The origins of the last raid on Canada – it cannot accurately be called a “Fenian raid”, though it mostly involved Fenians of course – lie in the so-called “Red River rebellion”, which I briefly covered in the last entry. In the Red River territory of what would soon become the province of Manitoba, the Metis people were chaffing under the gradually growing encroachment of the Canadian government, worried about their land rights and future prospects. Uniting under a man named Louis Riel, they threatened to be a very dangerous thorn in the side of increasing Canadian expansion, as well as a potential ally to the Fenians.
By 1871, Louis Riel was actually in America, fleeing Canadian retribution after the execution of a local Orangeman, Thomas Scott, in an unsavoury incident in Manitoba. Canadian authorities wanted Riel brought to justice, but this imperilled the movement to bring the Metis people into the fold peacefully. While awaiting the possibilities of a pardon and a generous agreement for the Metis, Riel and his confederates choose to remain on the southern side of the border, where Canadian officials could not arrest them.
One of those confederates was a man named William O’Donoghue, an Irish native who had ties to the Fenians, and had been at the centre of any proposed alliances between the two factions. Now, Riel agreed to send O’Donoghue to Washington D.C to appeal to President Grant to intervene. Riel and O’Donoghue didn’t get on all that well: by the time the Irishman got to meet Grant, the appeal for the President to intervene and use his influence to create a worthwhile settlement had turned into a full-blown request for the United States to annex the area, as a small, but vocal, part of the US political system wanted. Grant, polite but unimpressed, wasn’t interested.
Looking around for help, O’Donoghue turned to the leadership of the Fenians, which again included a recently freed John O’Neill, who still, even despite the embarrassing state of affairs the previous year, had a mind for over-the-border adventures. But whatever status O’Neill had previously had that gave him sway over Fenian direction, finances and manpower was long gone: the remainder of the Fenian leadership wanted nothing to do with O’Donoghue, or with any more raids, which seemed to have reached their zenith and offered nothing more to the Fenian movement.
But O’Neill could not be dissuaded, having heard the details of what was occurring in Manitoba, a province where the Metis, if suitably stirred up, could easily seize control, being by far the largest demographic group, something local Canadian officials were keenly aware of. The general brokered an agreement with the other Fenian leadership: O’Neill would resign from the Brotherhood and embark on the venture privately, in return for which the Fenians would not condemn his effort, and would, in the end, supply a few arms and some limited financial support. It is not hard to imagine that the remaining Fenian leadership wanted nothing more than to be rid of O’Neill, and if the cost was yet another raid, bound to fail, then so be it.
Naturally, whatever plans O’Neill was making soon found themselves to Canadian, not least because O’Neill attempted to recruit Henri Le Caron – aka, Thomas Beach – to join him. Beach declined, then rapidly wrote a letter outlining O’Neill’s intentions to the Manitoba authorities. Those intentions were vague enough, the purpose of the coming raid being to start a more militant uprising from the Metis people, and to besiege the local garrison in Fort Garry. The Fenians were a legitimate threat to these sparsely populated areas, where local militia and police forces numbered only a few hundred.
In September of 1871, O’Neill was in the Minnesota area trying to recruit men – plenty of Irish were working on railways in the area – but could only muster up less than 50 to join him. By October, the various reports left the Manitoba government in no doubt that some manner of raid would be attempted, though the estimation of numbers from some quarters were incredibly exaggerated. In the first week of that month, the local governor called out the militia. Much more important was the sympathies of the Metis population, who nearly all fell in line behind the government in the face of the Fenian threat, unwilling to risk their lives and homes in service of a doomed rebellion and Irish freedom.
With the lack of Metis support, O’Neill’s plans were already scuppered, but he pressed ahead with what turned out to be a pathetic conclusion to the Fenian Raids. He and his small band of men seized a Hudson Bay Company frontier post and custom’s house, taking around 20 prisoners. A local American military officer at nearby Fort Pembina, Captain Loyd Wheaton, was notified, and promptly assembled a group of men to put an end to the adventure as quickly as possible. As they approached the trading house, what Fenians there broke and ran, without firing a shot. O’Neill and others were all arrested, O’Donoghue after being handed over by the Metis.
An additional layer of farce to the affair is that fact that the United States did not agree that the area in question was Canadian, as a recent survey had determined that the border should have been further north. As a result, it could be claimed, and was by US military leaders in their reports, that O’Neill’s last raid on Canada consisting of “invading” a little bit of America.
The Fenians were all released in the aftermath: there was little chance of a conviction in American courts, and as before the authorities were not interested in creating martyrs for a cause tarnished by the slapdash nature of their most recent endeavours. O’Neill gave up on raids, finally, in the aftermath, and went to work for a land speculation firm, dying of a stroke in 1878. He was 44.
The Fenian Brotherhood also began to die off in the aftermath, its purpose largely subsumed by other organisations that I will soon have the opportunity to discuss. The Raids on Canada in 1866 had seen the organisation reach the peak of its effectiveness, notoriety and success, but it had conspired to squander what it had won in the years afterwards, due to incessant internal squabbling, the actions of informers and financial incompetence. By 1880, the Fenian Brotherhood in America would be no more.
The raids never got anywhere close to the nominal goal of gaining leverage for the freedom of Ireland, and their few outright successes were more to do with the weaknesses of the Canadian militia in 1866 than the martial might of the Fenians. At their best, they were short-term military adventures that garnered the cause of Irish freedom a great deal of publicity. At their worst, they were debacles of ridiculous proportions, that made that same cause of Irish freedom look like a foolish desire from a group of bumbling incompetents. Now that they were over, the Irish nationalists in America would have to find other means of venting their frustrations.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.