In the years after 1866 and the raids on Canada that had led to Ridgeway, Fort Erie and Pigeon Hill, the Fenian Brotherhood spent an awful lot of time talking and not a lot of time actually doing anything. Captured flags were unfurled, subscriptions taken, conventions called to order, but when it came to additional military operations being carried to the north of the border, nothing happened. The Fenians were struck by the same old problems, most notably continued factionalisation.
For his victory at Ridgeway, John O’Neill was elevated to the highest positions, and was soon a leading figure of the Fenian Brotherhood. But the problem was that O’Neill was no politician. What he was, was a soldier, and very frequently a drinker, and this meant that his portion of the Fenian Brotherhood talked the talk far more than it walked the walk. They would spend more time re-enacting Ridgway at fundraising events than actually crossing the border again. Other factors played their part: a greater US government crackdown, the improvement of the Canadian militia, the gradual movement of Civil War veterans back into a stable civilian life, and the brief return of focus to Ireland for the failed 1867 rebellion there.
Perhaps the worst blow that the Fenian Brothehood suffered during this time was the elevation of a man named Henri Le Caron to O’Neill’s right hand. Le Caron had claimed to be French when he volunteered for the north during the Civil War, but was in fact an Englishman named Thomas Billis Beach. He had become friends with O’Neill after the war, winning his confidence, and duly began reporting Fenian plans and movements in letters back to his family in England, activities that soon resulted in him becoming an official informer.
In 1868, O’Neill attempted to instigate a Fenian revival of sorts, but his various plans and contacts were soon in the hands of Canadian authorities, courtesy of Beach. His messages tended to fully endorse the proported strength of the Fenians in both men and arms, which was largely a fantasy, but his words carried weight and worried the Canadian government. During this time, the nature of Beach’s inquiries had some Fenians accusing him of being a British agent, but he managed to get away with it.
By late 1868, in the aftermath of the US Presidential election where Ulysses S. Grant won office, O’Neill’s part of the Fenian Brotherhood was almost openly proclaiming another invasion of Canada to take place the following year. But this too was overly-ambitious, due mostly to fundraising problems: Fenian expenses had ballooned and were eating into the vast majority of any money they were able to garner. Moreover, with Beach given responsibility for handing out arms, any plans the Fenians were making were hopelessly compromised.
As noted, the Canadian militia had been vastly improved in the interim, both in terms of active numbers and organisation, with battalion-level units now the norm. Better quality of arms were acquired as well. In the aftermath of the Pigeon Hill retreat that had caused such alarm at the time, locals near the Vermont frontier also organised their own “Home Guard” of independent volunteers, who would play an active role in the events about to unfold. The upgrading of the militia did not have just the potential threat of the Fenians as an inspiration, but also growing trouble to the north west of the new Confederation, where the Metis people, the descendants of unions between indigenous people and early European settlers, often of a French bent, were organising against growing Canadian encroachment in the Red River area, led by a man named Louis Riel. They would also have their part to play in the later Fenian raids.
The Fenians, ever eager to play “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, were obviously interested in using what would become known as the “Red River Rebellion” to help their own cause, but for the moment their attention was more eastward. O’Neill became committed to the idea of an invasion in the Spring of 1870, planning to do so before anyone else in the Fenian leadership could do anything to stop him. Because of Beach, the Canadians were well forewarned. Indeed, the debate among British and Canadian leadership often focused on whether they should stand by and do nothing, thus giving themselves the opportunity to crush the Fenians when the invasion was launched, or instead give the American government advanced notice. Not that there was much the administration of Grant could do, especially when it came to stockpiles of arms that had yet to be used for an illegal purpose. By mid-April, the Canadian militia were being mobilised.
But yet again, nothing happened, O’Neill’s plans nixed by a rapid convention assembled in Chicago, where his Fenian opponents, increasingly angered by what was seen as O’Neill’s frivolous use of money on salaries, refused to support him. In a continuing sign of the pathetic comedy the Fenians were becoming, O’Neill responded by assembling his own convention in New York, where the Chicago delegates were banned and a new Fenian Senate elected. But the lack of support from the Chicago convention meant that O’Neill would have to limit his plans to the east, namely the Vermont region. O’Neill’s new plan called for an invasion on the 24th of May, Queen Victoria’s birthday. O’Neill’s taste for the theatrical was counter-productive: a huge portion of the Canadian militia would be organised that day for parades, eliminating Canadian concerns of unnecessary mobilisations. Naturally, Beach made sure they were informed.
O’Neill’s plan was limited enough. There was no grand ambitions of marching over the border and seizing territory to serve as the seat of of an Irish Republic in exile. Instead, the objective would be St.-Jean in Quebec, a garrison town near the border with Vermont. This would be attacked from both sides, with two columns of Fenians to cross the border, one not far from the location of the Pigeon Hill fighting, and the other around the area of Trout River.
Fenian organisation was lacking: by the 24th of May only 100 men had assembled at St Albans, O’Neill’s chosen rendezvous. That same day President Grant, informed of the Fenian plans by the Canadian government, issued a condemning proclamation and ordered five companies of US regulars to advance towards the Fenian camp. O’Neill waited a day for more men to arrive and then, his hand forced, moved what troops he had forward.
The Canadians had not been idle: large amounts of militia that paraded on the 24th remained in the field to guard the frontier, though some key areas were left unguarded, in the hopes of sucking the Fenians in. One of these was a position called Eccles Hill, not far from Pigeon Hill, which was considered an obvious point for the Fenians in that area to attack, as a raised hill that offered a good view of the surrounding area, and being just a thousand yards from the border.
The Canadian plan was for the militia to take the brunt of the Fenian attack, with regular units based behind them, ready to step in if needed. But they all reckoned without the Home Guard companies of the area, who, operating independent of government and military control, took control of Eccles Hill themselves when it became obvious that the Fenians were preparing to cross the border. Their numbers were tiny, but they were determined to defend their homes. By the time O’Neill advanced, a few militia would be added, bringing the defenders of Eccles Hill to around 50.
O’Neill led 200 or so men over the border that morning. A US Marshal had attempted to impede his progress alone, and had crossed the border ahead of the Fenians to warn the Canadians. After hearing a speech from O’Neill, the Fenians were led across the border, and were almost immediately fired upon by the Home Guard forces. Two Fenians were killed in the resulting exchange, which soon had the invaders pinned down and unable to move, many convinced, because of the redcoats their enemy was wearing, that they were facing regulars and not militia. O’Neill had been observing from a seized home on the US side of the border, from which he left after the owners essentially ordered him outside, the same US Marshal as before took the opportunity to formally arrest the Fenian general as he hunkered for cover behind a log-pile.
The firing continued back and forth for a few hours afterwards, neither side in a position to really hurt the other. A trickling of Fenian reinforcements could not induce the other invaders to make any kind of substantial advance. With their morale wavering, the “battle” was essentially ended when the Canadian volunteers launched a sudden advance into a nearby wood, capturing a small Fenian cannon that had been placed there and inflicting several casualties. The rest of the Fenians fled back over the border. Two of them were dead, around ten injured. There were no casualties on the Canadian side.
The other stage of events was further east, near the Canadian town of Huntingdon, seven km’s or so from the US border. Fenians were encamped in the Vermont town of Malone, waiting for orders. Their commander was Owen Starr, a veteran of Ridgeway. On the 26th, some crossed the border in small numbers to cut telegraph wires, but quickly returned back to the American side. The locals were suitably alarmed, and soon more impromptu Home Guards were being formed and armed, even while regulars and militia streamed towards the area.
Starr had very little he could accomplish, with less than 500 men on hand and American forces soon to converge on his position. In the early hours of the 27th he decided to advance, planning to march only a short distance into Canada, set up a defensive position, and hope that this action would prompt more Fenians to assemble and join him.
The Fenians would eventually advance around half a mile past the border before setting up a breastwork not far from Trout River, running across the road. A combined force of regulars and militia advanced to meet them. A short exchange of fire from the forward militia units compelled the Fenians to turn and retreat back the way they had come. One was killed, one was wounded, and one was taken prisoner. In return, the Canadians suffered one minor casualty. Once back over the border, the Fenians were done, their leadership arrested the following day.
The raids of 1870 were over. O’Neill and others would be tried for the breaking of neutrality laws and convicted, but most would be released by October, President Grant in no mood to create political martyrs for a cause he must have fervently hoped would now cease to exist.
The failure of 1870 largely broke the back of the raid movement. Already the Fenian membership were moving beyond such ideas, as evidenced by the wide-scale opposition to O’Neill’s plans. The debacle at Eccles Hill and the paltry display at Trout River showed plainly that the benefits of raids were no longer what they were even a few years previously, and the idea had little where else to go. The Canadian forces were better trained and led than before, the United States government was no longer willing to tolerate it as they once had, and the more militant minds in the Fenians had been shown up. In combat, the Fenians performed much worse than they had in 1866, panicking under fire and retreating too easily. Perhaps it was the lack of initiative in their individual actions, surprised by the fire from Eccles Hill as they crossed the border, and on the defensive as a matter of course at Trout River.
And yet, the Fenian raids on Canada were not over, not quite yet. O’Neill, not satisfied with the failure at Eccles Hill, wanted to give it all one more go, and would get the chance, the last as it turned out, in 1871.
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