Ireland’s Wars: The First Fenian Raid

The Fenian Rebellion of 1867 was a dismal failure in Ireland, and a high-profile escapade in Britain, with little serious success to its name. While nationalist revolutionary politics in Ireland was far from done, it would be fair to say that its lack of success left it at a low ebb by the time 1868 came around and, indeed, with the exception of a few minor incidents here and there, it would be just shy of 50 years before Ireland broke out into significant rebellious activity once again. But across the ocean, the Fenian Brotherhood of the United States were undertaking their own operations, and with a great deal more success and impact that the IRB. As these events have received relatively little notice on this side of the Atlantic, I think it would be nice if a spent a few posts looking at the “Fenian Raids”.

Canada in the second half of the 19th century was a part of the British Empire, that had been hard won from French hands much earlier and had stayed loyal during the course of the American revolution and its aftermath. What we would describe as the nation of Canada today was several separate provinces back then, soon to be formed into a single federated dominion state, with “Canada” forming the future provinces of Quebec and Ontario, the eastern portion of the landmass. By the 1860’s, roughly 2.5 million people were living in Canada, with much the same cultural mix that was occurring in the United States: plenty of Irish headed to the northern part of North America during the famine. As far back as 1848, the government in Canada was receiving reports of secret revolutionary societies of Irish nationalists: in 1861, efforts to form an “named” Irish-Canadian volunteer battalion for the defence of Canada during the American Civil War were disrupted by a Fenian group from Vermont. By 1863, there was enough of a Fenian presence in Canada for Montreal and Toronto delegates to attend a Chicago convention, but the nationalist movement there essentially amounted to the typical run-ins with Protestant societies and marches.

While loyal to the crown, Canada’s isolation prompted some Fenians to come up with probably the most audacious scheme that any entity of that name would come up with: to organise an armed force, march north, cross the border, capture Canada, and hold it as a bargaining chip in order to get Britain to leave Ireland.

The plan of a Fenian invasion of Canada has often been mocked since, as a an overly ambitious venture that never had a hope of succeeding. But we can, perhaps, look at it with kinder eyes, It must be remembered that Canada was a very large land sparsely populated for its size: it’s biggest cities had less than 75’000 people in them. It was, even with advancements in the speed of the trans-Atlantic crossing, isolated from Britain, as much as Americans had been in the late 1800’s. With only a small professional military garrison backed up by inexperienced civilian militias, it wasn’t as far-fetched as you might think that a core of Fenians, made up of American Civil War veterans, would be able to launch a successful foray across the border. Moreover, with thousands of veterans at hand from the Civil War, with many struggling to adapt to civilian life, it was felt that the Fenians had to do something, and soon, or else disband.

The more far fetched idea was that Britain would ever allow itself to be brought to a negotiating table by such actions, or that the United States of America would tolerate its own citizenry forming autonomous armies and matching off for the cause of Ireland. Then again, American relations with the British Empire were not stellar at the time, the Union still smarting from perceived British support for the Confederacy that had never moved into outright recognition: it had been the hope of some Fenians that war would break out between the States and Britain, in which Canada would have been the primary battleground. Andrew Johnson, the somewhat hapless successor to Abraham Lincoln who should never have been President, had even met with representatives of the Fenians to discuss the future of Canada, with some calling for the United States to annex the province.

The first of what were to become known as the Fenian Raids occurred one year before the Fenian Rising in Ireland, in 1866. By that time, the Fenian Brotherhood, predictably enough, had been torn into two rivals factions, one headed by its founder, John O’Mahony, and the other by a more radical Cork man named William Roberts. O’Mahony, the 1848 veteran, backed an “Ireland first” policy for the Fenian movement, where the overwhelming focus had to be on the direct liberation of Ireland from British rule. Roberts was the prime mover in the Canada option initially. The two factions squabbled incessantly over the form of the Brotherhood’s internal operations and fundraising exercises, severely limiting the entities overall effectiveness. The Fenians had set themselves up based on a model not dissimilar to that of the American federal government, with a lower house and Senate, but this effort to imitate democracy merely allowed a greater factionalisation to take hold.

That first raid was, somewhat ironically, an initiative of the O’Mahony wing of the Fenians. It’s aim was the island of Campabello, part of the New Brunswick province. Rather than taking and holding it to use as a bargaining chip however, the operation was meant to act in concert with the rebellion in Ireland, that would end up not taking place that year: it was believed that, with the island held, the British would have severe difficulties moving any of their troops then stationed in Canada back over the ocean to help put down what would hopefully be a mass insurrection. It was also a suitable target geographically, being only a short distance from the American coast. There was also a belief that the Fenians needed to seize some part of British territory in order to be seen as a more legitimate cause, not unlike the recently defeated Confederacy: in this, they were somewhat encouraged by President Johnson’s refusal to condemn any possible action (the President wanted the Irish vote, if nothing else). There was also the belief that the island was not held militarily, and so would be a walkover to take. Lastly, there was a hope that the Irish-Canadian community in New Brunswick would aid such an endeavour, a hope that was to prove unfounded: Irish-Canadians were more likely to join militias defending their new homeland in that specific instance. Regardless, the Fenians assembled in Maine, in the most northern part of the United States, in April of 1866, preparing for am amphibious attack.

Their movements and organisation were well noted: informers leaked secrets to the British who duly informed America. But local American authorities did pitifully little to imped their progress, in either movement of men or the secreting of arms: congressional elections were coming up. The Fenians came to Eastport, Maine, in dribs and drab, doing little to conceal their purpose, while their arms were transported separately. The very highest echelons of the American government knew what was going on, but prevaricated long enough that the arms almost got where they were going to: they were eventually impounded. It was an open secret that the Fenians were planning something in that part of the country, with the local commander, a man named Bernard Killian, hiring an Eastport hall for a HQ, and several schooners as transport options. The rumours went northward too: militias were called up in New Brunswick and sectarian clashes increased in New Brunswick as early as December 1865. The few Canadian Fenians who tried to join with their American brethren were arrested.

The local British commander was well forewarned, He acted first, gathering a force of warships, mixing local militias with 700 men of his own, and sailing this force close to where the Fenians were preparing. At the same time, General George Meade, the victor of Gettysburg, got involved forcefully, warning the Fenians that neutrality laws would be enforced if necessary. The point was taken, and the operation abandoned before it had even fully begun, the Fenians doing little more than carry out drills near the border. The only military incidents of note were two small raids on the smaller Indian Island nearby, which consisted of the burning of a customs house and the theft of a Union Jack, played up by Fenian publications as military operations of great significance.

The aftermath of the effort was a disastrous one for the “Ireland first” faction. O’Mahony fell out of favour, while Killian was thrown out of the Brotherhood on charges of being a Canadian agent: the Fenian plans in Maine had actually aided the effort to create a Canadian Confederation, combining the province of New Brunswick to others. The Fenians had wanted the complete opposite, either a move towards independence or American annexation, but the Fenian scare had driven public opinion in New Brunswick, already not exactly onboard with the Fenian ideology, even further towards Confederation. As well as that, the “Ireland first” wing of the Fenians had their treasury drained, severely impacting their ability to do anything in the future.

By then, a much more serious Fenian Raid was in the advanced stages of preparation in the west. The Roberts wing was launching their invasion.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, Uncategorized, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The First Fenian Raid

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Battle Of Ridgeway | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Fenian Ram | Never Felt Better

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