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The Fenian Convention at Cincinnati
The Fenian Convention at Cincinnati--The Birth of
the Irish Republic--"On to Canada!"--Gen. Sweeny's Programme.
The seceders from the Stephens faction met in
Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, in September, 1865, a very large
number of delegates being present from all of the States in the
Union. After the usual preliminary oratory and the adoption of
several resolutions, the delegates formed themselves into a body
which they termed "the Senate Wing of the Fenian Brotherhood." They
ridiculed the idea of invading Ireland successfully, and changed
their base of operations. "On to Canada" became their slogan, and
the idea was so popular that they quickly secured the allegiance of
thousands of disappointed Irishmen who were anxious and ready to
strike a blow at England in any quarter In order that there should
be some recognized source from which all orders, proclamations and
edicts could be officially promulgated, it was resolved to form an
Irish Republic (on paper), as the Fenians were without territory
until they captured it. This was accomplished by the adoption of a
constitution framed on the model of that used by the United States.
Its provisions included the usual regulations (both civil and
military) for a Republican form of government, and its unanimous
acceptance by the delegates was received with glad acclaim. Col. Wm.
R. Roberts was chosen as President of the new Republic, and Gen. T.
W. Sweeny (who was then commanding officer of the 16th United States
Infantry) as Secretary of War. The other Cabinet port-folios were
handed out to "lesser lights" in the Fenian fold.
As even Republican governments cannot be maintained, or military
campaigns conducted without the expenditure of money, the Irish
Republic could prove no exception to the rule, and therefore the
work of collecting funds and gathering munitions of war for the
invasion of Canada was immediately commenced. Fenian "circles," or
lodges, were organized in every possible corner of the United States
for the purpose of stirring up the enthusiasm of the Irish people
and securing money to purchase arms and ammunition. Military
companies and regiments were formed wherever practicable, and
drilling and parading was pursued openly during the fall of 1865 and
winter of 1866, getting ready for the coming fray.
Funds were raised in various ways--by voluntary subscriptions, by
holding picnics, excursions, fairs, bazaars and other methods. But
the largest source of revenue was derived by imposing upon the
credulity of the sons and daughters of Erin by the sale to them of
bonds of the Irish Republic, a chimerical dream which was painted in
such glowing colors and presented with such stirring appeals to
their patriotism that hard-earned dollars were pulled out from every
nook and cranny in many Irish homes to invest in these "securities"
and thus help along the cause. The following is a copy of the bond,
which will serve to show its wording:--
||No. ...... No. ......
It is Hereby Certified that
The Irish Republic is indebted to ....... or bearer in the
sum of Ten Dollars, redeemable six months after the
acknowledgment of The Irish Nation, with interest
from the date hereof inclusive, at six per cent, per annum,
payable on presentation of this Bond at the Treasury of the
[Stamp. Office of the Treasury.]
John O'Neill, Agent for the Irish Republic.
In the light of subsequent events, when the dreams
of the visionary enthusiasts have been so rudely dispelled, the
sight of one of these bonds must present as much sadness and pathos
to the beholder as the vision of an old Confederate bank note does
to the erstwhile defenders of the "Lost Cause" of the Southern
As the coffers of the Irish Republic began to fill rapidly, the
Fenian leaders became more hopeful and bombastic, while enthusiasm
among the rank and file continued to be worked up to fever pitch.
President Roberts gathered a select coterie about him at his
headquarters in New York to assist in upholding his dignity, and
incidentally help to boost the cause. Plots and plans of all kinds
were hatched against Great Britain, and loud-mouthed orators were
kept busy for several months fanning the embers of Irish patriotism
General Sweeny was very active during the winter of 1865 and 1866 in
getting his "War Department" fully organized and his field forces
ready for the spring campaign against Canada. His staff was composed
of the following officers, all of whom had seen active service in
the Civil War:--
||Chief of Staff--Brigadier-General C. Carroll Tavish.
Chief of Engineer Corps--Col. John Meehan.
Chief of Ordnance--Col. C. H. Rundell.
Engineer Corps--Lieut.-Col. C. H. Tresiliar.
Assistant Adjutant-General--Major E. J. Courtney.
Ordnance Department--Major M. O'Reilly.
Quartermaster--Major M. H. Van Brunt.
Aide-de-Camps--Capt. D. W. Greely and Capt. Daniel
This galaxy of officers strutted majestically around
Headquarters garbed in the gorgeous green and gold uniforms of the
Fenian Army, looked wise, and promised all enquirers that important
movements would be made in the spring. Secret meetings were held
almost daily at Headquarters, when the plan of campaign would be
discussed over and over again, and amendments made wherever
necessary. Finally the following plan of operations was given out in
March, 1866, as the gist of one evolved by the Council, which is
said to have embodied Gen. Sweeny's whole strategic programme:--
"Expeditions for the invasion of Canada will rendezvous at Detroit
and Rochester, and at Ogdensburg and Plattsburg, and at Portland.
The forces assembled at the two first-named points are to operate
conjointly against Toronto, Hamilton, and the west of Upper Canada.
From Ogdensburg and Plattsburg demonstrations will be made against
Montreal, and ultimately Quebec; Kingston will be approached by Cape
Vincent, while Portland will be the general place of embarkation for
expeditions against the capitals of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia."
The Bases of Operations
"The Canadian and provincial borders once crossed,
bases of operations will be established in the enemy's country, so
that international quarrels with the Washington Government may be
evaded. There are to be lands chosen at the head of Passamaquoddy
Bay, Saint John's, on the Chambly, close to the foot of Lake
Champlain; Prescott, on the Saint Lawrence; Wolfe Island, at the
foot of Lake Ontario; Hamilton, Cobourg Goderich, and Windsor, in
Upper Canada. These places are all within convenient distances of
the United States, and afford by water an easy retreat, as well as
cunning receptacles for fresh American levies."
The Forces at the Disposal of the Fenians
"The Irish Republic calculates to have, by the first
of April, fifteen millions of dollars at its disposal in ready cash.
This will give transportation and maintenance for one month to
thirty thousand men, a greater number than were ever before mustered
to the conquest of the Canadian possessions. Of this force, eight
thousand will carry the line of the Grand Trunk road west of
Hamilton; five thousand, crossing from Rochester to Cobourg, will be
prepared to move either east, in time to act jointly with three
thousand men from Wolfe Island, upon Kingston, or to take part with
the western detachment in the capture of Toronto. All this, it is
believed, will be the work of two weeks. Thus entrenched securely in
Upper Canada, holding all the routes of the Grand Trunk, sufficient
rolling stock secured to control the main line, the Fenians hope to
attract to their colors fifty thousand American Irishmen, and equip
a navy on Lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario. The avenues to return so
being secured, thirty thousand men, under General Sweeny, will move
down the Saint Lawrence, upon Kingston, simultaneously with ten
thousand men by the lines of the Chambly, and these will converge
upon Montreal; in the meantime isolated expeditions from the
rendezvous at Saint Andrews will reduce Saint John and Halifax,
these furnishing depots for privateers and ocean men-of-war to
intercept British transports and effectually close the Saint
Lawrence. Quebec will thus fall by the slow conquest of time; or, if
the resources of the garrison should be greater than the patience of
the invaders, the same heights which two Irishmen have scaled
before, will again give foothold to the columns of the brotherhood."
The Plan of Invasion in Detail
"At Chicago the Fenians already possess five sailing
vessels, a tug, and two steam transports; at Buffalo they are
negotiating for vessels; at Bay City, Michigan, and at Cleveland
they have other craft in process of refitting; these will
simultaneously raise the green flag and stand ready to succor the
land forces. Goderich, Sarnia and Windsor will be simultaneously
occupied; all the available rolling stock seized, and the main line
of the Grand Trunk cut at Grand River, to prevent the passage of
cars and locomotives to Hamilton. The geographical configuration of
the western half of Upper Canada will permit of a few thousand men
holding the entire section of the country between Cobourg and the
Georgian Bay. These are connected by a chain of lakes and water
courses, and the country affords subsistence for a vast army. Horses
sufficient to mount as many cavalry as the Brotherhood can muster,
quartermasters' teams in quantity, and a vast amount of lake
shipping, will at once be reduced to a grand military department,
with Hamilton for the capital, and a loan advertised for. While this
is being negotiated, Gen. Sweeny will push rapidly forward on the
line of the Grand Trunk, in time to superintend the fall of
Montreal, where ocean shipping will be found in great quantity. With
the reduction of Montreal a demand will be made upon the United
States for a formal recognition of Canada, whose name is to be
changed at once to New Ireland. While this is being urged, the green
flag will scour all the bays and gulfs in Canada; a Fenian fleet
from San Francisco will carry Vancouver and the Fraser River
country, to give security to the Pacific squadron, rendezvousing at
San Juan, and the rights of belligerents will be enforced from the
British Government by prompt retaliation for the cruelties of
Ability of the Fenians to Hold Canada
"The population of the British provinces is little
above two and a half millions, and the military resources of the
united provinces fall short of sixty thousand men. Of these nearly
ten thousand are of Irish birth or descent. The States will furnish
for the subjugation of these, eighty thousand veteran troops. With
the single exception of Quebec, it is believed the whole of the
British provinces will fall in a single campaign. During the ensuing
winter diversions will be put in motion in Ireland, and while it is
believed the Brotherhood can defy the Queen's war transports to land
an army in the west, arrangements will be developed to equip a
powerful navy for aggressive operations on the sea. Before the 1st
of June, it is thought, fifty commissioned vessels of war and
privateers, carrying three hundred guns, will be afloat, and to
maintain these a tremendous moral influence will be exerted upon
every Irish-American citizen to contribute the utmost to the general
fund for the support of the war.
"By the tempting offer of a surrender of Canada to the United
States, Mr. Seward, it is hoped, will wink at connivance between
American citizens and the Fenian conquerors, and by another summer
it is thought the dominion of the Brotherhood north of the St.
Lawrence will be formally acknowledged by the United States, Russia,
and each of the American republics. The third year of Irish tenure
in Canada will, it is believed, array two of the great powers
against Great Britain. John Mitchell, at Paris, will organize the
bureau of foreign agents; and Ireland, maintaining a position of
perpetual revolt, will engage for her own suppression a considerable
part of the regular British levies."
"At the present time a bureau of operations is being
quietly organized in Paris, where the opposition press has already
proclaimed for Irish nationality. It is Mr. Mitchell who sees that
the funds of the Brotherhood are distributed in Ireland; he also is
in correspondence with liberal statesmen in Great Britain, and
conducts the disintegration of the British army by touching the
loyalty of the Irish troops, who constitute one-third of the Queen's
The Cunard Steamers to be Seized
"Among the earliest aggressive operations will be
the overhauling of a Cunard steamer between New York and Cape Race,
with her usual allotment of specie. In like manner the British lines
of steamers proceeding from England to Quebec, Portland, Boston and
Halifax, will be arrested and their funds secured."
The War in Ireland
"Military operations in Ireland must, of necessity,
be confined to the interior. Three military departments will be
organized--the Shannon, the Liffey, and the Foyle--and the campaign
will be entirely predatory or guerilla in its conduct. The British
Coast Guard stations will fall easy conquests, their number and
isolation contributing to their ruin; while from the Wicklow
Mountains, through all the rocky fastnesses of Ireland, the
cottagers will descend upon the British garrisons, maintaining
perpetual and bloody rebellion till the better news comes across the
sea or the patience of England is quite worn out."
This was a mighty and stupendous programme truly, but oh how
visionary! It embraced the extreme aspirations of the boldest and
most sanguinary Fenian's, and its publication no doubt served to
bring more money into their treasury. But, alas for human hopes, its
execution never happened. Yet it fired the hearts of the soldiers of
the Irish Republican Army, and they eagerly awaited the summons to
march "On to Canada." All through that winter drilling and
preparation continued, and the enthusiasm of the men was kept warm
by fervid oratory appealing to their patriotism, while they boldly
chanted their song:--
||"We are a Fenian Brotherhood,
skilled in the arts of
And we're going to fight for Ireland,
the land that we adore.
Many battles we have won,
along with the boys in
And we'll go and capture Canada,
for we've nothing else to
Meanwhile the Canadian Government deemed it prudent
to place troops at some of the exposed points along the border, and
on the 15th of November, 1865, the following volunteer corps were
called out for Frontier Service, and were stationed at the following
places, the whole force being under the command of the
Lieutenant-General commanding Her Majesty's Forces in North
At Prescott--The Ottawa Garrison Battery of Artillery; Capt.
A. G. Forrest. First Lieutenant W. Duck, and Second Lieutenant
The Morrisburg Garrison Battery of Artillery; Capt. T. S. Rubidge.
First Lieutenant Peter A. Eagleson, and Second Lieutenant G. S. L.
At Niagara--Quebec Rifle Company; Capt. D. Gagnier, Lieut.
Elzear Garneau, and Ensign Thos. H. A. Roy.
Montreal Rifle Company; Capt. P. J. M. Cinqmars, Lieut. J. O.
Labranche, and Ensign G. d'O. d'Orsonnens.
At Sarnia--Toronto Rifle Company; Capt. Wm. D. Jarvis, Lieut.
Farquhar Morrison, and Ensign W. C. Campbell.
Woodstock Rifle Company; Capt. Henry B. Beard, Lieut. John
Matthewson, and Ensign James C'oad.
At Windsor--Hamilton Infantry Company; Capt. Henry E. Irving,
Lieut. Robert Grant, and Ensign J. J. Hebden.
London Infantry Company; Capt. Arch. Macpherson. Lieut. Edward W.
Griffith, and Ensign George Ellis.
At Sandwich--Port Hope Infantry Company; Capt. A. T. H.
Williams, Lieut. James F. McLeod, and Ensign Francis E. Johnson.
Major C. F. Hill, of the First Prince of Wales Regiment (Montreal),
was in command of the forces stationed at Sandwich, Windsor and
Sarnia. These troops were kept on service for several months, and
their presence at the points named and the constant vigilance
maintained, had an effect in warning the Fenians that Canada's sons
were alive to the duty of the hour, and were resolved to guard and
protect their homes and firesides from desecration by invading foes
or sacrifice their lives if necessary in performing that sacred
The Brockville Rifles
While the above detachments were on service at the
points named, the danger was equally great at other places,
especially along the St. Lawrence frontier. The town of Brockville
was particularly exposed to attack, as during the winter months the
river is usually frozen over, which would afford the Fenians an easy
way of crossing on a solid bridge of ice. At this time the town was
exceptionally fortunate in having a most excellent volunteer
military corps as one of its most popular local institutions, which
was known as the Brockville Rifle Company. This command figured so
prominently in the service of the Volunteer Militia Force of Canada
in the early days that it deserves special mention in the records of
The Brockville Rifles was one of the first companies organized under
the Volunteer Militia Act, being promoted in the spring of 1855 by
Capt. Smythe (who was afterward captain of a company in H. M. 100th
Regiment, which was raised in Canada in 1857 and 1858 for service in
the British Army, and who subsequently became commanding officer of
As Brockville and vicinity was first settled in 1783 and 1784 by the
U. E. Loyalists (all of whom had borne arms in defence of the
British Crown), their descendants have always been noted for their
unswerving loyalty and fealty to the Mother Country. Therefore when
the opportunity was offered to its citizens to exemplify their
patriotism by serving their Queen and country, they promptly obeyed
the call, and in a short time the ranks of the Brockville Rifles
were filled up, and drilling commenced. The muster roll was sent in
to Militia Headquarters, and the Company was formally gazetted on
September 5th, 1855. Among the names that appear on the first roll
of this Company are those of William H. Jackson and Wilmot H. Cole,
both of whom are still living at this date, and are supposed to be
the only two survivors of the old corps. Each of these gentlemen
took a great interest in military affairs, and after duly qualifying
themselves, were gradually promoted in the service until they
attained high commands--the former being appointed one of the first
Brigade Majors under the Militia Act of 1862 (and subsequently
becoming a Deputy Adjutant-General, who discharged important duties
at Brockville, London, Winnipeg and Ottawa), while Wilmot H. Cole,
after serving through all the grades, rose to the rank of
Lieutenant-Colonel of the Forty-first Battalion (of which the
Brockville Rifles was always No. 1 Company), the duties of which
position he filled with great ability and credit for twenty-seven
consecutive years, retiring on July 1st, 1898.
The Brockville Rifle Company was selected by the Government as one
of the units to form the regiment organized in 1864, under command
of Lieut.-Col. W. Osborne Smith, to guard the St. Clair and Detroit
River frontiers (extending from Sarnia on the north to Amherstburg
on the south) for the purpose of preventing raids from Canadian
territory on the United States by organized gangs of desperate men
from the Confederate States, who had come north for that purpose.
The Canadian regiment had its headquarters at Windsor, with
detachments posted at that point, and at Sarnia, Chatham, Sandwich
and Amherstburg. To the latter point the Brockville and Belleville
Rifle Companies were sent in command of the following officers:--
Brockville Rifle Company--Major James Crawford, Lieut. W. H. Cole,
and Ensign Edmund W. Windeat.
Belleville Rifle Company--Capt. Charles G. Le Vesconte. Lieut. James
Brown, and Ensign Mackenzie Bowell.
The two companies at Amherstburg improved their time by engaging in
constant drill, and by the maintenance of strict discipline and
close attention to the duties required of them, they became very
efficient. After five months of frontier service the regiment was
relieved on the 4th of May, 1865, and returned to their homes.
In the fall of 1865 the Fenians began to get very active, and the
feeling prevailed among the people of Brockville that some provision
should be made for the protection of that town. The Brockville
Rifles at that time was in a very efficient condition, having four
officers and 85 rank and file, as follows:--Major James Crawford in
command, Lieut. W. H. Cole, Ensign E. W. Windeat and 65
non-commissioned officers and men, with an additional gun detachment
composed of one officer and 20 men, equipped with a 6-pound brass
field gun, under command of Lieut. Robert Bowie, who had been at
Amherstburg with the company the year previous. (Lieut. Bowie was
born a soldier, his father having held an important command in the
Tower of London, and had private quarters there with his wife when
Robert, his only son, was born.)
Major Crawford called his officers together, and after a discussion
of what might happen to Brockville in its unprotected condition, it
was decided to make the following offer to the Militia
Department:--As the Company was now 85 strong, they would enlist 15
more men, making a total of 100. The men would be called out at 6.30
p.m. every day, given a two hours' drill; an officer's guard to be
mounted, to consist of one sergeant, one corporal and 24 men;
sentries to be posted at seven of the most exposed places, including
one at each of the two banks; the non-commissioned officers and men
to be paid 25 cents each per day, the officers giving their services
free, and if the Department would furnish the necessary bedding the
Company would have 60 of the remaining men sleep in the Armory every
night, to be ready for any emergency. This would enable the men to
attend to their usual daily avocations and not interfere with the
business requirements of their employers. This patriotic offer was
at once accepted by the Government, and orders were issued to have
the duties carried out as above stated, which was done in every
detail from the 15th of December, 1865, to the eventful day in
March, 1866, when the first general call was made on the Volunteer
Force for service on the frontier.
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Troublous Times in Canada, A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870
Fenian Raids of 1866 - 1870