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Hurried Evacuation of Canada by Gen. O'Neil

Hurried Evacuation of Canada by Gen. O'Neil--Capture of the Escaping Fenians by the United States Gunboat Michigan.


After the smoke of battle had wafted away from the streets of Fort Erie, and the dead and wounded removed, Gen. O'Neil gathered his troops together and marched up to the ruins of the "Old Fort," situated on a point at the inlet of the Niagara River from Lake Erie. Here they went into camp, and began to make preparations for defence, as they fully expected to be attacked early next morning by Col. Peacocke's column and other forces who were advancing from the interior. It was a very anxious time for Gen. O'Neil and his officers, and they spent some hours in earnest deliberation as to what would be the best course for them to pursue. They were now between "the devil and the deep sea," with the wide river and lake in front of them, and an avenging army of British and Canadian troops, well equipped with cavalry, artillery and trained infantry, gradually tightening the coils around their position from the rear, in which direction there was no avenue of escape. It was indeed a serious predicament, and the only hope of the Fenians rested in the possibility of being able to escape across the river and abandon their project to capture Canada, at this point at least. To guard against surprises, Gen. O'Neil had left his picket lines extended over a large area of country, and scouts and patrols were still on duty on the country roads and along the river bank. Reinforcements were expected over from Buffalo that night, and O'Neil personally felt disposed to fortify his brigade in the ruins of the Old Fort and fight to a finish. But by this time the American authorities had aroused, and instructed Gen. W. F. Barry (the United States officer in command at Buffalo), to stop any more Fenian troops from crossing into Canada, and in the performance of this duty he exhibited great energy. There were thousands of Fenians ready and eager to cross the border to reinforce O'Neil. but the presence of the United States gunboat "Michigan" and several regiments and batteries of American regular troops, prevented the movement. Therefore the Fenians who were marooned in Canada, with visions of a hangman's noose dangling before them, became desperate and despondent. They knew very well that a concentration of the Canadian forces was going on, and that at the first break of day an attack was likely to be made, from which there would be no alternative but to "die in the last ditch" or surrender. They had encountered the raw Canadian volunteers and experienced two bitter tastes of hard fighting during the day, and were quite satisfied. So they decided to get out of Canada as quickly as possible. The officers and men were dispirited and crestfallen, and bitterly blamed Gen. Sweeny and other high Fenian officials for not having sent over the promised reinforcements in ample time to ensure the success of the expedition. When the twilight deepened and the darkness of night fell, a feeling of gloom pervaded the Fenian camp. The men had eaten their evening meal, which had about exhausted their Quartermaster's stores, and there was nothing in sight for breakfast on the morrow. As they gathered around their camp-fires or lay upon the grass in groups, discussing the day's events and their possible chance of succor, the suspense became terrible. The conviction finally became forced upon them that without reinforcements or rescue they would be utterly lost, and many of them were not prepared to take any chances, so before 10 o'clock quite a number deserted their standards and wandered down along the water front in search of some means of getting back across the river. Boats were seized wherever found, and, loaded to the gunwales, the fugitives plied their oars vigorously in their haste to cross the stream. Others trusted themselves to single planks upon which to gain support while they endeavored to swim across the current. The covering of one of the docks afforded the means for this purpose. It was a very risky method of navigation, and it is generally supposed that several of the Fenian "Leanders" who attempted the passage of the Niagara "Hellespont" in this way lost their lives in doing so, as they were reported "missing" afterwards.

Late that night signal lights were displayed from the American shore, which by the Fenian code signified to Gen. O'Neil that a movement was on foot in Buffalo to attempt to run the blockade with reinforcements. But the remnant of the Fenian army which was bivouacked in the ruins of old Fort Erie was too much demoralized to take any further interest in the campaign, and signalled back the information that the reinforcements were too late--that they intended to evacuate the country, and needed speedy relief.

About midnight two steam tugs, with a couple of canal boats in tow, quietly slipped out of Buffalo Creek, and escaping the vigilance of the American authorities, headed for the Canadian shore. These boats contained about 500 reinforcements for the Fenians, but when about half way over the river the transports were met by a messenger in a rowboat with an order from Gen. O'Neil, directing them to return to Buffalo, disembark all the troops, and immediately proceed back to Fort Erie to carry off the remainder of his men. The order was obeyed, and at 1 o'clock on the morning of June 3rd all in the camp were shipped on board of the canal boats and started back across the river. When about half way over, and in American waters, the retreating army was hailed by the armed tug "Harrison," under command of Acting Master Morris of the gunboat "Michigan," who demanded an immediate surrender to the United States authorities. The order not being promptly obeyed, it was repeated with a threat to sink the canal boats if not immediately complied with. Gen. O'Neil, realizing that resistance was useless, then surrendered the remnant of his command. The "Michigan" was signalled, and having steam up and anchor tripped, came alongside, and taking the tug and canal boats in tow, proceeded down the river to a point opposite Black Rock, where she dropped anchor in mid-stream and placed a guard over the prisoners. Gen. O'Neil and his principal officers were taken on board the "Michigan," while the rank and file were left huddled up on the canal boats for the night.

When the main body of the Fenians evacuated Canada their movement was executed so hurriedly that the officers did not take time to notify their pickets and patrols, who were still faithfully performing their duties, so that about 150 of these "patriots" were deserted by their comrades and exposed to the halter. Great indignation was manifested by these men at being left as they were on outpost duty without any notification of the proposed withdrawal of the Fenians from Canada. Had it not been for the approach of Major Denison's cavalry, which encountered their picket line at Bowen's Farm and caused their retreat to Fort Erie, none of them would probably have learned of the evacuation in time to escape. As it was, a large number of these men were captured by the Canadians the next day and consigned to prison, while the remainder managed to get across the border in various ways.

Commander Bryson, of the "Michigan," at once telegraphed to the United States authorities at Washington, reporting the capture of the main portion of Gen. O'Neil's forces, and asked for instructions regarding their disposition. Pending official correspondence between the two Governments relative to the prisoners, they were kept under close guard for a day or two. But as the British Government made no immediate demand for their extradition, the rank and file were liberated on their own recognizances to the amount of $500 each, binding them to appear if a complaint was lodged against them.

Gen. O'Neil and the other officers who were captured by the "Michigan" were released on bail, to appear when called on for trial on charges of violations of the neutrality laws, but the proceedings were quietly dropped, and thus the matter ended.

This disposal of the prisoners captured by the "Michigan" did not meet with popular approval in Canada, where our people were mourning the loss of some of our bravest and best young volunteers, and feelings of resentment held sway for some time. It was thought that an example should have been made of the leaders at least, but the diplomats who had charge of the matter evidently felt that a policy of moderation and leniency might be exercised with beneficial results at that particular time, and the raiders were not further molested.

The City of Buffalo, on the 4th of June, was full of Fenians. They had been arriving from all parts to take part in the raid, and only for the vigilance of the United States troops, were prepared to make another attempt to cross the line. But General Meade was firm in his resolve to prevent further disturbances, and issued the following order:


Headquarters Mil. Div. Atlantic. Buffalo, June 3, 1866.

Brevet Maj.-Gen. Barry:

General,--Orders will be sent you from Headquarters, Department of the East, assigning you to the command of the District of Ontario, extending from Erie, Pa., to Oswego, New York, both places included, Headquarters at Buffalo. In advance of the orders and accompanying instructions, I direct you to use the force at your command to preserve the neutrality by preventing the crossing of armed bodies, by cutting off reinforcements or supplies, by seizing all arms, munitions, etc., which you have reason to believe are destined to be used unlawfully--in fine, taking all measures precautionary and otherwise to prevent violation of law. For this purpose you will move the forces under your command to such points as are threatened, and you will employ vessels, tugs, or others, such as can be procured, for watching the river and lake shores, and taking all such measures as in your judgment the emergency requires.

Very respectfully,

Geo. G. Meade, Major-General Commanding.


In accordance with the above instructions, Gen. Barry very thoroughly guarded the United States frontier with troops, while the United States man-of-war "Michigan," the "Fessenden," and other armed steamers, patrolled the lakes and the Niagara River with the full determination to rigidly carry out Gen. Meade's orders. This was a crushing blow to the hopes of the rank and file of the Irish Republican Army, and there were many who were inclined to defy the Federal authorities and fight their way over the border. But wiser counsels prevailed, and the fiery subordinates were obliged to submit to the law and await another opportunity.

During the following ten days the people of Buffalo had a horde of very undesirable guests within their gates. The majority of the Fenian troops were without means of subsistence, and became a charge upon the authorities and their sympathizers. The question of their disposal was at last decided by the United States Government offering transportation to their homes to all who would agree to sign the following:

Form of Parole.

We, the undersigned, belonging to the Fenian Brotherhood, being now assembled in Buffalo, with intentions which have been decided by the United States authorities as in violation of the neutrality laws of the United States; but being now desirous to return to our homes, do severally agree and promise to abandon our expedition against Canada, desist from any violation of the neutrality laws of the United States, and return immediately to our respective homes.


This offer was largely taken advantage of, and muster rolls were made out as rapidly as possible. The number of signatures obtained to the written paroles was 5,166 during the afternoon of June 15th, and that night these men departed for their homes, much to the relief of the citizens of Buffalo, who had become weary of their guests.

Previous to the departure of the disappointed warriors from Buffalo, the Fenian General Burns issued the following farewell address:


Buffalo, June 14, 1860.

To the Officers and Soldiers of the Irish Republican Army in Buffalo:

Brothers,--Orders having been received from President Roberts, requesting you to return to your homes, it becomes my duty to promulgate said order in this department. Having been but a few days among you, and witnessing with pride your manly bearing and soldierly conduct in refraining from all acts of lawlessness on the citizens of this city, it grieves me to part with you so soon. I had hoped to lead you against the common enemy of human freedom, viz., England, and would have done so had not the extreme vigilance of the United States Government frustrated our plans. It was the United States, and not England, that impeded our onward march to freedom. Return to your homes for the present, with the conviction that this impediment will soon be removed by the representatives of the nation. Be firm in your determination to renew the contest when duty calls you forth; the cause is too sacred to falter for a moment. Let your present disappointment only prompt you to renewed energy in the future. Be patient, bide your time, organize your strength, and as liberty is your watch-word, it will finally be your sword. In leaving this city, where you have bountifully shared the hospitality of the citizens, I beg of you to maintain the same decorum that has characterized your actions whilst here.

(Signed) M. W. Burns, Brigadier General Commanding Irish Army at Buffalo.


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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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