The Fenian Raids

During the 1864 Atlanta campaign. Federal Gen Thomas W. Sweeny contacted Confederate Gen Patrick R. Cleburne with a proposal to join forces after the war, and recruit an army of Irish veterans from both I armies for a war of liberation against Britain. Cleburne's reply was that once the war was over they would both have had enough fighting to last them a lifetime. Cleburne did not live to see the end of the war; but Sweeny did indeed take part in a Fenian "invasion" of Canada in 1866, as did hundreds of other Irish veterans.

The Fenian Brotherhood, a revolutionary group which was a forerunner of die Irish Republican Army, had formed in 1858, and even while the Civil War was raging it was aggressively signing up recruits from bodi Federal and Confederate armies. In 1863 Fenian cells sent delegates to the movement's first convention in Chicago; such revolutionary groups were also active in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Memphis, Savannah and Charleston. In the event (wo of the leading Fenian spokesmen, Michael Corcoran and Thomas Francis Meagher, played litde part in this movement: Corcoran died in a riding accident in December 1863, and, amid renewed charges of alcoholism, Meagher fell from grace after Fredericksburg, resigned his command in May 1863, and drowned in 1867 after tumbling off a river boat.

In May 1866 the Fenians felt ready to launch raids into southern Canada (though with what realistic military objective, it is hard to imagine). Three raids were planned - from Chicago into Western Ontario; from Buffalo and Rochester across the Niagara River, and from New York and other seaboard cities along Lake Champlain - but only the

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latter two were attempted. John O'Neill, a former US Army colonel, led an 800-man column across the Niagara River border near Buffalo in six vessels on the night of 31 May/1 June 1866, and occupied the town of Fort Erie. Already warned by the very visible gathering of Fenians at Buffalo, the Canadian authorities called out some 1,700 militia. On June 2 the Fenians drove back a small and incompetendy handled militia force near Ridgwav, inflicting 47 casualties in all. O'Neill then withdrew to Fort Erie, where a savage litde firelight with 76 militiamen left 23 Fenians dead or wounded. The reinforcements that O'Neill had been expecting had failed to arrive, so he re-embarked to return to Buffalo; but he was intercepted by the gunboat USS Michigan, whose crew arrested the leaders and impounded their weapons. When O'Neill was jailed, Irish residents in Nashville raised $10,000 to bail him out.

On June 7 a force variously reported at 700 or 1,000 Fenians under BrigGen Samuel Spier crossed the border on the Lake Champlain route. Several British regular and Canadian militia battalions responded, and after two minor skirmishes on June 9 and 22 the Fenians withdrew.

In May 1870 "General" O'Neill - based at Franklin, Vermont - planned a raid into Quebec, but by the time it was launched on May 25 the British (who had long ago infiltrated the Fenian movement) had had three days' warning. The 350-400 Fenians were met on the frontier at Eccles Hill by a force of militia, whose fire checked them; when the raiders dragged up a field gun the militia advanced, and the Fenians fled. A smaller probe two days later was not pressed. By now internal divisions among the Fenian leadership were crippling the movement, which finally abandoned the romantic notion of capturing an Irish enclave in Canada.

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