the roots and burn it into powder.”
These words angered the Fenians, perhaps enough to conspire to kill McGee. Although never formally accused of being a Fenian, it has long been suspected that Whelan, an Irish immigrant tailor, was part of a Fenian conspiracy to assassinate McGee, although others believe that Whelan was unjustly condemned as a scapegoat for the murder.
On May 25th, 1870, approximately 600 Fenians assembled under the commands of John O’Neil and a freed Samuel Spier. As they did in 1866, the Fenians launched another invasion into Lower Canada, concentrating their raid again on Missisquoi County, returning to the site of the June 1866 raid.
This 1870 invasion was, seemingly, doomed from the start. O’Neil was apprehended by an American police patrol before ever crossing onto Canadian soil and even as Spier and the rest of the invading Fenians entered Canada, scouts were alerted to their presence and soon militia were rushed to the scene. This was due in part to the efforts of Thomas Billis Beach, an agent working against the Fenians from within their own organization.
As the Fenians approached Eccles Hill, near what is today known as Ormstown, Quebec, they were met by some 680 militia troops, known as the Red Sashes, based in Huntingdon.
The Battle of Eccles Hill was largely a series of small skirmishes until a battalion of volunteer cavalry charged the Fenian positions. This cavalry was led by Lt. Colonel William Smith, who would, from September 25th – October 17, 1873, serve as the first Acting Commissioner of the North West Mounted Police.
The charge was enough to convince Spier to order a retreat, leaving the Fenian’s lone artillery piece and their dead behind. The Fenian casualties were five dead and 18 wounded, but amazingly, the Canadian militia suffered no casualties.
Two days later, Spier would return, bringing 300 men back into Canada, and deployed his troops near Trout River, using a rail fence for cover. Not long after, a much larger force of Canadian militia and British troops emerged from a nearby woods.
Seeing the enemy emerge, Spier ordered his troops to keep up their fire for ten minutes. Before that ten minutes had elapsed, however, the Canadian militia made a move to outflank the Fenian positions, and Spier ordered his troops to retreat. The British troops pressed the retreating Fenians, who continued to fall back in good order to the United States border.
In 1871, with their invasions of Canada having failed at every turn, the Fenians tried to organize one more attempt at insurgence in Canada. This time, the Fenians traveled west where they hoped to join forces with Metis leader Louis Riel.
- B. O’Donoghue, one of the Fenian leaders, believed that the Metis might see enough similarities between the two groups to recognize allies in the Fenians. Certainly, the Fenians shared both a similar Roman Catholic background with the Metis, as well as the ordeal of being a minority within the British Empire.
O’Donoghue and Riel had been close friends, once, with O’Donoghue acting as treasurer for Riel’s Red River Rebellion. However, there had been a falling out between the two, with O’Donoghue accusing Riel of being too compromising to the British and unsuccessfully arguing that the American government should be asked to intervene on behalf of the Metis people. These difference would come into play as the Fenians launched their latest invasion attempt.
Lieutenant Governor Adams Archibald had been forewarned of the Fenian attack, by the American consul in Winnipeg, a Mr. Taylor, who informed him that there was large stores of arms stored near or at Fort Pembina in the Dakota Territory, and then, later, that Fenian leader John O’Neill was at Pembina with approximately 100 men. It is possible that Archibald was told about the possibility of the raid by Lois Riel himself. In the days before the raid, rumours flew that Manitoba was about to be invaded by 2000 Fenians.
Instead, on the morning of October 5, 1871, a small force of 40-80 Fenians (that figure given by U.S. Army Captain Lloyd Wheaton of Fort Pemberton) crossed the North Dakota-Manitoba border and occupied both the Dominion Customs House and the Hudson’s Bay Company post.
The Fenians had captured some twenty prisoners and were soon engaged in the removal of stores from the Hudson’s Bay Company post. One of the prisoners was an American citizen who demanded and received his release. As soon as he was released, the American rushed to Captain Wheaton’s post at Fort Pemberton. Wheaton and some 23 U.S. soldiers soon arrived on the scene and captured Fenian officers John O’Neil, Thomas Curley and J.J. Donnelly as well as 10 other Fenian soldiers and, according to reports of the day, 94 muskets, 11 sabres and 12 00 rounds of ammunition.
Instead of aligning himself with the Fenians, Riel actually helped to raise a force of 200 Metis to guard the Canadian border and even more ironically, it was the Metis that would capture O’Donoghue and turn him over to American authorities.
Because the Hudson’s Bay post was in territory that was “south of the boundary claimed by the United States and north of that approved by the Dominion”, according to one report, little controversy arose between the U.S. and Canada about the American troops crossing the 49th Parallel to capture the Fenians. In fact, the closest that the two countries came to an international incident over the affair was when the Canadian troops did not vacate the area in a timely manner.
While what became known as the Pembina Raid of 1871 would be the last major Fenian action in North America, the Fenian Brotherhood continued to organize and recruit openly in the Pacific Northwest well into the 1870s and 1880s. An invasion of British Columbia was widely rumoured, leading to the British posting warships in Vancouver for some time.
Overall, the Fenian Raids did little to further the cause of Irish independence at least in terms of capturing a bargaining tool against the British. The raids, many of which were doomed from the start it would seem, lasted for a few hours and resulted in the Fenians retreating back across the United States border.
Could the Fenian Raids have succeeded? I would suggest not. With the combined forces of British regular troops and Canadian militia outnumbering them greatly, and the American government cutting them off from reinforcements and supplies, the Fenians could not have hoped to exploit what little success they might have achieved on the battlefields.
It can certainly be argued that the Fenian Raids did more for Canada than it ever did for Ireland While the Fenians failed to capture Canada, what the raids did accomplish was to unite the people of Canada, vastly diverse in their religious and ethnic backgrounds. The Irish and Catholic people of Canada, of whom Fenian leaders expected would welcome them with open arms, mostly remained loyal to their new homes. The Metis, whom O’Donoghue believed would unite with the Fenians, in turn organized to drive the invaders from Canada. The raids also pointed out the need for a strong united country that could come together in times of defence, especially when an invasion from our neighbours from the south was still a distinct possibility. Historians continue to point to the Fenian raids as a major factor to the success of Confederation in 1867.