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19th Century Articles
Alfred Thayer Mahan: Advocate for Seapower
Americans in the Boer War
Marching to Timbuktu
Charge of the Polish Light Horse at Somosierra
The War between Norway and Sweden 1808
Gonzales: Crucible of Texas Revolution
Sheridan's Southern Plains Campaign
Milvern Harrell: Dawson Massacre
Mexican American War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
Solferino: Slaughter and Rebirth
Battle of Lundy's Lane
Battle of Paris
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
Napoleon's Campaign Of 1809
Capture of USS President
The Fenian Raids
Military History of War of 1812
Austerlitz: Napoleon Makes His Own Luck
The Failures at Spion Kop
Combatants in Black Hawk War
Tunisian Army in Crimean War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
The Mitrailleuse
The Grande Armee of 1812 in Russia
The French Campaign of 1859
The French Intervention in Mexico
The Master's Misstep
Trafalgar Remembered
Rorke's Drift

Walter Giersbach Articles
Stanley at Shiloh: A Improbable 'Indiana Jones'
Bacon's Rebellion
The Fenian Raids
Governor Kieft's Personal War
Barrancas: The First Shots Fired
King Philip's War

Recommended Reading


Turning Back the Fenians


The Fenian Movement


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The War That Never Happened
The War That Never Happened 
by Walt Giersbach

June 6, 1866, turned out to be warm as some 2,000 (or more, or fewer; no one is sure) veterans of the Civil War charged across the United States border at St. Albans, Vermont, and began their attack on British North America. Fenian Brigadier Samuel P. Spear led the attack that would—if successful—hold Canada hostage until the English let go their yoke on Ireland.

A preposterous invasion? Not to the thousands of Irish veterans of both the Union and Confederate Armies that had banded together under a different flag. Not to President Andrew Johnson, who was demanding reparations from the British for supporting the Confederate States in the Civil War and would now use the Fenians as a political lever. And certainly not to the British, who were waiting with an exponentially larger force. [1]

The war to free Ireland was an audacious strategy that failed.

Who Were the Fenians?

Feniansm, the Anglicized version of the Gaelic na fianna, referred to Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organization of perhaps 125,000 members in the U.S. and Canada ready to support and fight for Ireland's freedom. In North America, the group was led by John O'Mahony, a veteran of the 1848 rebellion who, like thousands of others, emigrated from their defeat. In October 1865, he was deposed at an IRB convention for wanting to take the fight back to Ireland. William Randall Roberts, born in Cork and living in New York City, became the IRB's new chief with a different goal of attacking British North America. Major-General "Fighting Tom" Sweeny, a veteran of the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, was named secretary of war. [2]

Sweeny's strategy was to make a three-pronged attack: Brigadier Charles Tevis would lead 3,000 men out of Chicago north through Detroit and Windsor, Ont., to Stratford. Another 5,000 men under Brigadier William F. Lynch would cross in two groups: one from Cleveland across Lake Erie to Port Stanley, joining Tevis' men at London, Ont., while the other army would cross at Buffalo to take Hamilton, Ont. After defeating the 8,000 regular Canadian military and the 10,000 militia, they would march on to Toronto.

This was a sly feint. During the distracting attack, the Irish and French in Montreal would destroy the railway at St. Ann's Bridge to eliminate the return of British troops. The real attack would come from Vermont at the hand of Brigadier Samuel P. Spear with 16,800 men. Brigadier Michael C. Murphy would lead his cavalry to take Cornwall and Prescott, then move east to Montreal. The Montreal Irish would rise up to meet them and French radicals would supply fresh horses. As the pieces fell into place, the army would seize Pointe Levis opposite Quebec City. Fenian warships would sail in to secure the St. Lawrence River. ("Plan B" was for Spear to secure the area between the Richelieu and St. Francis Rivers and establish Sherbrooke as the Fenian capital.)

Buttressing this daring strategy to force concessions from the British was the political influence they felt supported them. Roberts, then chief executive of the Fenians, had met with President Andrew Johnson. Reportedly, President Johnson agreed to "recognize the accomplished facts" and acknowledge an Irish Republic in exile if the Fenians were to establish a foothold in Canada. [3]


John O'Mahony, a founder of the Fenian movement and would-be liberator of Ireland.

Fenian Secretary of War Sweeny saw his attack plans approved by the IRB on Feb. 19, 1866. However, the deposed leader O'Mahony had other ideas. O'Mahony believed he could regain control of the IRB with a force of 1,000 Fenians. On Apr. 19, O'Mahony's small army under the leadership of Bernard Doran Killian planned to invade New Brunswick from Calais and Eastport, Maine, and seize the island of Campobello. From this bastion, he would launch attacks directly on Ireland. What O'Mahony and Killian didn't know was that informers had tipped off the British, who were ready and waiting. Further, Gen. George Meade had been instructed by President Johnson to "make a show of stopping the Fenian incursion by persuasion and without force of arms."

The encounter was short and the Fenians were defeated as Gen. Meade took possession of O'Mahony's ship and arms. Many British felt this was the main attack—and they were wrong. The main event was planned for Thursday, May 31. [4]

The Battle of Ridgeway

It had been a hard chore assembling this fighting force to meet Sweeny's plan. John O'Neill had been on trains for four days with some 150 men forming the IRA's 13th Regiment. O'Neill had been a lieutenant in the 5th Indiana Cavalry, a captain with the 17th USCT and a former Colonel with the 7th Michigan cavalry. They had left Nashville on May 27. In Louisville, Col. George Owen Starr and 150 members of the 17th IRA Regiment boarded the train. Starr had been a lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry (U.S.). At another stop. Captain James B. Haggerty and a hundred troops got on board. The men had been ordered to dress in work clothes, disguise their intentions and appear to be laborers.

It wasn't at all odd that these Southerners banded together with their Northern brethren. The IRB had been formed in the United States in 1858 following the rebellion in Ireland; America's Civil War had only temporarily put the immigrants on opposite sides of the battle lines.

They arrived in Cleveland expecting to find Fenian General William Francis Lynch there with boats to ferry them to Canada. Lynch had been a brevet brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers and led the 58th Illinois at Shiloh's Hornet's Nest as part of Tom Sweeny's brigade. But Captain William J. Hynes, a staff officer sent to Cleveland by General Lynch, reported there were no boats. In disappointment, O'Neill and the others were billeted in warehouses that night and then returned to the trains to begin the tiresome trip to Buffalo. [5]

As they neared Buffalo, the train slowed so the men could jump off and avoid the police they suspected were waiting for them. Ammunition had been loaded onto wagons from the freight yard. While the Fenians hoped to confuse British spies and the American military, they did wear conspicuous green caps and green-colored items of clothing as they separated in the city.

Sweeny must have been discouraged with what he saw. Only some 1,200 men were assembled in Buffalo. Brigadier Lynch, who was to lead the attack, had come down with a fever, which took him out of the battle before it started. Sweeny telegraphed for his adjutant, a Colonel Sherwin, to take command, but Sherwin couldn't get there in time. Sweeny could only have become more agitated at these developments. In desperation, he ordered Capt. Hynes to take command and appoint the senior officer, John O'Neill, as acting brigadier and to begin the attack. O'Neill's 13th IRA Regiment of Nashville, John Hoy of the 7th Regt. of Buffalo and John Grace of the 18th Regt. of Cleveland made up the contingent's leadership. [6]


John C. O'Neill, hero of the Battle of Ridgeway.

O'Neill's army was ready before sunup to make a quick march to the docks where barges would ferry them across the Niagara River. Ammunition was distributed; rifled muskets purchased that April in Pennsylvania would await them on the other side. Weaponry was no problem; once the Civil War had ended, weapons and ammunition were being sold by their weight rather than count or quality.

Many of the men began donning uniforms of sorts, although O'Neill reportedly wore gray clothing with a green decorated military cap. Starr's men from Louisville had blue army jackets with green trim. And there were flags to be unfurled. Five banners were of six-foot regimental size. Several carried the golden sunburst and one was emblazoned with a harp.

Other events were unfolding at the same moment. While Fenian groups moved about the city to confuse authorities as to the illicit army's intentions, a U.S. district attorney ordered the U.S.S. Michigan's captain to stop all movement on the Niagara River. The political tide had turned.

Steam tugs pulled the Fenian canal boats across the swift Niagara early in the morning. At 3:15, June 1, cavalry officer Owen Starr crossed the Niagara with the Kentucky and Indiana troops and proceeded to the ruins of the old military Fort Erie to capture the Buffalo and Lake Huron railway depot. Fort Erie, lightly defended by just six members of the Royal Canadian Rifles, fell to the Fenians, although the Canadians had time to move out four steam engines and nine railroad cars. Proudly, the Fenians raised the tricolor flag—today's flag of the Irish Republic.

Brigadier O'Neill had also crossed his men and set up a headquarters at Frenchman's Creek, creating defensive entrenchments, planning the next day's attack—and resting knowing he was under the telescopes on the Michigan.

Ahead of O'Neill's battle-hardened men were the 13th Hamilton, in their red tunics and blue trousers, and the Queen's Own Rifles in equally impractical green wool uniforms. O'Neill knew the "Redcoats" outnumbered his army. [7] He told his commanders with audacity, "I find that encouraging. A force that size ought to be unwieldy enough to make life easy for us." He may also have known that his enemy was made up of inexperienced army and militia. His plan was to move north along the Niagara River. Once he knew the British troops were on the move to meet him, he would turn inland and head west toward Port Colborne.


Map illustrating the Fenian Raid on June 2, 1866, in The Fenian raid at Fort Erie, June the first and second, 1866. Harvard University, Open Collections Program: Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930.

Lt. Col. John Stoughton Dennis of the Queen's Own was in charge of the forces at Port Colborne—nearly a thousand militia. He knew Col. George Peacocke, commander of Niagara forces, was assembling almost 1,500 British Canadian infantry, six gun batteries and 55 cavalry to repulse the attack. Peacocke, down the river in Chippawa near the Falls, had planned a pincer movement to trap the Fenians.

Dennis, however, decided on his own to hold the majority of his troops at Port Colborne and take 80 troops on the steam tug W.T. Robb east to Fort Erie to block a Fenian retreat. He wired Peacocke of his plans and set out without waiting for a reply.

Peacocke's unqualified disapproval of Dennis' plan reached Port Colborne long after the Robb steamed off. Lt. Colonel Albert Booker, a professional auctioneer from Hamilton who had been left in command of the 13th Battalion, was told to proceed with the planned move toward Stevensville. Seeing movement, Booker began moving 400 regulars, six field guns and 1,115 militia forward. [8]

By 3:00 on the morning of June 2, O'Neill had moved his troops toward the ambush he had prepared. Starr's cavalry was to begin the conflict and then retreat, intending to draw the British into a trap.

Firing from 10 companies of the Queen's Own Rifles, began at about 8:00 a.m. using the Spencer repeating rifles they had just been issued. Traveling light, however, the men had each received just 40 rounds of ammunition at best—and they had never used the new rifles in battle. They saw the scouts, heard the bugle and expected cavalry, so they formed defensive squares—a standard defense against swiftly moving horse troops. Brigadier O'Neill ordered his troops to fix bayonets. Screaming "Fág an Bealach!"—Clear the way! —they charged forward on foot. The British and Canadians were untested recruits, half of whom were under the age of 20. As the forward part of the square was ordered to fall back and reform, the young soldiers turned and retreated in disarray.


A little-known painter, Alexander Von Erichsen, accompanied the Fenian army from Buffalo to Canada and documented events. This painting shows the death of an unidentified Fenian leader on the battlefield.

At the end of the Battle of Ridgeway, 16 British had been killed, with two more dying later of their wounds and two from heat stroke. There were 74 wounded and six captured. Brigadier O'Neill's force saw five killed, two dying later from their injuries, and 17 wounded. All in all, it was a glorious battle for the Fenian raiders in green-trimmed uniforms, some with buttons embossed with the initials IRA—the Irish Republican Army.

It was time for Brigadier O'Neill to rest his troops and savor the glory—and he did.


Von Erichsen shows a wounded officer of the Queen's Own Rifles continuing to fight near the ambush area on the ridge.

Not far away, in Buffalo, Lt. General Ulysses Grant, under orders from President Johnson, had sealed the border. This blocked the late-arriving Sherwin's 4,000 Fenian troops. They would not be allowed to cross and reinforce O'Neill.

At the same time, the British were reinforcing their army with 101 officers and 1,841 fresh troops under the command of Col. George John Peacocke. [9]

Unsure of the enemy's size and position, O'Neill split his army, withdrawing half back to Fort Erie, with Starr taking a parallel road south of Garrison. The log of the Michigan noted a large number of Fenians reentering Fort Erie the afternoon of June 2. It was there that O'Neill was soon confronted by the Canadian militia force under the command of Lt. Col. Dennis.

O'Neill must have known further fighting was futile: reinforcements wouldn't arrive, Peacocke's field artillery was setting up nearby, his men were out of ammunition, and the Michigan, two sentry tugs and a revenue cutter were patrolling the waters. A truce was called, and it was while the Fenians were negotiating under the white flag that IRA Lt. Col. Michael Bailey was shot down.

An Ignominious Defeat

Stagg's canal boat that would evacuate O'Neill's and his men back to the United States had been towed over, empty. The British and Canadian prisoners were released. O'Neill and as many men as possible boarded and left the Canadian shore at approximately 2:00 a.m. on June 3. Within minutes, a twelve-pound howitzer sent a shell across the path of the tug Doyle as it hauled its Fenian cargo toward Buffalo. The shot came from the tug Harrison, crewed with men from the Michigan. O'Neill felt this was as safe a haven as he could expect under the circumstances. [10] While O'Neill and his officers were arraigned by federal officials, about 500 Fenian soldiers also arrived crammed aboard the A.P. Waite, tied behind the Michigan in the Niagara River. It had been a three-day war, glorious but achieving none of the Fenian aims.

On June 4, the Fenians captured by the Canadians began arriving in Toronto. They were led in handcuffs from their train to the city jail, jeered by crowds and pelted with garbage.

Of the Fenian prisoners being held in Toronto, about one-third of the 117 captives were sent to trial later in the fall of 1866. Twenty-one were found guilty of invading Canada, and seven were sentenced to be hanged on Dec. 13, 1866. One was a Catholic priest, Father John McMahon. None of the death sentences were carried out, but Father McMahon was the last prisoner to be released. There was a large Irish population in British North America, the authorities felt, and it would do no good to needlessly alienate voters.

In the United States, Fenian officers who had been captured were all freed on the promise they would appear later before the Federal circuit court at Canandaigua. The paroled soldiers were given free railroad transportation back to their homes if they agreed not to again illegally cross international borders.

Politics was again at work: the Irish vote was too important to U.S. politicians to be squandered on something as minor as the invasion of a sovereign nation.

The Final Attack

The sleepy town of St. Albans, Vermont, was no stranger to armed conflict as General Spear and his troops disembarked from trains in early June. Two years earlier, on Oct. 19, 1864, Confederate raiders had swooped down out of Canada, raided three banks in the small town, stole $208,000, and rode back into Canada. [11] One wonders what the townspeople thought as General Spear and his troops set up camp on the town green. Everyone must have been aware of the disorder taking place in the Buffalo area.

On June 6, Spear gave the order to cross the border from St. Albans. Brigadier Michael C. Murphy moved his men 15 miles inland before being forced back. Spear marched his 2,000 men six miles north from St. Albans where they took Frelighsburgh, and then rolled on to capture St. Armand, Slab City and East Stanbridge. On June 8, a Friday, Colonel Michael Scanlan's regiment defeated the British at Pigeon Hill.

Then, the Fenians' problems began compounding. The Irish in Montreal did not rise up. Some 10,000 militia joined the British regulars there, and three British warships sat in the St. Lawrence River with their guns trained on the Fenians.

Even worse, the Fenian cause had been sold out by the U.S. government. As Spear crossed the border, President Johnson cut a deal with the British. In return for $15 million in reparation payments for losses suffered by the Union during the Civil War, the United States decided to enforce the Neutrality Laws of 1818. The Fenians had been successfully used as a political bargaining chip. In spite of what President Johnson had earlier told the IRB, the United States was not going to sanction war.

Spear could only retreat on June 9. Then they were betrayed again. As they returned to the United States, a U.S. Lt. Col. Livingston of the 3rd Artillery Regt. unilaterally gave the British forces permission to pursue the Irish onto American soil. He watched, it is reported, while Fenians were bayoneted and killed by swords. [12]

A collateral casualty was a Mrs. Eccles, citizen of Vermont, who was accidentally shot and killed by a British soldier while standing on her doorstep.

When the Fenians finally arrived back in St. Albans, they found the park where they had camped occupied by U.S. troops and their supplies confiscated under the Neutrality Act of 1818. The defeated Fenians—no doubt tired and dismayed—were escorted to the train depot, put on board and sent back to Boston. The residents of St. Albans were entertained by an army band concert. [13]

The War's Aftermath

Quickly, an American public voiced its outrage at the Fenians' treatment. Lt. Col. Livingston was reprimanded for allowing this violation of American sovereignty.

In August, Canada suspended the right of habeas corpus for the period of a year for anyone suspected of complicity in the Fenian attacks.

In Canada, Albert Booker was charged with handling his volunteers poorly. Lt. Col. Dennis, who had cut off O'Neill at Fort Erie, was court martialed for cowardice. While fighting at Fort Erie, Dennis had disappeared, only to appear in Col. Peacocke's camp, clean shaven and wearing civilian clothes!

The Fenians' weapons, confiscated by the crew of the Michigan were returned on Dec. 2. Michael Bailey, shot under a flag of truce and slowly dying, led the macabre victory parade away from the gunboat. [14]

Brigadier John O'Neill, hero of the battle of Ridgeway, went on to be elected president of the senate of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He tried another cross-border attack from Franklin, Vermont, in 1870, and failed. He tried in 1871to entice Louis Riel (defender of the Métis, descendants of French coureurs de bois and Indian women in Manitoba) to take up the cause, and this attack also failed. Eventually, O'Neill retired to a town on the Elkhorn River in Nebraska, and the town was named for him. [15]

The raids had a chilling effect on Canada-United States relations until rapprochement was reached early in the 20th century. Normalization didn't occur until the countries formed an alliance during World War II. The raids, however, did serve to bring Canadians together, and the Confederation that had begun was finalized 13 years after the 1866 incursions.

Perhaps the most fitting epitaph to this War That Never Happened came from General "Fighting Tom" Sweeny. "If I had done this in some other country," he stated, "I would be a hero. But here, here I am just one of the boys, prowling the night with the other highwaymen."

One wonders what possessed the Johnson administration to allow the arming and assembly of an illicit army within the U.S. borders. Most likely, President Johnson and Secretary of War Stanton chose to ignore the neutrality laws because the British had done so earlier, but it may also have resulted from political ineptitude or simple distraction at the end of a long enfeebling war.

Another insight comes from an interview Johnson gave O'Neill in 1868. "General," the President reportedly said, "you people unfairly blame me a good deal for the part I took in stopping your first movement. Now I want you to understand my sympathies are entirely with you, and anything which lies in my power I am willing to do to assist you. But you must remember I gave you five full days before issuing any proclamation stopping you. What, in God's name, more did you want? If you could not get there in five days, by God, you could never get there; and then, as President, I was compelled to enforce our Neutrality Laws, or be denounced on every side." [16]

* * *

Show Footnotes and Bibliography
* * *

Copyright © 2007 Walt Giersbach.

Written by Walter Giersbach. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Walter Giersbach at: w.giersbach@att.net.

About the Author:
Walter Giersbach has an abiding interest in the Civil War and New England history. Two great-grandfathers served, respectively, in 1864-66 with the 7th Regt. Vermont Volunteers and in 1861 with Connecticut’s 2nd Artillery. Four sets of maternal ancestors were also caught up in King Philip’s War of 1675-76. Walt's career was in corporate communications before returning to creative writing. He has had a number of short stories and articles published and is working on a novel. He lives in Manchester, NJ and can be reached at w.giersbach@att.net.

Published online: 6/17/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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