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Fenians Again Invade Canada

Gen. O'Neil Again Invades Canada--A Raid Made From Vermont Promptly Repulsed by a Handful of Canadians.

About the middle of May orders went forth from Gen. O'Neil for the Fenian forces to again take the field, and a week later they began to assemble in the border cities, towns and villages of the United States, ready for another campaign against Canada. The rallying points were the same as those designated in Gen. Sweeny's plan of campaign in 1866. Gen. O'Neil seems to have considered that his chances of success would be better on the eastern frontier than by again attempting the invasion of the Niagara District, although his plan was to muster a strong force in Buffalo, as before, and, if opportunity offered, and he was successful in the east, to again attempt the passage of the Niagara. Consequently he gave his personal attention to the troops that were gathering on the Northern New York and Vermont frontiers, and directed the mobilization of the divisions at Malone and St. Albans, with the intention of following out Sweeny's old programme of conquest, while several officers of experience would lead in the attacks on other points.

The 24th of May (Queen's Birthday) was the date selected for the invasion, and the night previous every train bound north from New York, Boston, and the New England States, carried contingents of Fenian soldiers on their way to the appointed rendezvous on the border. Gen. O'Neil established his headquarters at Franklin, Vermont, where his staff were energetically at work equipping the troops as they arrived. O'Neil fully expected that from 2,000 to 3,000 Fenians would have assembled at Franklin on the 24th, but through some delay in transportation the bulk of the forces failed to appear. Only about 800 had reported themselves, and the tardiness of movement of the remainder of the army threatened a fatal ending to the enterprise. O'Neil chafed under his disappointment, and sent urgent telegrams and messengers to hurry up the laggards, but the morning of the 25th dawned without the arrival of the expected soldiers. Gen. O'Neil then became so impatient that he could bear the suspense no longer. He was fearful of the interposition of the United States authorities, and resolved to immediately advance into Canada with the force present under his command, and leave his reinforcements to follow.

The Fenian camp was located at Hubbard's Farm (about half a mile from Franklin), and the officers were busy there distributing arms, ammunition and equipment. They had collected armament for about 3,000 men, and the cases were opened and scattered along the road to facilitate the quick issue of rifles and cartridges to the reinforcements as soon as they arrived.

On the 24th of May President U. S. Grant had issued his proclamation forbidding a breach of the Neutrality Act. and the United States officials were prompt in their endeavors to stop the raid. Gen. George P. Foster (United States Marshal) called on Gen. O'Neil at Franklin, and after reading to him President Grant's proclamation, endeavored to dissuade him from advancing over the line. But the Fenian General refused to comply with his advice, and expressed his contempt for the President in language more forcible and profane than polite. As Gen. Foster had no troops at his command to compel obedience by the Fenian leaders, he crossed over the line and informed the Canadian commander (Col. Chamberlain) of O'Neil's designs and his inability to stop the raiders.

About 11 o'clock on May 25th Gen. O'Neil mounted his horse and rode down from Franklin to the Fenian camp. He realized that if he did not move quickly there was a probability of the arrival of United States troops to stop the expedition; therefore he gave immediate orders to his men to "fall in" for the advance across the border. When the troops were formed up, he addressed them as follows:--

"Soldiers! This is the advance guard of the Irish-American army for the liberation of Ireland from the yoke of the oppressor. For your own country you enter that of the enemy. The eyes of your countrymen are upon you. Forward--March!"

At the word of command the column moved promptly, with Gen. O'Neil and Gen. Donnelly (his Chief-of-Staff) at the head, and the green flag of the Irish Republic flapping in the wind. The Fenian column was formed in three divisions, consisting of an advance guard of skirmishers, a strong support of about 200 men, and the balance of their troops in reserve. They had only a short distance to go before they reached the boundary line. Some eight rods north of the line (on the Canadian side) is a gully through which runs a small brook known locally as "Chickabiddy Creek," over which the road is bridged, and beyond which are the rocky heights of Eccles' Hill, where a small Canadian force was entrenched among the rocks and trees awaiting the approach of the invaders.

The house of Alva Richards, about ten rods south of the border line, on the road from Franklin to Cook's Corners, was chosen by Gen. O'Neil as his headquarters. From the Richards house to the Canadian position was a distance of only about a quarter of a mile.

Immediately after crossing the boundary, the Burlington (Vermont) Company of Fenians (about fifty men), under command of Capt. Cronan, dashed down the hill to form a skirmish line across the brook. Just as they did so the Canadians opened fire. At the first volley Private John Rowe was instantly killed, and Lieut. John Hallinan received a flesh wound in the arm. The company wavered, and receiving no support, fell back to the shelter of the Richards house and outbuildings. The next company (under Capt. Carey) joined Capt. Cronan in the rear of the house, and commenced firing. Soon afterwards Private James Keenan ventured out too far and received a ball in the leg, near the ankle. This hot reception, and the sharp fire of the Canadians, caused a stampede, and Gen. O'Neil endeavored to rally his troops by the following address:--

"Men of Ireland! I am ashamed of you. You have acted disgracefully, but you will have another chance of showing whether you are cravens or not. Comrades, we must not, we dare not, go back now, with the stain of cowardice upon us. Comrades. I will lead you again, and if you will not follow me, I will go on with my officers and die in your front. I leave you now under command of Gen. Boyle O'Reilly."

After this brave utterance, Gen. O'Neil (who had been across the border on an eminence opposite the Canadian position, watching events) retired to an attic window in the Richards house, from which point he intended to observe the fortunes of the day. But the Canadian riflemen having discovered his presence there, directed their fire upon him, and Mr. Richards ordered O'Neil to leave his residence, which was getting seriously damaged by bullets. Just as he went out of the house, General Foster (United States Marshal), with a couple of his officers, stepped forward and arrested O'Neil for breach of the Neutrality Act. At first the Fenian General was very wrathy, and threatened to use force if he was not released, but on Gen. Foster placing a revolver at his head and intimating that he would shoot if he did not submit. O'Neil's courage quailed, and he surrendered. He was shoved into a covered carriage and driven off to St. Albans under guard of two men, very much dejected.

By this time a contingent of about 500 Fenians had arrived from St. Albans, and were being armed and equipped at the Fenian camp for the purpose of making another dash. As O'Neil had been so unceremoniously whisked away by Gen. Foster, the Fenian army was now without a leader. So a Council of War was held, all of the leading Fenian officers in the field being present. Reinforcements were now arriving hourly, and strong efforts were made to induce Gen. John Boyle O'Reilly (a noted Irish patriot) to take command and again lead them on to glory. The Council convened in an open glade near the Fenian camp, where, surrounded by their troops, the leaders pleaded with Gen. O'Reilly to assume command, but he could not be prevailed upon to accept the risk, and the spirits of the raiders sank as they began to realize the hopelessness of their position.

Early next morning Gen. Spier arrived at St. Albans and endeavored to bring order out of chaos, and continue O'Neil's plan of invasion. But by this time the golden opportunity had slipped by, and all chances of success had vanished. A strong force of Canadians had arrived at the frontier, determined to resist every foot of advance into Canadian territory, while a body of United States troops appeared in the rear of the Fenian army for the purpose of making arrests for breach of the neutrality laws. Being caught between two fires, they thought discretion was the better part of valor, and fled in dismay. And thus the grand "Army of the Irish Republic" melted away in disorganized mobs.

At Malone similar conditions existed, and the large number of Fenians assembled there were quickly dissolved by the United States troops and all their war material seized by the United States authorities.

A description of the fight at Eccles' Hill, as viewed from the Canadian side, is given in the succeeding chapter.

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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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