When the eight hundred Irish-American Civil War veterans marched across the border at Buffalo to invade Canada on a sunny June day in 1866, their hearts were set on a victory for Irish independence. With a confusing strategy, unrealistic goal, and the tunnel vision of their leaders, they bravely advanced forward. The story of these American citizens and their plan to free Ireland through a Canadian invasion is nearly lost to history today, though many historians link the event to Canadian Confederation and the path that would lead Canada to independence. Carried out on Canadian soil against the British by Irish soldiers and for the cause of an independent Ireland, the Fenian Invasions– one of the strangest events in North American history–is a quintessentially American story.
The story of the Fenian Invasions is one deeply rooted in the American immigrant experience. The 1840s saw a veritable exodus from Ireland as the Great Famine (1845-1851) gripped the nation, exacerbated by British policy that treated Ireland like a whiny child, rather than a nation of hundreds of thousands of starving farmers and citizens. Most notable in this failure of policy were the Poor Laws which levied higher taxes on Irish landholders to finance workhouses in an effort to keep the responsibility for the Irish poor on the Irish themselves. When landlords faced higher taxes they raised rent on their tenants to make up the difference, leading to more tenants unable to pay rent, which meant more homeless Irish farmers unable to feed themselves. Due in part to the actions (or inaction) of British Parliament during the Famine, the Young Ireland movement—an organization created by young Irish (hence the name) intellectuals to unite the Irish against the British– began agitating for armed insurrection. In 1848, two of Young Ireland’s leaders (Charles Duffy and John Mitchel) were arrested for treason and membership in the organization became grounds for arrest, the armed uprising of the Young Ireland movement was violently suppressed by the British and all forty of those that attacked Dublin with stones and wooden pikes were promptly arrested. Those sympathetic to Young Ireland and its aims were dealt a crushing blow by the defeat of the poorly planned insurrection and those that chose to leave rather than live under British rule also found their way to the United States and its exploding Irish population. These Irish, forced from their homeland in one way or another, numbered around 1.6 million by 1860, mostly settling in the northeast. Most had brought little with them except the clothes on their backs and anger toward the British. So it was in this fertile ground that John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny, two scholars and former Young Irelanders, with support from James Stephens, also a former Young Irelander and founding member of the Irish Republic Brotherhood (in Ireland), founded the American Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB) in 1858.
The IRB in America was formed in New York City for the express purpose of Irish independence. Forming the IRB on the foundation of a pre-existing organization committed to armed struggle for Irish independence, the Emmet Monument Association, within which only men with no family ties could be admitted for membership so that they would be free, at a moments’ notice, to participate in an armed struggle should it occur, gave the organization a military objective from the beginning. O’Mahony and Doheny formed the IRB on this blueprint, eventually abolishing the Emmet Monument Association, and, soon, money and, to a lesser extent, arms, flowed from Irish communities in the United States to Ireland to assist in the struggle. By 1859 O’Mahony had changed the name of the IRB to the Fenian Brotherhood, (after an ancient class of Irish warriors). The movement was picked up steam and attracted followers, and an armed revolt against the British in Ireland seemed imminent. Everyone’s attention was suddenly shifted south, however, with the onset of the Civil War in the United States.
Only in post-Civil War America could the story of the Fenian Brotherhood and their military ambition have played out. Estimates of how many Irish fought in the Civil War generally run somewhere between 150,000 and 175,000, comprising nearly 40% of all foreign-born veterans. The Irish made a name for themselves as good soldiers willing to fight for the cause. Upon the end of the war, these soldiers returned to their homes, mostly in the northeast, with their service pay, more employment opportunities than had been previously afforded the Irish, and even surplus arms that some had been able to purchase. But their anger at the British had not subsided and when plans for an uprising in Ireland were discovered and James Stephens was arrested in 1865, the need for the Fenians to take over the armed struggle for Ireland took on a new urgency.
After the arrest of Stephens, the Fenian Brotherhood split into two factions, one headed by O’Mahony and the other (often called the “Senate faction”) headed by William Roberts and Thomas Sweeny. Sweeny was the author of the plan to invade Canada in an attempt to hold large portions of the nation hostage to force the British to negotiate on Irish independence. Those that followed O’Mahony, however, focused on an uprising in Ireland itself. Sweeny’s idea, however, won out and in April 1866 a force of 700 Fenians, led, ironically, by O’Mahony, invaded Campobello Island off of the coast of Nova Scotia until the British military came and kindly dispatched them back to the US under strict orders to please not invade Canada anymore.
But invade Canada they did! In a spectacular showing in June 1866 the Fenians launched what was meant to be a three-pronged attack to bring large parts of Canada under Fenian occupation. What actually occurred was an invasion from Buffalo, New York of around 800 Fenians led by Col. John O’Neill and Col. Owen Starr. The officers marched their troops to Fort Erie where they proudly removed the Union Jack and hoisted the Irish flag on June 1, 1866. The next day, O’Neill and a couple hundred troops engaged the Canadian militia aided by a small number of British regulars at Ridgeway and forced them to retreat. Returning to Fort Erie after the Battle of Ridgeway, the Fenians again faced the Canadian/British in a skirmish that took all of fifteen minutes, according to eyewitness accounts. before the Canadians again retreated. Having received word that the British were advancing on Fort Erie with five thousand men, Fenian soldiers began their retreat to Buffalo aboard a small boat across the Niagara River on June 3rd. After occupying foreign territory for two full days, engaging a foreign army twice, and emerging victorious, the Fenians were arrested by United States forces aboard the USS Michigan early that morning.
Most of the men that were arrested upon their return from Ridgeway were quickly paroled; O’Neill included, and would live to fight another day. Reasoning behind why a significant number of men that had basically committed treason were paroled almost immediately is found in the chaotic politics of a United States on the verge of Reconstruction. Politicians in the northeast were hesitant to do anything that would alienate the Irish, which constituted a broad support base and, while not all Irish were members of the Brotherhood, most were sympathetic to its cause. Even the famed Tammany Hall political machine headed by William “Boss” Tweed, were connected to the Fenians. Further, it had become common knowledge that the British had seriously considered interfering in the US Civil War on behalf of the Confederacy– knowledge that did not sit well with most Union Americans, for obvious reasons. This chaotic political atmosphere, combined with renewed tensions with the British, led the Fenians to expect both tacit and overt support for their invasion. When President Andrew Jackson announced on June 5, 1866 that he would uphold the Neutrality Laws of 1818, the Fenians paid little attention, attacking again on June 7 and securing four villages near St Armand.
The nominal success at the Battle of Ridgeway catapulted John O’Neill to fame within the Fenian Brotherhood and he became its president in 1868. A shadowy figure in American history, O’Neill was committed to his cause. He had immigrated to the US from Ireland in 1848 and had joined the American army. O’Neill’s military record during both the Civil War and the Utah War gained him a reputation as an able soldier and natural leader. While O’Neill himself stated that the invasion of Canada was, in his eyes, little more than an experiment that he only tenuously believed in, his actions show him as a man committed to the fight for Ireland via Canada. When he joined the Fenian Brotherhood after the Civil War he quickly became an avid supporter of Sweeny’s invasion plans and incursions into British North America. As president, he worked tirelessly to unite the Fenians behind the idea of invading Canada. Spurred on by Sweeny’s original idea, O’Neill was convinced that if the Fenians were able to hold a large part of Canada, they could then effectively hold Canada hostage to force the British to negotiate on Irish independence; even if that didn’t work, they could force the British to send so many troops to North America that an uprising in Ireland would meet with little resistance. However, O’Neill’s presidency was marred by scandal from the beginning.
Factions within the Fenian Brotherhood publically accused O’Neill of mishandling Fenian money in April 1870. O’Neill responded by accusing another Fenian senate leader, PJ Meehan, of extorting money from the Brotherhood and of abandoning the Irish cause for his own political gains. Just one week after a Fenian Brother loyal to O’Neill, confronted Meehan about his motives, Meehan was shot outside the Fenian Headquarters in New York City. Meehan survived, but rumors of O’Neill’s involvement in the attempted assassination ran rampant immediately. It was during this turbulent time that O’Neill called a secret war conference in April 1870 to prepare for the next Canadian invasion.
The May 25, 1870, invasion of Canada from Malone NY, often referred to as the Battle of Trout River or Eccles Hill, was a failure even in O’Neill’s eyes. In O’Neill’s official report of the invasion, he placed responsibility for this failure at the feet of Meehan and those loyal to him. O’Neill maintained that if he had had the force that he had expected– nearly two thousand troops– rather than the four hundred that actually marched with him, the attack would have been a success and he would have held a large part of Canadian territory. The 1600 men that failed to show up were, according to O’Neill, purposely delayed by those loyal to Meehan. O’Neill, with less than a quarter of the troops he required and had planned on, continued the invasion anyway. O’Neill and his men were pinned down by a large British and Canadian force near Eccles Hill and when O’Neill left to get reinforcements, of which there were none, he was arrested by US Marshal General George Foster for violating the Neutrality Laws.
Imprisoned for about a year and a half, O’Neill wrote his report of the invasion from a jail cell in Burlington, Vermont. Within the report, (Official Report of Gen. John O’Neill on The Attempt to Invade Canada, available at https://archive.org/details/officialreportof00onei), he took the time to opine on his adversaries within the Fenian Brotherhood and their part in his failure. He thanked those that were faithful to him and assisted him and the Fenian troops in their campaign– among them, William “Boss” Tweed and Horace Greeley. Upon being asked if another attempt at Canada would ever be made again, O’Neill writes, “No! Emphatically no!” and proceeded to warn others against taking up arms for the cause. O’Neill lied.
One year after being pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant in October 1870, O’Neill again prepared for an invasion. Whether or not this should be considered the last and final Fenian Invasion, or simply the independent actions of a determined John O’Neill, is hotly debated. What the historical record shows is that after the raid of 1870 John O’Neill remained a Fenian but was replaced as president by John Savage. Sometime in late 1870 or early 1871 the Brotherhood was approached by yet another shadowy figure in American history, W.B. O’Donoghue. O’Donoghue was embroiled on winning American interference on behalf of the Metis people of Canada. The Metis were an aboriginal people in Canada that traced their ancestry from early unions between Europeans (often French, English or Scottish) and Native Americans (usually Cree, Algonquin, or other First Nations) and were residing in Pembina, then located in the Dakota Territory. The goal of the Metis was either an independent state of their own, or annexation of their lands by the United States. When O’Donoghue approached the Fenians with this request, he was rejected by all but John O’Neill. Since the Fenians did not sanction this action, O’Neill stepped down from his seat in the senate of the Brotherhood and effectively left the organization to help O’Donoghue in his campaign on behalf of the Metis.
The attack on Pembina is an almost comical affair in hindsight. O’Neill, O’Donoghue and forty men marched to Pembina and occupied two abandoned buildings. They were repelled within hours and arrested. Unbeknownst, to O’Neill and O’Donoghue, shortly before this invasion took place, the United States and Canadian governments had redrawn the border between their respective nations– Pembina was now one mile south of the Canadian border and firmly within the bounds of the United States. John O’Neill had inadvertently used forty men to invade abandoned buildings within the United States. Ever the opportunist, John O’Neill, upon his arrest, effectively argued that he was colonizing a territory rather than invading and, thus, not in violation of the Neutrality Laws. O’Neill secured his release only to be arrested yet again on the same charges shortly thereafter on the behest of a presumably frustrated, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. O’Neill was yet again released on the orders of the Minnesota Attorney General due to lack of evidence and very quietly disappeared from the public eye, living quietly in present day Nebraska until his death in 1878.
This story of a band of Irish veterans marching across the border to invade Canada for Irish independence is a comical and engaging example of broader historical themes; they serve as a flashpoint where elaborate historical forces combined. British colonization and British policies towards the Irish combined to foster the Fenian Brotherhood and their ambitious plans regarding Canada. But the Brotherhood could only have survived and thrived in post-Civil War American politics wrought with British-American tensions, and fed by the American immigrant experience and a handful of dynamic figures. Historical events that are funny, quirky and engaging are important to preserve and teach as indicative of this larger picture and these broader themes. The story of the Fenians is a story Irish at heart, but American in nature.
Ignatiev, Noel. How The Irish Became White. Routeledge. New York. 1995
Library and Archives Canada. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx
Stanton, James. “The Fenian Raids, 1866-1870”. The Manitoba Historical Society. Canada.
Vronsky, Peter. “From Rebels to Revolutionaries: A Brief History of the Founding of the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland and in The United States, March 17, 1858”. Fenians.org. http://www.fenians.org/fenianbrotherhood.htm