Ireland’s Wars: The Pigeon Hill Raid

With the end of operations in the west, the attention turned back to the east. The original plan for the Fenian Raids, as envisioned by T.W. Sweeney, was for multiple attacks at different points on the border, as part of a coordinated strategy of diverting enemy forces and seizing a small amount of territory on a permanent basis. The failure to assemble the requisite number of soldiers and arms had put paid to this ambitious plan, but the success – of a kind – that had occurred with John O’Neill’s force propelled additional Fenian operations in the year 1866.

By then though, everything was moving against the Fenian designs, on both sides of the border. Tens of thousands of militia, not to mention regular troops, had been mobilised to defend the Canadian border, and while there would never be enough to defend the entire length of the frontier, Canada was unlikely to be caught unawares at any point. In any proposed operation, the element of surprise was vital, and the Fenians had largely cede that.

Inside the United States, the authorities were no longer playing softball with the Fenians. While the hunt for the Irish vote and a certain antipathy towards Canada had not gone away, the activities of the Fenians thus far that year were more than a little mortifying: they were, after all, American citizens essentially operating as a private army from American soil, making a mockery of neutrality laws designed to prevent conflicts like the War of 1812 from erupting again. The United States had just ended the worst conflict in its history, and there was little appetite for a clash with Great Britain to be borne out of the action of renegade Irish nationalists. The proclamation of President Andrew Johnson, condemning the Fenian Brotherhood and their actions, signalled a new approach by the authorities, that now began to be more pro-active in their efforts to clamp down on the Fenians. In the days after O’Neill’s retreat, numerous Fenian leaders were rounded up and arrested.

While travelling to join other Fenians on the St Lawrence River, Sweeney was actually just a train carriage ahead of General Meade, yet managed to avoid arrest for the meantime. Seeing substantial Canadian defences on the other side of the river, he ordered the forces available to move east to Vermont, seizing back some lightly guarded arms that had been previously taken in the meantime. He would eventually be detained on the 6th of June, the day before he planned to cross the border himself.

The Fenian commander in Vermont was a man named Samuel P. Spears, a regular officer in the American military, graduate of the West Point military academy and well-regarded Civil War commander. He had allegedly been promised somewhere in the region of 12’000 men by Sweeney for the forthcoming operations: in the end, he estimated he never had more than a thousand on hand. He was supposed to be the man to capture the town of Sherbrooke so it could serve as the seat of an Irish republican government in exile, but he had few illusions about the actual capability of the army he was being asked to lead.

Spears took the men he had and crossed the border on the 7th of June, but there was precious little he could realistically have expected. Maybe, in the right circumstances, he might have been able to win his own Ridgeway, but the Canadian militia were better prepared and better forewarned now, having been mobilized in some cases for over a week. In Montreal, only 30 or so kilometers from the border with Vermont, 2’000 regulars and 3’000 militia were ready to be engaged. While they had the same deficiencies in training, arms and leadership as they had in the west, the chances of another Ridgeway taking place were slim.

In the end, the primary problem for the Canadians was overestimation of Fenian numbers. As Spears assembled his troops, the militia forces in his way decided to retreat, relying on inaccurate information that over 5’000 well-armed enemy soldiers were coming towards them. The retreat was entirely unnecessary, but caused a minor panic in the area’s civilian population, who were essentially being abandoned without any pretence of a fight.

So, when Spears and his men did cross the border, they entered into territory that had largely been evacuated by both its civilian population and its defenders. They didn’t go far, only a few miles, before looting became the order of the day, followed by problems of desertion. The Fenians were poorly supplied, and most of the men were starving.

Barely a mile from the border, Spears stopped and made his HQ at a farm owned by a man named Eccles, with his soldiers basing themselves on a nearby rise called Pigeon Hill. Small detachments were sent to the closer settlements: a very brief engagement took place between Fenians and local militia at a place called Frelighsburg where some horses were wounded and a British flag taken, later to be paraded in New York like a war trophy.

By the 9th, the militia retreat had ended and regular troops were streaming towards the area in numbers: Spears had few options open to him. A defence from Pigeon Hill might have been possible, but Spears was rightly concerned about the ammunition supplies, the morale of his force and the likelihood of continued desertion. Unlike O’Neill to the west, he didn’t have to worry about crossing a river to get back to safety, and he didn’t share his compatriot’s desire to make a glorious stand.

The Fenians had barely been in Canada two days and they were already leaving. The majority of Spears’ force marched the short distance back to the border where they were met and disarmed by US military personnel, all to be released before too long. But a portion decided to linger at Pigeon Hill and make something of a stand behind improvised barricades when the regulars arrived. But, when they saw the numbers they faced – infantry, cavalry and even artillery – their courage failed them, and they fled back to the border as well. The only real combat of the entire affair occurred here, as the cavalry was released to chase the enemy, their commander ordering them to use the flat of their blades rather than the edge. 16 Fenians were taken prisoner. The rest reached the border. No one was killed. The only casualty recorded from those days was an unfortunate old woman killed by the regulars in the dead of night as she went to fetch water, having run after being ordered to halt.

The Fenian Raids of 1866 were over. Both sides claimed to be satisfied with what had occurred, and both sides were lying. The Fenians had won a clear victory over a force of the enemy, and twice occupied British territory for a period of time, legitimising their movement and providing ample opportunities for additional fundraising and recruitment in the times ahead. But their grand ambitions of having an Irish government-in-exile, or of using Canada as a bargaining chip, were not only unfulfilled, but shown to stem from a gross exaggeration of their own military potency and the potential support of Irish-Canadians and the American government.

For Canada, they had successfully repelled an enemy invasion and had not taken too many casualties in the process. The whole affair galvanised support for a closer union of the provinces, that helped to propel the creation of a Canadian Confederation in 1867, the exact opposite outcome that the Fenians would have wanted. But Ridgeway and Fort Erie, as well as the unnecessary retreat from the Pigeon Hill area before a Fenian had even crossed the border, showcased serious weakness in the Canadian militia, who performed better on a parade ground than they did in the field. As previously stated, Ridgeway was an embarrassed that subsequently took a great deal of time for Canadian governments to acknowledge. Indeed, the rush for Confederation was as much about a perceived recognition that the Canadian provinces could not survive on their own as it was about uniting politically.

So, both sides had reasons to be happy and both sides had reasons to be unhappy. While attention now swung back to Ireland and the imminent rebellion there, the Fenians in America would draw plans against Canada again in time.

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, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Pigeon Hill Raid

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Eccles Hill And Trout River | Never Felt Better

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