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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 Irish Republic.

Date ......

[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 States.

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 into flame.

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 O'Connell.

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 British courtmartials."

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."

European Operations

"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 service."

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 war.
And we're going to fight for Ireland,
          the land that we adore.
Many battles we have won,
          along with the boys in blue.
And we'll go and capture Canada,
          for we've nothing else to do."

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 America:--

At Prescott--The Ottawa Garrison Battery of Artillery; Capt. A. G. Forrest. First Lieutenant W. Duck, and Second Lieutenant Albert Parson.

The Morrisburg Garrison Battery of Artillery; Capt. T. S. Rubidge. First Lieutenant Peter A. Eagleson, and Second Lieutenant G. S. L. Stoddart.

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 duty.

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 country.

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 that regiment).

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

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