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On the Vermont Border

On the Vermont Border--Fenians Gather in Large Numbers--The Fizzle at Pigeon Hill--Arrest of Gen. Spier.


During the night of the 31st of May a general movement of Fenian troops was commenced from different towns and cities in the New England States towards their point of concentration at St. Albans, Vermont. This force was designated as the "Right Wing of the Irish Republican Army," and was commanded by Gen. Spier, with Gen. Mahon, of Boston, as his Chief of Staff. By noon of the 1st of June over 800 men had reported to Gen. Spier, and during the following twenty-four hours their number had increased to about 1,800. Like their comrades who had assembled at Buffalo, they travelled in small squads and companies, unarmed, and were reticent as to their intentions while in American territory. They quietly scattered about the town in groups and made no disorderly demonstrations, as they seemed to be under some sort of military restraint or orders. Every train that arrived from the east or the south brought in fresh contingents, who on arrival received their orders and silently distributed themselves among the small towns and villages along the Vermont border. For some time previous cases of arms and ammunition had been shipped to convenient points where they would be ready for distribution, and staff officers were busy looking after this war material and getting everything ready for the equipment of the expedition. For a day or two matters looked very promising for Gen. Spier. Thirteen thousand troops had been promised to him by Gen. Sweeny, with an unlimited supply of arms and ammunition, and his hopes soared high. But alas for human reckoning! The fates proved unkind, as subsequent developments proved.

On the 4th of June the Boston contingent of Fenians, about 400 in number, arrived at St. Albans, without arms. Of this command about 200 were sent to Fairfield, Vt., a village eight miles east of St. Albans, and quite close to the Canadian frontier, where a column was being mobilized to cross the border.

At East Highgate, Vt., the Fenians established a camp and made preparations for an advance into Canadian territory from that point.

All along the border of Missisquoi County, in Quebec, the invaders gathered in groups, companies and regiments, awaiting their arms and orders to move. Finally a sufficient force was equipped to make a forward movement, as the men were getting impatient, and on the 4th of June Gen. Spier led his advance guard across the frontier into St. Armands, where he established his camp and set up his headquarters at Pigeon Hill, from the summit of which he flaunted a large green flag.

There were about 1,000 men in this brigade, which was officered by several old soldiers who had achieved distinction in the American Civil War, among whom were Gen. Mahon, of the 9th Massachusetts, Col. Coutri, and others of prominence.

The only Canadian force in the vicinity of St. Armands was composed of three companies of infantry, consisting of nine officers and about 100 non-commissioned officers and men, the whole being under command of Capt. W. Carter, of H. M. 16th Regiment. These troops were all raw volunteers, who were very deficient in drill or military experience, some of whom had never handled a rifle before, but all were willing and anxious to contest Gen. Spier's advance, and were brave to a fault.

As soon as the Fenians appeared in force at St. Armands, Capt. Carter hastily withdrew his force to the interior, as he said he was under the impression that it was not intended that he should bring on an engagement until he was properly reinforced, as his command was only an outpost. For his action in retiring so early he was severely criticized and reprimanded for his "error in judgment in retreating without sufficient reason," while his troops never forgave him for what they considered an exhibition of cowardice.

The main body of Gen. Spier's forces had advanced about a mile into Canadian territory, and took possession of all the houses and barns in the vicinity for their quarters. Their scouts and pickets were thrown out three or four miles in advance, and for some days they were in complete possession of the country. During this time the Fenians conducted themselves in a most lawless manner, robbing and stealing, and wantonly destroying property. All of the citizens and farmers residing in the neighborhood were the victims of pillage, being robbed of horses, provisions, valuables, etc., while cattle, sheep, poultry and other live stock were confiscated and slaughtered for the use of the raiders.

As the days passed by and the promised arms and reinforcements for Gen. Spier failed to materialize, he became restless and disheartened. The United States authorities had seized all of the arms and ammunition that could be discovered, and the fact was forced on the deluded General's mind that if he did not leave Canada soon a strong force of British troops would be upon him and annihilate his command. Moreover, the demoralization of his whole army was becoming complete, and both officers and men refused to do duty any longer. Desertions were taking place in a wholesale manner, and in several instances Colonels marched off with their entire commands and re-crossed the line. He therefore convened a Council of War to consider the situation. It was of short duration, as the officers were of the unanimous opinion that there was no other course left for them but to retrace their steps and give up the idea of invading Canada. The reinforcements, arms, provisions and munitions of war that had been so liberally promised, had failed to reach them, and weakened as they were by such wholesale desertions to the rear, it was deemed by old soldiers to be nothing but madness to remain where they were, as they would be wholly unable with such a small force to make even a decent show of a fight, should they happen to be attacked, and it was at once determined to give up the intended invasion, leave Canada, and head back for the United States.

Therefore Gen. Spier ordered Col. Coutri and Col. O'Connor to form up their men and march them back to St. Albans to report to Gen. Sweeny. Both of these officers were deeply affected as they proceeded to carry out their orders, as they wanted to stay and fight it out.

The men were formed in companies, but many went off on their own responsibility, and at 9.30 o'clock on the morning of June 9th, all that was left of the grand "Right Wing" were marching back across the border to the United States. The men had a few rounds of ammunition left in their pouches, and immediately commenced firing off their muskets and rifles in a most promiscuous manner. Arms, plunder and everything else that the men could carry off with them on their retreat were lashed upon their backs or packed in satchels, and quite a number of new suits of clothes, hats, shoes and other valuables which they had pilfered were carried off by them. Several horses were also taken across the line by the marauders.

Generals Spier and Mahon marched on foot among their retreating troops, and were very much downcast. Gen. Spier said that he would rather have been shot than have left Canada in the manner he was obliged to, while Gen. Mahon wept with rage at the thought of having to abandon the invasion. Most of the officers expressed themselves as being ashamed of the affair, and would rather never go home. After all their boasting of how easily they would capture Canada and set up their visionary Republic, the disgraceful manner in which the whole campaign terminated, without so much as a slight skirmish having taken place, was more than they could bear. There were many brave yet deluded men who joined the expedition with a determination to fight, but the majority of them were "nothing more or less than an armed mob, roving about wherever they pleased, robbing the houses and insulting and abusing women and children." as stated by a newspaper correspondent.

When the retreating raiders reached United States territory they found detachments of American troops stationed upon all the roads leading to St. Albans, who had received instructions to seize all the arms the Fenians might have in their possession. As the majority of them had thrown away their muskets, sabres and ammunition on their retreat, there was not much left for the United States troops to gather up, but what little there was left was promptly seized.

Upon arrival on the American side of the line Gen. Spier and his staff surrendered to Col. Livingston, of the United States Army, and were taken to St. Albans and placed under heavy bonds to await trial for violation of the neutrality laws.

A portion of Spier's army who were stationed at a point about eight miles from St. Armand when the main body retreated, were charged upon by 40 men of the Montreal Guides, and in the skirmish several Fenians were killed and sixteen taken prisoners, who were conveyed to Montreal. There were no casualties on the Canadian side.

On the night of the 9th of June a train left St. Albans for the east with nearly 1,000 Fenians bound for their homes, while many others were left skulking around the country in the hope that another raid would soon be organized, whereby they could have an opportunity of securing more booty.

On the 22nd of June a small party of these marauders came on a reconnoitering expedition to Pigeon Hill, and on arriving at the outpost began firing at the Richelieu Light Infantry sentinel who was stationed there. They were in a thick bush off the road, leading across the lines to Franklin County. As soon as they were perceived, the Canadian detachment made an endeavor to get between the Fenians and American territory, for the purpose of intercepting their retreat. But the Fenians fled through a swamp and managed to effect their escape. About twenty shots were fired, but without effect.

This was the last episode of the Pigeon Hill affair, and in another week peace and quietness again prevailed along the Vermont border.


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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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