The Fenian Invasion of Canada

In 1866, forces of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, shortly to become the Irish Republican Army, assembled on the border between the United States and Canada. Their aim was to capture territory in Canada for an Irish homeland, or alternatively to use any gains as a bargaining tool in negotiations with the English for Irish independence.
The Irish forces, under the command of Major-General "Fighting Tom" Sweeney, numbered some 25,000 men, mostly veterans of the American Civil War, there being Irish Brigades on both sides in that conflict. Also present were 500 Mohawk Indians and 100 black veterans of the Union Army.
Funded by Irish businessmen in the U.S., most of the Republican forces wore green uniforms closely modelled on those of the Union forces. The jacket buttons were engraved with the initials "I.R.A.", the first time the name had been used.
Crucially, the expedition had the tacit support of the U.S. Government under President Andrew Johnson, whose administration "would recognise accomplished facts". Without this support, it would have been impossible for Sweeney to assemble and arm his men, indeed all their equipment including three warships, was to be purchased from the U.S. Dept. of War.
If the Americans closed their borders, it would be impossible for I.R.A. reinforcements to cross in support of their advance parties. U.S. co-operation was therefore vital for the success of the operation.
The plan was to seize Quebec and then Montreal, establishing an Irish Republic-in-exile based in Quebec City. In order to confuse the British forces, the invading army would be split into three groups, two of which were to feint an attack on Toronto, leading the British to commit all their forces to its defence. The British would then be cut off from Quebec by a series of sabotage raids on the few bridges across the Quebec and St. Lawrence rivers, and the Beauharnois Canal.
In the event, the western group did not leave their bases, and the Commanding Officer, Brigadier Charles Tevis, was court-martialled for cowardice.
The centre group crossed into Canada on the morning of the lst. of June, initially with a force of 600 men, under the command of Col. John O'Neill. They were to be reinforced within forty-eight hours by the remaining 5,000 troops under Col. Sherwin.
However, immediately after O'Neill's force landed, the U.S. sealed the border with troops and warships, and impounded the three Irish ships in Brooklyn Harbour. This not only prevented Sherwin from crossing the border in support of O'Neill, but also prevented General Spear from attacking Quebec with his eastern group. He did manage to get a small force across on the 7th., but by this time the invasion had failed, and after a series of skirmishes, he withdrew on the 9th.
O'Neill was therefore cut off from all aid, with no cavalry or artillery, and after a series of successful actions against overwhelming odds, notably at the Battle of Ridgeway on the 2nd., he was forced to recognise that his position was untenable and attempted a withdrawal across the Niagara River.
By this time the U.S. was openly siding with the British, and O'Neill was seized by the U.S. Navy, along with the remains of his command, as they crossed the Niagara. They were charged with breaking U.S. neutrality laws, but were subsequently released.
O'Neill had been forced to leave his wounded on the Canadian side under the care of Father John McMahon. He, along with his patients, was put on trial for treason. Twenty-two men, including Fr. McMahon, were sentenced to death, but these sentences were later commuted. Some of General Spear's men were not so lucky, as a substantial number were put to the sword as they were captured.
It emerged later that the U.S. had been engaged in negotiations with the British for reparations for their support of the Confederate States in the Civil War, and the support of the U.S. for the Republican cause was merely brinkmanship on the part of President Johnson. It is a matter of record that the British subsequently paid $15million to the U.S.
The American public, however, was outraged by this duplicity and Johnson avoided being impeached by Congress by one vote.
The British used the hysteria raised by the invasion to push through legislation causing the separate provinces of New Brunswick, Canada and Nova Scotia to be united as a single British Dominion, reinforcing its colonial grip.


Proclamation to the people of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

"We come among you as the foes of British rule in Ireland. We have taken up the sword to strike down the oppressor's rod to deliver Ireland from the tyrant, the despoiler, the robber... We have no issue with the people of these provinces, and wish to have none but the most friendly relations. Our weapons are for the oppressors of Ireland. Our blows shall be directed only against the power of England; her privileges alone shall we invade, not yours. We do not propose to divest you of a solitary right you now enjoy... We are here neither as murderers, nor robbers for plunder and spoliation. We are here as the Irish army of liberation, the friends of liberty against despotism, of democracy against aristocracy, of the people against the oppressors: in a word, our war is with the armed power of England, not with the people, not with these provinces. Against England upon land and sea, till Ireland is free... To Irishmen throughout these provinces we appeal in the name of seven centuries of British iniquity and Irish misery and suffering, in the name of our murdered sires, our desolate homes, our desecrated alters, our millions of famine graves, our insulted name and race – to stretch forth the hand of brotherhood in the holy cause of fatherland, and smite the tyrant where we can... We shall endeavour to justify the confidence of the former, and the latter can expect from us the restraints and relations imposed by civilised warfare."

Signed:
T.W.Sweeney, Major-General,
Commanding the Army of Ireland,
1st. June, 1866.


The above article, including the 'Proclamation to the people of Canada...', was found among the Editor's papers – author / source unknown.
If anyone is able to identify the source of what seems to be an extensive excerpt from another publication we would be pleased to hear from him or her.

Published in The Green Dragon No 11, Summer 2002

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