Canadian Genealogy | Fenian Raids of 1866 - 1870

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Canadian Volunteers Promptly Respond to the Call of Duty

The First Alarm--Canadian Volunteers Promptly Respond to the Call of Duty--The Campo Bello Fizzle--Fenians Gather on the Border--Operations on the Niagara Frontier


Early in the month of March, 1866, considerable activity was observable among the Fenians in both the United States and Ireland, and it became known to the authorities that a "rising" was contemplated, to occur on St. Patrick's Day. That a simultaneous raid on Canada had been planned was evident, and as the Government maintained a force of secret service agents in the principal American cities to keep watch on the movements of the Fenians, reliable information was furnished which was regarded of sufficient importance by the Canadian authorities to warrant prompt action in putting the country in a state of defence. Accordingly on the 7th of March a General Order was issued by Col. P. L. Macdougall, Adjutant-General of the Canadian Militia, calling out 10,000 volunteers for active service. The summons was flashed across the wires to all points in the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, and fourteen thousand men promptly responded to the call. By 4 o'clock on the following day these forces were all assembled at their respective headquarters, awaiting further orders. So eager were the young men of Canada to perform their duty in those trying times that a force of 50,000 could have been raised as easily as the number called for. Most of the companies and battalions were reported "over strength" when the returns were received at headquarters, and the Government decided to retain the whole 14,000 on service pending developments of the enemy's movements. Lieut.-General Sir John Michel (then commanding Her Majesty's forces in North America) was placed in supreme command, with Major-Gen. James Lindsay in command of the troops in Canada East, and Major-Gen. G. Napier, C.B., in charge of the forces in Canada West.

On the 8th of March, the following companies were ordered to report for duty to Major Crawford at Brockville for the purpose of forming a Provisional Battalion:--

  Perth Rifle Company--Capt. Edmund Spillman.
Gananoque Rifle Company--Capt. Robert McCrum.
Carleton Place Rifle Company--Capt. James Poole.
Perth Infantry Company--Capt. Thomas Scott.
Almonte Infantry Company--Capt. James D. Gemmill.
Brockville Infantry Company--Capt. Jacob D. Buell.

The above units promptly reported, and the organization of the Battalion was effected by a mergement of them with the Brockville Rifles, which was placed on full service and divided, the right half forming a company of 50 men under Capt. W. H. Cole, and the left half (50 men) placed in command of Lieut. Windeat. Lieut. Robert Bowie was appointed Adjutant of the new Battalion thus created.

Thirty Spencer rifles were issued to the Brockville Rifles, and given to Capt. Cole's company. That officer compiled a drill manual which instructed the men armed with the repeating rifles to act on the same words of command issued to those who had the muzzle-loading Enfields, which was so excellent in practice that he was afterwards highly complimented by Major-General Lindsay when the Battalion was inspected by him in the following May. This Battalion remained on duty at Brockville until about the 16th of May, when they were released from further service and permitted to return to their homes.

For several weeks the country was kept in a state of feverish, excitement, as all sorts of rumors of intended raids at different points were prevalent. Constant drilling and vigilance was maintained, and all the avenues of approach to the frontier towns and exposed points were closely guarded. The weather was very severe that winter, especially during the period the troops were on duty, and many of the survivors of those eventful days will doubtless remember the frost-bites they received while pacing their dreary beats on guard duty, and the many other discomforts which fell to their lot.

The 17th of March passed without the anticipated attacks being made, however, and the fears of the people were gradually allayed. The Fenians had evidently reconsidered their plans so far as Canada was concerned, as the Frost King held sway with rigid severity, and decided to delay their invasion until early summer. On the 28th of March the force on active service was reduced from 14,000 to 10,000 (the original prescribed number), and on the 31st of March all were relieved from permanent duty with the exception of the advanced frontier posts, but were required to parade and drill on two days of each week at local headquarters.

Meanwhile the Fenians kept up their drill and warlike preparations. Immense quantities of arms and ammunition were purchased and shipped to various points in the United States contiguous to the Canadian frontier, where they could quickly be obtained by the invaders when wanted.

During the early part of April a number of Fenians gathered in the towns of Eastport and Calais, in the State of Maine, with the avowed purpose of capturing the Island of Campo Bello, a British possession at the mouth of the St. Croix River, on the boundary line between the Province of New Brunswick and the United States. This expedition was under the direction of "General" Dorian, Killian, who was one of the leading lights of the O'Mahony faction of the Fenian Brotherhood. This move was made contrary to the fixed policy of the Stephens-O'Mahony wing of the Fenian organization, but something had to be done to satisfy the impatient people who were providing the funds to inaugurate the war and were clamoring for immediate action. So after considerable deliberation and hesitation, General O'Mahony gave his consent to the proposed invasion, and preparations were hurriedly made. A vessel was chartered at New York, and being loaded with arms and ammunition, sailed for Eastport, Maine. The rank and file of the Fenian force gathered quietly at Eastport, Calais and adjacent towns, and awaited the arrival of their armament. In the meantime the Canadian military authorities were getting ready to meet the filibusters, and strong forces of volunteers were posted along the New Brunswick frontier to watch events and be prepared for action as soon as the Fenians attempted to make a landing. Three British war vessels steamed quietly into the St. Croix River, ready for instant service, and a couple of American gunboats were also on guard to prevent a crossing. General Meade, with a battalion of United States troops, arrived at Eastport, with orders from the American Government to see that a breach of the Neutrality Act was not committed. On the same day the vessel with arms for the Fenians sailed into Eastport harbor and was promptly seized by the United States officials. This was "the last straw" to break the hopes of the Fenians, and they left for their homes without accomplishing anything, utterly dejected, hungry and weary, and bitterly cursing their leaders, and the American authorities particularly, for preventing them from crossing the line. This fiasco was a mortifying blow to General O'Mahony and his supporters, and the cohorts of Roberts and Sweeny gained more confidence and support as the star of the Stephens faction grew dimmer.

The remainder of April and the month of May passed away quietly, and the people of Canada had almost dismissed the Fenian "bugaboo" from their minds, and were enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, when again the Demon of War loomed up on the border more terrible than ever. This time it was the Roberts-Sweeny section of the Fenian Brotherhood who were bent on making trouble for Canada, and if possible carry out their elaborate plan of campaign for conquering our Provinces. All during the winter and spring the Fenian leaders had been secretly and sedulously at work making preparations for simultaneous raids on Canada at different places, and towards the end of May the Irish Republican Army began massing on the border for that purpose. At strategic points all along our extensive frontier the Fenian forces were quietly gathering, evidently with the purpose of trying to work out the wide scheme of Gen. Sweeny to capture Canada and hand us over body and bones to the United States.

At St. Albans, Vermont, and adjacent villages, a large force gathered for the purpose of making a raid from that quarter, in the possible hope that with the reinforcements they expected, they might be able to hold that section of country and operate against the City of Montreal with some degree of success, in conjunction with two other columns which were expected to carry the St. Lawrence line.

At Malone, New York, another strong force assembled under the command of the Fenian Gen. M. J. Heffernan, who announced his intention of making an attack on Cornwall. Gen. Murphy and Gen. O'Reilly, both veteran officers of the Union Army in the Civil War, were attached to this column, and were very assiduous in their efforts to make it an efficient fighting force.

At Ogdensburg, New York, Gen. Sweeny personally supervised the mobilization of a large contingent of his warriors. This column was organized for the purpose of attacking Prescott, Brockville, and other points along the St. Lawrence, and after taking possession of the Canadian shore and the Grand Trunk Railway, be available for his plan of sweeping the whole country east as far as Montreal, and join with the other columns (which were to start from Malone and St. Albans) in capturing that city.

Cape Vincent, Oswego, Rochester and other points along the Upper St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario were places of rendezvous for the Fenian troops who were steadily arriving from the interior of New York State, while the Western and Southern contingents gathered at Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Erie and Buffalo.

As the Niagara frontier possesses many attractions for an invading force (as in the days of 1812 and 1814), it was decided to again make that historic territory one of the arenas for hostile operations. Gen. Sweeny fondly nursed the hope that while our forces were busily engaged there, that he would be able to make crossings at two or three other points along the border. As the scene of the first active operations was presented on the Niagara Peninsula, I will relate those events first, and then return to a description of what was occurring on the St. Lawrence and Vermont borders.

For some days previous to the 31st of May large numbers of mysterious strangers were noticed to be gathering in some of the towns and cities adjacent to the Niagara frontier. In Buffalo particularly this mobilization of men with a purpose was observable, but so reticent were they, and so careful of their movements causing comment, that suspicions were partially disarmed. Yet these strangers were all Fenian soldiers, who were silently and quickly gathering from various States of the Union with a determined intention to make a quick dash on Canada, which they hoped to capture, and set up their standards upon our soil. All preparations for the coup had been made, and yet the people of Canada seemed to dream not of their peril.

Towards midnight on the 31st of May those strangers in Buffalo were noticed to be assembling in groups, squads and companies, and moving as if by a pre-arranged programme in the direction of Black Rock, two or three miles north of the city, on the Niagara River. Suspicious-looking waggons and furniture vans were also moving in the same direction. These were loaded with arms and ammunition for the use of "the Army of Conquest," but no attempt was made by the United States authorities to stop the expedition, although it was a clear breach of the Neutrality Act then in force between the two countries. At the hour of midnight, when the peaceful citizens on the Canadian side of the Niagara River were slumbering in their beds, the Fenian hordes were steadily gathering on the other side of the shimmering stream and making preparations to effect a crossing. Two powerful tugs and several canal boats had been chartered to convey the Fenians across to Canada, and these were quickly and quietly loaded with men and munitions of war, As the grey dawn of day was breaking on the morning of the 1st of June, the Fenian transports started across the river. The troops consisted of one brigade of the Irish Republican Army, under command of Gen. John O'Neil, a veteran soldier who had seen much active service and hard fighting in the American Civil War. This brigade was composed of the 13th Regiment (Col. O'Neill), from Tennessee; 17th Regiment (Col. Owen Starr), from Kentucky; 18th Regiment (Lieut.-Col. John Grace), from Ohio; the 7th Regiment (Col. John Hoye), from Buffalo, N.Y., and a detachment of troops from Indiana. The whole number was estimated to be about 1,500 men, who were principally veteran soldiers of the Northern and Southern armies.

This was the "forlorn hope" who were expected to make the first landing and hold the country until sufficient reinforcements could be rushed across the border to enable them to make a success of the campaign. Buffalo was full of Fenians and their sympathizers at that time, and thousands were coming into the city every day to take part in the invasion.

It was an opportune time for such a movement, as the popular feeling of the American people was not altogether amicable or friendly to the British nation, and it was the hope of the promoters of the raid that something might occur which would give them the countenance and support of the United States. It is a well-known fact that under the political system of America the Irish vote is a dominant factor in elections, and all classes of citizens who aspire to public office are more or less controlled by that element. Consequently the vigilance of many of Uncle Sam's officials was relaxed, and they winked the other eye as the invaders marched towards Canada, instead of endeavoring to stop them from committing a breach of the law of nations in regard to neutrality.

It was asserted in the public press of the United States and proclaimed by the Fenians themselves at that time, that Andrew Johnson (who was then President of the United States) and Secretary of State Seward openly encouraged the invasion for the purpose of turning it to political account in the settlement of the Alabama Claims with Great Britain. In view of the fact that he held back the issuance of his proclamation forbidding a breach of the Neutrality Act for five full days after the Raid had been made, there was manifestly some understanding between President Johnson and the Fenian leaders, as the American authorities were perfectly cognizant of what was intended long before Gen. O'Neil crossed the boundary, and might have been prevented from doing so, had the United States officials at Buffalo exercised such due vigilance as Gen. Meade did in the Campo Bello affair.


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Troublous Times in Canada, A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870

Fenian Raids of 1866 - 1870

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