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Operations on the Missisquoi Frontier

Operations on the Missisquoi Frontier--The Battle of Eccles' Hill--Complete Defeat of the Fenian Army.

On the morning of the 24th of May Lieut.-Col. W. Osborne Smith, Deputy Adjutant-General of the Fifth Military District, at Montreal, received advices from trustworthy sources that the Fenians were again assembling on the Vermont border, and that telegraph wires had been cut in several places by them. He at once notified the authorities at Ottawa by wire of these events, and asked for instructions in regard to calling out the forces under his command for active service.

As was customary, the whole of the Montreal Garrison had been assembled that day for the usual parade and review in honor of Her Majesty's birthday. As the hours wore on and no reply had been received from Ottawa by Col. Smith in answer to his telegrams, he promptly took the extreme responsibility permitted by the 60th Section of the Militia Act, and called out for service a large portion of the troops of his district, including all the frontier and Montreal corps. He reported his action to the Lieutenant-General Commanding, who approved of his action and his suggestions as to the disposal of the troops instantly required on the frontier, and further ordered that he should personally assume command at the threatened point of attack in the neighborhood of Frelighsburg.

He then addressed the men on parade, informing them that the Fenians were on the frontier with warlike intentions, and that from that moment they were on active service; moreover, that he required five companies at once to proceed to the frontier under his command. The entire brigade responded with great enthusiasm, and was ready there and then to move off to the border to meet the enemy. As the whole force was not required. Col. Smith made his selections and left for the front within a few hours, taking with him the Montreal Troop of Cavalry, and companies from the 1st Prince of Wales Rifles. 3rd Victoria Rifles, 5th Royals, 6th Battalion Hochelaga Light Infantry, together with one officer and 20 men of the Montreal Garrison Artillery. The latter contingent was detailed to reinforce Isle aux Noix, while the remainder of the force proceeded on to St. John's. On arrival there the Montreal troops (with the exception of the cavalry and the company of Victoria Rifles) were left to garrison St. John's, together with the 21st Battalion and the St. John's Garrison Battery of Artillery. Lieut.-Col. Fletcher was left in command at St. John's, with instructions to secure the safety of that place from a sudden dash by the enemy, and on the following morning proceed to the Huntingdon frontier and assume command of the troops assembled there. A party of the 21st Battalion (Richelieu Light Infantry) was detached at Malmaison to guard the bridge over the Pike River at that place.

About midnight Col. Smith arrived at Stanbridge Station with the Montreal Cavalry Troop and the one company of the Victoria Rifles. After detraining the troops he at once started on his march to Stanbridge (about eight miles distant). The roads were deep and miry from heavy rain, and the night intensely dark, but the men, who had been under arms and with little refreshment since early morning, performed the march uncomplainingly, and were eager to press on to the front.

At Stanbridge the 60th Missisquoi Battalion, under command of Lieut.-Col. Brown Chamberlin, were assembling, and on arrival there Col. Smith learned that a Fenian force had gathered near Franklin, Vermont, and were preparing to make a dash across the border in the vicinity of Eccles' Hill.

During the previous night about thirty farmers of the neighborhood (who had armed and enrolled themselves as a Home Guard, under the leadership of Mr. Asa Westover, of Dunham) occupied Eccles' Hill, a strong position on the frontier, with the determined intention to keep the Fenians in check until the arrival of the regular volunteer force. On Lieut.-Col. Chamberlin's arrival at Stanbridge on the night of the 24th he found No. 3 Company of the 60th Battalion assembled, and was informed by Capt. Kemp, his Adjutant, of the state of affairs at the front. He was quick to act, and sent forward a picket to Cook's Corners, in support of the party occupying Eccles' Hill, with instructions to move forward at daylight and reinforce it. Another detachment of 24 men, under Capt. Bockus of No. 5 Company of the 60th, were ordered to move up as supports to Cook's Corners at daylight, and later to reinforce the men in their position at the Hill. In the early hours of the morning two prisoners were captured by the farmers near their position, one of whom was a Fenian captain named Murphy, and the other one of his men. They were sent under guard of a corporal and two men to Stanbridge. This left Lieut.-Col. Chamberlin's total force at the front three officers and 46 men of the 60th Battalion, and 35 farmers.

Lieut.-Col. Chamberlin made his dispositions by placing a picket, of one officer and ten men on his right rear, and the remainder of the volunteers (two officers and 36 men) were posted among the rocks and trees, and behind the fences stretching from the road to the crest of the hill, while the right flank was protected by the 35 farmers, most of whom were sharp-shooters. Thus Lieut.-Col. Chamberlin's combined force to resist an attack was two officers and 71 men.

On a hill about 300 yards distant, across the American border, the sentries of the advanced guard of the enemy were visible, while a short distance beyond their main body were preparing for an advance on to Canadian soil.

Shortly before 12 o'clock (noon). General Foster, the United States Marshal for the Northern District of Vermont, drove over to the Canadian lines and had an interview with Lieut.-Col. Chamberlin. He said that he desired to offer assurances that his Government and himself personally were doing all that was possible to prevent a raid, and that the United States troops were being moved up to assist him in the discharge of his duty and enforcement of the neutrality laws as fast as they could be transported. He also stated that he was charged with a message from Gen. O'Neil, to say that those under his command would not make war upon women or children, nor be permitted to plunder peaceable inhabitants, but would conduct their war in the manner approved among civilized nations.

Col. Chamberlin replied that he would receive no message from men who were mere pirates and marauders, and it was scarcely satisfactory to those whom they intended to murder, because they were in arms for the defence of their Government and country, that their piracy would not be attended with unusual barbarities.

While they were still in conversation, the head of the Fenian column began to advance. Lieut.-Col. Chamberlin called Gen. Foster's attention to the fact, who replied, "I thought they intended to attack you soon, but not so soon as this." He then drove away in the direction of and past the advancing Fenian column.

Lieut.-Col. Chamberlin then hastily made such disposition of his small force as seemed most advantageous, with Capt. Bockus on the left of the skirmish line, which rested on the main road.

The enemy advanced in close column, about 200 strong, with an advance guard about 100 yards ahead of the main body. On its approach to the boundary line it was ordered to move at the double, and the advance guard rushed across. As soon as it was on Canadian soil, Lieut.-Col. Chamberlin's men opened fire on the advance guard. The fire was returned from the main column of attack, which was still within United States territory. The conflict then became general. Upon the first volley from the Canadians one man in the leading section of the Fenian advance guard was shot dead and others wounded. The remaining men comprising it then sought refuge behind the neighboring barns and under a bridge near at hand. The main body halted, wavered, partially rallied again, and then, being galled by the well-directed fire of the Canadians, broke and ran for cover behind the houses and stone fences along the road, or made their way to a wood which crowned the summit of the hill opposite to our position on the western side of the road, another man being killed and several more wounded while seeking this shelter. From this time a desultory fire was kept up from behind trees and fences.

Col. Smith was on the way to Stanbridge for the purpose of ordering up reinforcements to strengthen the position at Eccles' Hill, when he was overtaken by a mounted messenger sent by Lieut.-Col. Chamberlin, stating that the Fenians were on the point of attack. He therefore ordered his aide (Capt. Gascoigne) to hasten on to Stanbridge and bring up every available man, and at once rode back to Eccles' Hill. On arrival there he found that the first attack had been bravely repulsed by Lieut.-Col. Chamberlin's men, and assumed command of the future operations. The total force of the Fenians had not yet been brought into action, their reserve of 350 or 400 men being still on the American side of the border line. A possible attack being feared from this force, Col. Smith took every precaution to hold his own until reinforcements arrived. About 2.30 p.m. the Montreal Troop of Cavalry, a company of the Victoria Rifles, and another detachment of 20 men of the 60th Battalion, reached the Canadian position from Stanbridge. With this additional force Col. Smith was enabled to strengthen his skirmish line, and better secure the right flank of his position. Firing was kept up until about 5 o'clock, when the Fenian fire began to slacken, with the exception of a few dropping shots from the enemy, who had taken shelter in the houses along the road. These riflemen were carefully marked by the Canadian skirmishers, and searched for by a shower of bullets whenever a shot was fired.

About 6 o'clock the Fenians were busy getting a field gun in position, and had it placed about 1,200 yards in front of the Canadian line. But before it was fired Col. Smith ordered an advance of his force, the detachment of the 60th Battalion and the Home Guards advancing in skirmishing order, and the company of Victoria Rifles covering their advance from the slope of the hill. This movement was well executed, and had the effect of driving the Fenians from their cover in all directions, in full flight. Not over a dozen shots were fired by them against the Canadians in their retreat. They threw away their arms, accoutrements and clothing as they ran, and did not stop until they were far over the American border.

At nightfall three shots were fired by the Fenians from their field gun, but their aim was faulty, and the shots did no damage to our men. During the whole engagement not one of the Canadians was even wounded.

The Fenian loss was four or five killed and 15 or 18 wounded. Three of their dead were at one time plainly in view from our lines, while another was reported as lying dead in a brook at the foot of the hill. Among the wounded was the Fenian General Donnelly. During the night lights were seen moving over the fields in search of the Fenian dead and wounded, who were removed to the United States by civilians. After his defeat the repulsed General O'Neil took refuge in a brick house, from which he was turned out by the owner. He then hastened to the rear, and on arrival on American territory was arrested by Gen. Foster, the United States Marshal, for breach of the neutrality laws.

The Canadian troops held their position and laid on their arms all night, expecting another attack, but the enemy had seen enough of Canadian valor, and did not make the attempt again to renew the combat.

On the following morning the Fenians abandoned their camp at Hubbard's Farm, leaving large quantities of arms, ammunition and clothing, which were seized by the United States Government. Their rifles were the best obtainable at that time, being breech-loading Springfields and Spencers of the latest pattern. Their field-piece (which was a breech-loading rifled steel gun) was captured on Canadian soil, and is one of the trophies held by the Missisquoi Home Guard in memory of O'Neil's dismal failure to capture Canada in 1870.

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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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