Large numbers of Irish and Irish-American Civil War soldiers were also members of the Fenian Brotherhood. The workings of this movement, and how it interacted with the conflict of 1861-65, has been the topic of a number of posts on this site. However, we have not previously looked in any detail at the participation of Civil War veterans in Fenian operations in the years following 1865. In the first of a two-part guest post examining such links, James Doherty takes up the challenge of telling the remarkable story of the Erin’s Hope, the vessel that set sail from New York– packed with weapons– with the intention of supporting the 1867 Fenian Rising in Ireland.
A strong tide of militant nationalism existed amongst some of the Irish soldiers that fought in the American Civil War. Since the failed Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 a steady trickle of disgruntled Irish revolutionaries had been making their way to the United States. One of the key Irish Nationalist figures of that time was Michael Doheny. Doheny blamed the failure of the 1848 rebellion on a lack of military expertise and set about remedying that fact by setting up Irish volunteer state militias. These militias would in theory provide an excellent training ground for an eventual violent wresting of Irish independence from the British Empire. The dual loyalties of the state militias, both to the plight of old Ireland and their adopted home was probably best typified when Colonel Michael Corcoran refused to parade the 69th New York State Militia for the visiting Prince of Wales in 1860. Corcoran would only be saved from court martial by the onset of the Civil War. (1)
By 1858 the Fenian Brotherhood had formed in the United States, working in tandem with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland. Both organisations were pledged to violent rebellion. By the outbreak of the Civil War the Fenians had heavily infiltrated the militia system and openly recruited through the course of the conflict. The Fenians made little attempt to hide their recruiting activities (See Michael Kane’s post on Fenianism in the Army of the Potomac here). However, ultimately it would seem that many Fenian members had little appetite for insurrection and treated the organisation more as a fraternal club.
The British establishment were terrified of large numbers of Irishmen with rebellious tendencies gaining military experience. They had passed the Foreign Enlistment Bill in 1819 which forbid recruitment within the British Empire for service in foreign armies. This would be a cause of tension in Anglo- American relations throughout the period of the Civil War (See posts which explore this here and here). The fears of the British establishment appeared justified when anything up to 500 Civil War veterans returned to Ireland in 1865 with the purpose of training members of the IRB for insurrection. Their outlandish dress of square-toed boats (unheard of in Europe) and broad hats made them easy to spot and most were soon arrested. (2)
In an effort both to further strain diplomatic relations and to exert pressure on the British government to withdraw from Ireland, the Fenian movement launched a series of cross border raids into Canada between 1866 and 1871. The majority of the Fenians involved were veterans of the Civil War. Although the raids failed in their overall strategic aims, they demonstrated the complex international nature of the Fenian question, with large bodies of armed men massing on American soil to attack territories belonging to the British Empire. To further complicate matters many of these Fenians had now adopted American Citizenship.
Not content with trying to manipulate the geo-political relationship between the United States and the British Empire, in 1867 the Fenians dispatched a shipment of arms to Ireland in support of a planned rebellion. Displaying a flair for the dramatic, members of the Fenian movement delivered a copy of their proclamation demanding independence to the offices of The Times on the eve of the insurrection, which was planned for the 5th of March.
I.R. Proclamation! The Irish People to the World. We have suffered centuries of outrage, enforced poverty, and bitter misery. Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who, treating us as foes, usurped our lands and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. The real owners of the soil were removed to make room for cattle, and driven across the ocean to seek the means of living, and the political rights denied to them at home; while our men of thought and action were condemned to loss of life and liberty. But we never lost the memory and hope of a national existence. We appealed in vain to the reason and sense of justice of the dominant powers. Our mildest remonstrances were met with sneers and contempt. Our appeals to arms were always unsuccessful. To-day, having no honourable alternative left, we again appeal to force as our last resource. We accept the conditions of appeal, manfully deeming it better to die in the struggle for freedom than to continue an existence of utter serfdom. All men are born with equal rights, and in associating together to protect one another and share public burdens, justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintain equality instead of destroying it. We therefore declare that unable longer to endure the curse of monarchial government we aim at founding a republic based on universal suffrage which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored. We declare also in favor of absolute liberty of conscience, and the complete separation of Church and State. We appeal to the Highest Tribunal for evidence of the justice of our cause. History bears testimony to the intensity of our sufferings, and we declare, in the face of our brethren, that we intend no war against the people of England–our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields–against the aristocratic leeches, who drain alike our blood and theirs. Republicans of the entire work, our cause is your cause. our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human freedom. Herewith we proclaim the Irish Republic.
THE PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT (3)
The Fenian leadership in America greatly overestimated the desire for rebellion in Ireland and the military capacity of the IRB. The 1867 rebellion consisted mainly of a few scattered attacks on isolated police stations and a brief clash in Tallaght (the ‘Battle of Tallaght’). An elaborate plan to seize a large quantity of munitions held in Chester Castle came to nought when it was betrayed by an informer. The abortive rising was quickly put down. Despite this apparent failure, plans were hatched in New York to send a large quantity of munitions (Between 5000- 8000 rifles and several small cannon) and a party of forty Fenians to support the rebellion in Ireland. On the night of the 13th April 1867 the Brig Jacmel set sail, bound for Ireland and insurrection. (4)
On the 18th May the Jacmel– now renamed the Erin’s Hope– approached the Irish Coast. Almost immediately things started to go wrong. When the gun-running expedition arrived off the Sligo coast she showed the pre-arranged signals, but got no reply. Captain Cavanagh, who was in charge of the expedition, went ashore where he met co-conspirator Ricard O’Sullivan Burke. O’Sullivan Burke was a larger than life figure who appears in many incidents relating to the Fenian campaign in Ireland. O’Sullivan Burke brought Cavanagh news of the rebellion’s failure and advised him to leave the area immediately. This proved timely advice, as the authorities had dispatched a gun boat to investigate this mysterious brig. (5)
Unfortunately for Captain Cavanagh, during his absence on-shore a row had broken out on the Erin’s Hope which left two of the crew injured. Additionally, in an almost comical twist, a local pilot by the name of Michael Gallagher had come aboard looking to be employed to guide the vessel to port. Cavanagh had little option but to put the wounded sailors and the unfortunate pilot ashore. What little secrecy that had accompanied the voyage was quickly slipping away. (6)
Once underway, Cavanagh initially set sail for the Cork coast where he had been led to believe some of the Fenians were holding out. However, bad weather and the necessity of playing cat and mouse with Coast Guard cutters meant that it was the Waterford coast where they ultimately arrived, appearing near Helvick on June 1st. At this stage the members of the expedition were getting desperate; they hailed a fishing boat and asked to brought ashore. The local fisherman (under considerable duress) duly landed 32 of the Fenians. They were soon spotted by a vigilant Coast Guard, who immediately raised the alarm.
The Waterford News of 7th June described in colourful terms the circumstances of this mini invasion:
‘Not since the French landing at Killala [in 1798] has more consternation been caused by the news of the landing of Fenians’
The News went on to describe how the ‘Square toed foreigners split into groups of three and four and scattered through the countryside.’ 26 Fenians were quickly arrested and brought before magistrates in Dungarvan, where a variety of elaborate cover stories were sworn to. The authorities mounted an armed guard on the local jail whilst a transfer to a more secure location could be arranged. Throughout the whole affair, it was reported that the Fenians remained in remarkably good spirits. (7)
In what amounted to an almost carnival atmosphere, the captured Fenians were loaded into seven carriages bound for Waterford gaol the next morning. The streets in Dungarvan were thronged and the prisoners had been led out to great cheering. Security was very tight, with a large party of the constabulary and sixteen soldiers of the 17th Regiment in attendance. On arriving at the outskirts of Waterford City the party was met by Mr. H.E Redmond R.M. and a further force of thirty constabulary armed with breech-loading rifles. (8)
On Monday the 10th of June the group of prisoners received two visitors– a Detective Talbot and J.J Corydon. Talbot and Corydon (real name Corridon) were loathed by the Fenians, as Corydon was an arch informer and Talbot had infiltrated the Fenian movement working as a double agent. The Waterford News of the 14th of June described their visit, the purpose of which was to positively identify Fenian members. The paper referred to the ‘two obnoxious characters’ and in colourful tones likened Corydon to Judas Escariot. Corydon’s notoriety ensured that a crowd numbering in the thousands gathered, necessitating the turning out of whole Waterford Constabulary force to escort the informer and the spy to the safety of the train station. (9)
At face value, the security surrounding the Fenian prisoners may have seemed excessive, but subsequent events would prove otherwise. In addition to the main body of Fenians who had been detained and brought to Dungarvan, a smaller party of four had been arrested heading towards Cork. Initially brought to Youghal, they were soon to be reunited with their compatriots in Waterford.
On the night of the 13th of June, the four Fenians, escorted by a small party of Cork constabulary, stepped off the 8.45 train in Waterford. The police were expecting to be met by their local counterparts, but instead found themselves alone. They decided to proceed towards the gaol regardless, but before long found they were exciting considerable interest. Some of the local police they encountered joined them en-route, as the crowd following them grew larger and more hostile. Soon stone throwing began, and the local police advised that they take shelter in the Lady Lane Police Station and call for reinforcements. (10)
Just after 9pm the reinforced party left the Police Station heading for the gaol. The force of police now measured forty on foot and fourteen mounted. However the crowd had also grown in force, and was made up of ‘salters and labourers with a sprinkling of fisherwomen who would prove the most formidable of assailants.’ A full scale riot ensued, with the prisoners receiving many blows in the chaos as the police battled their way towards the safety of the gaol.
Once the prisoners were safely secured at the gaol the Constabulary turned to face their assailants, who now numbered in the hundreds. Head Constable Barry ordered a bayonet charge which resulted in ‘one unhappy man named Walsh being stabbed through the heart’ while several other rioters and police were seriously injured. It was later stated that the prisoners were highly incensed by the actions of the crowd and were grateful to make the safety of the gaol. (11)
By the 14th June both sets of Fenian prisoners were together and were sent by train to Dublin. The Evening Mail reported that they were met at the Kingsbridge terminus (now Heuston Station) by a strong detachment of mounted constabulary and two full troops of the 9th Lancers. Meanwhile, the Erin’s Hope continued to loiter around the Irish coast. Eventually, having made no meaningful contact with the Irish rebels, she returned to New York with the weapons still in their boxes. (12)
The British administration’s concerns regarding the Irish–American Fenians now changed from a military one to that of a political nature. Most of the Fenians were American citizens, and they hadn’t actually committed any crime on British soil. The evidence for any planned insurrection (the munitions) had sailed off into the sunset. However, the authorities in Ireland had suspended Habeas Corpus which meant that they could indefinitely detain the prisoners without having to prove their guilt.
In an effort to secure their release and in an effort to antagonise Anglo-American relations the Fenians awaiting trial in Dublin started a letter writing campaign. They vigorously protested to the US authorities their innocence and questioned the right of the British government to arrest US citizens on foreign soil. With both governments trying to repair a relationship that was strained during the Civil War, this was the last thing they needed. (13)
The British strategy was to first identify the ringleaders and then try to secure potential informants amongst the wider group. The authorities identified William Nagle, John Warren and Augustine Costello as leaders of the ill-fated expedition. The case against Nagle was complicated by the fact that he had been born in the United States, whereas Warren and Costello were both born in Ireland. Under the laws of the time, in order to try a foreign citizen the jury had to consist of foreign nationals, something which in Nagle’s case would prove difficult to arrange. Costello and Warren were not so fortunate, and both received lengthy prison sentences. (14)
The rank and file members of the Fenians were released on the promise that they apologised for their actions and left the country; by early 1868 only eight prisoners remained. These consisted of Nagle and seven others who refused to apologise for their actions. A suitable jury couldn’t be found for Nagle and as the suspension of Habeas Corpus was due to end, the remaining prisoners were released, leaving just Costello and Warren incarcerated.
Both Costello and Warren continued their letter writing as public pressure mounted in the United States. Eventually Warren was released in May 1868. Fenian activity had continued whilst the members of the Erin’s Hope expedition were in prison. In September 1867 a policeman was killed in Manchester during a breakout of Fenian leaders from a prison van. Two policemen were gunned down in October in the Temple Bar area of Dublin and a botched prison break led to 12 deaths when Clerkenwell Prison was bombed.
This continued Fenian agitation somewhat undermined the cries from across the Atlantic to free the prisoners, but despite this the last prisoner– Costello– was released in February 1869. By this stage he had achieved something of a celebrity status, and was to be found addressing crowds in his native Galway and being feted by the Mayor of Cork. (15)
The characters in the story of the Erin’s Hope expedition had mixed fates. William Nagle would commit suicide by throwing himself off a roof shortly after his return to America. His obituary named him a general in the Irish Liberation Army. One of the informers (there was at least two) in the midst of the Fenians was a man named William F. Million. Million was murdered by the son of Michael Doheny the prominent Irish nationalist. Talbot, the detective who had infiltrated the Fenian movement, took early retirement but was gunned down in 1871 by unknown assailants. Augustine Costello, who had served the longest prison term, was the ill-fated expedition’s most colourful character. After performing what amounted to a victory tour of Ireland he returned to America where, with his character unblemished, he would stay active in Fenian circles until his death in 1909. He published a very colourful and evocative account of the expedition in The Irishman newspaper, where he described everything from the weather down to the personal traits of the ‘turnkeys‘ or gaolers he encountered along the way. (16)
Although militarily a failure, the Erin’s Hope expedition and other ‘Fenian outrages,’ as they were often referred to at the time, caused a great deal of concern amongst the British authorities. The Irish Constabulary were granted the prefix Royal by Queen Victoria as a reward for their role in suppressing the rebellion. In addition the construction of five new Coast Guard Stations was started in 1867 to further protect the coast; a sign of how seriously the authorities viewed the Fenian threat. The Irish Militia (reserve army) was effectively disbanded from 1866 – 1870 due to fears of Fenian infiltration. The numbers of regular British army troops whose loyalty was not in question deployed in Ireland also increased during this period. Whatever about the material results of their 1867 efforts, the Fenians had succeeded in keeping the issue of Irish Independence to the fore. Part two of this post will examine a number of the other Fenian incidents, touched on above, which involved Union veterans of the Civil War.
American Civil War Service of the Protagonists Mentioned
The information below is drawn from a combination of Michael Kane’s 2002 paper ‘American Soldiers in Ireland, 1865-67’, John Devoy’s Recollections and the rosters of New York regiments.
Captain Cavanagh who commanded the Erin’s Hope, was, according to John Devoy, a Lieutenant in the Union navy during the Civil War.
Ricard O’Sullivan Burke from Kinneigh, Co. Cork enlisted in the 15th New York Engineers at the age of 23 on 9th May 1861. Promoted through the ranks to officer grade, eventually becoming Captain of Company C on 29th May 1865. He mustered out with his company at Fort Barry, Virginia on 13th June 1865.
John Corydon (Corridan) the Fenian informer, was originally from Co. Kerry. He enlisted as a private in the 63rd New York Infantry, Irish Brigade, on 19th October 1861 as a 21-year-old. Promoted to Hospital Steward in 1862, he re-enlisted as a veteran volunteer and mustered out with the regiment on 30th June 1865 at Alexandria, Virginia. He serve as Head Centre in the Smyth Circle of the Army of the Potomac, which was for Fenians who were enlisted men in the Irish Brigade.
William Nagle was from Lewistown, New York. He originally served in the 13th New York National Guard before enrolling as Captain of Company F, 88th New York Infantry, Irish Brigade on 15th December 1861 at the age of 31. He mustered out following the consolidation of companies on 13th June 1863 near Falmouth, Virginia.
John Warren from Clonakilty, Co. Cork mustered in as Captain of Company B, 63rd New York Infantry, Irish Brigade on 14th August 1861 at the age of 27. He was dismissed on 28th February 1862 but returned as Captain of the same company on 9th April 1862, prior to being dismissed again dated from 17th September 1862.
(1) Ramon Garcia 2010; (2) Ibid.; (3) Maitland Mercury & Hunter General Advertiser 16th May 1867; (4) Waterford County Museum: Fenian Landings at Helvic; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Waterford News 7th June 1867; (8) Ibid. (9) Waterford News 14th June 1867; (10) Cork Examiner 15th June 1867; (11) Ibid.; (12) Dublin Evening Mail 15th June 1867; (13) Sim 2013; (14) Ibid.; (15) Ibid.; (16) Chicago Tribune 19th August 1869, Steward & McGovern 2013, Malcolm 2002;
Chicago Tribune 19th August 1869
Cork Examiner 15th June 1867
Dublin Evening Mail 15th June 1867
Waterford News 7th June 1867
Waterford New 14th June 1867
Waterford County Museum: The Fenian Landing at Helvic.
Devoy, John 1929. Recollections of an Irish Rebel.
Kane, Michael H. 2002. ‘American Soldiers in Ireland, 1865-67′ in The Irish Sword: The Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, Vol. 23, No. 91, 103-140.
Malcolm, Elizabeth 2002. ‘Investigating the “Machinery of Murder”: Irish Detectives and Agrarian Outrages, 1847-70’ in New Hibernia Review Volume 6, No. 3, Autumn 2002, 73-91.
Ramon Garcia, Marta 2010. ‘Square-Toed Boots and Felt Hats: Irish Revolutionaries and the Invasion of Canada (1848-1871)’ in Estudios Irlandeses 5, 2010, 81-91.
Sim, David 2013. A Union Forever: The Irish Question and U.S. Foreign Relations in the Victorian Age.
Steward, Patrick & McGovern, Bryan 2013. The Fenians: Irish Rebellion in the North Atlantic World, 1858-1876.