by Craig Gabrysch
I’ve been reading up on the 1860s in New York.
Man, New York was whack-a-mole crazy.
In 1858, a group of Catholic Irish in exile founded a secret brotherhood to overthrow the British Government. After the Civil War they came out of hiding, setting up a government-in-exile at the Moffat mansion. They claimed it as their capital and flew their harp-and-sunburst flag over the building.
A faction in the Brotherhood, led by William R. Roberts, pushed to capture British Canada and hold it hostage for Irish independence. That’s right. They wanted to invade Canada. Hopefully, this would get the US and Britain tied up in a war, during which Ireland could make a break for freedom.
This idea roused amazing support among New York’s working-class Irish. In March of 1866 “over a hundred thousand turned out for a Fenian rally in Jones’ Woods – despite the opposition of [New York's Archbishop]” according to Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.
Large quantities of arms were purchased, and preparations were openly made by the Roberts faction for a co-ordinated series of raids into Canada, which the United States government took no major steps to prevent. Many in the U.S. administration were not indisposed to the movement because of Britain’s failure to support the Union during the civil war. Roberts’ “Secretary for War” was General T. W. Sweeny, who was struck off the American army list from January 1866 to November 1866 to allow him to organize the raids. The purpose of these raids was to seize the transportation network of Canada, with the idea that this would force the British to exchange Ireland’s freedom for possession of their Province of Canada. Before the invasion, the Fenians had received some intelligence from like-minded supporters within Canada but did not receive support from all Irish Catholics there who saw the invasions as threatening the emerging Canadian sovereignty.
In April 1866, under the command of John O’Mahony, a band of more than 700 members of the Fenian Brotherhood arrived at the Maine shore opposite the island with the intention of seizing Campobello from the British. British warships from Halifax, Nova Scotia were quickly on the scene and a military force dispersed the Fenians.This action served to reinforce the idea of protection for New Brunswick by joining with the British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, Canada East, and Canada West in Confederation to form the Dominion of Canada.
The command of the expedition in Buffalo, New York, was entrusted by Roberts to Colonel John O’Neill, who crossed the Niagara River (the Niagara is the international border) at the head of at least 800 (O’Neill’s figure; usually reported as up to 1,500 in Canadian sources) men on the night and morning of 31 May/1 June 1866, and briefly captured Fort Erie, defeating a Canadian force at Ridgeway. Many of these men, including O’Neill, were battle-hardened veterans of the American Civil War. In the end the invasion had been broken by the US authorities’ subsequent interruption of Fenian supply lines across the Niagara River and the arrests of Fenian reinforcements attempting to cross the river into Canada. It is unlikely that with such a small force that they would have ever achieved their goal.
Other Fenian attempts to invade occurred throughout the next week in the St. Lawrence Valley. As many of the weapons had in the meantime been confiscated by the US army, relatively few of these men actually became involved in the fighting. There even was a small Fenian raid on a storage building that successfully got back some weapons that had been seized by the US Army. Many were eventually returned anyway by sympathetic officers.
To get the Fenians out of the area, both in the St. Lawrence and Buffalo, the US government purchased rail tickets for the Fenians to return to their homes if the individuals involved would promise not to invade any more countries from the United States. Many of the arms were returned later if the person claiming them could post bond that they were not going to be used to invade Canada again, although some were possibly used in the raids that followed.
This kind of bizarre (by our standards, at least) actions aren’t completely unprecedented. Far from it, in fact. America has a history of supporting so called “filibusters.” These were basically soldiers of fortune that, quite literally, advertised in newspapers for soldiers and investors to help them invade Central, South America, and Cuba. William Walker, the former president of Nicaragua (1856-1857) is a good example.
Yeah, they fucking did that.
Now, before you go, “Oh man, those people from the 1860s are so cray-cray, Craig. So glad folks aren’t like this anymore” here’s an article from 2004 about Margaret Thatcher’s son being held for trying to perform a military coup in Equatorial Guinea back in 2004.