This site has touched briefly on the Fenian movement a number of times in the past, and it is a topic worthy of further exploration. Who were the members, and how did they maintain their involvement with the cause while away in the field during the American Civil War? Michael H. Kane is an expert on the Fenian Brotherhood of America, a subject on which he has published a number of papers. Michael has kindly agreed to share some of his knowledge with us in the form of a Guest Post, taking as an example the Fenians in the Army of the Potomac. 

John O'Mahony, Head Centre of the Fenian movement in the United States (Image via Wikipedia)

John O'Mahony, Head Centre of the Fenian movement in the United States (Image via Wikipedia)

In the Spring of 1862, if you appeared outside the hospital tent of the 63rd New York Infantry on Sunday night, you were about to enter into the meeting of a secret revolutionary movement- the Army of the Potomac Circle of the Fenian Brotherhood of America. Why a hospital tent? Inside was the Head Centre of the Fenian circle, Surgeon Laurence “Larry” Reynolds from Co. Waterford. Reynolds came from the old ’48 movement, was forced out of Ireland, moved to England, became a Chartist, found things uncomfortable and moved to America. When the Civil War broke out, Reynolds was commissioned an Assistant-Surgeon in the 24th New York- and upstate New York American regiment. When he realized the Irish Brigade was set on fighting more than Confederates, Reynolds transferred into the 63rd New York as a Surgeon and was sworn into the Fenian Brotherhood in 1862. James McKay Rorty, born in Donegal Town, a staff officer for General Hancock, filled the second slot- Recording Secretary. Rorty, who enlisted as a private in the 69th New York National Guard in 1861, was captured at First Bull Run, and made a daring escape from Libby prison in Richmond. Returning to New York, Rorty trained as an artillery officer. He served as ordnance officer of the Second Corps, overseeing the artillery. A third key officer was Lieutenant John Whitehead Byron. Byron had served in K Company, 69th New York National Guard during the ninety day campaign. Returning to New York, he was commissioned a Lieutenant in the 88th New York. These three men, along with Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Gleason of the 63rd New York, a former Papal soldier, would be the leadership spreading Fenianism through the Army of the Potomac.

James Stephens, leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Image via Wikipedia)

James Stephens, Head Centre of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Image via Wikipedia)

After sitting down, the members received Irish whiskey sometimes laced with a sprig of shamrock. This was followed by poetry or prose from the cultural Larry Reynolds- older than the other officers at sixty. The Potomac Circle was directly connected to the Fenian Brotherhood headed by John O’Mahony in New York City. The Circle had two main aims: gaining recruits willing to fight back in Ireland after the war and contributions from members who joined or Irish soldiers sympathetic to the cause. Reynolds would encourage members to open new circles and collect money. James Stephens, the leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood was constantly harassing O’Mahony for more money.

Other members included Major P.J. Downing and Captain William O’Shea of the 42nd New York, both tied up with the Phoenix society in Co. Cork. Captain William Nagle, 88th New York, Lieutenant Maurice Fitzharris and Lieutenant Morgan Doheny, the youngest son of the old 1848 rebel, were expected to start new circles and spread the word. Sending dues and money to New York was the first priority.

Officers on leave would take the money back to Fenian headquarters in New York City for distribution to Stephens through O’Mahony. If several officers from the circle were back in the city on leave, the Potomac Circle held meetings at the Whitney House on Broadway where John Byron lived.

James McKay Rorty, Recording Secretary of the Potomac Circle (Image Brian Pohanka: James McKay Rorty, An Appreciation)

James McKay Rorty, Recording Secretary of the Army of the Potomac Circle (Image Brian Pohanka: James McKay Rorty, An Appreciation)

What would motivate and Irish-American to join the Fenian Brotherhood with so much death in front of him in the Civil War? Lieutenant John W. Byron, from Co. Cork, expressed his feelings in a eulogy to Captain Patrick Clooney, a former Papal soldier from Co. Waterford, who was killed at Antietam on 17th September 1862 with the 88th New York:

“The news of his death spread rapidly through the regiment, and many a manly, fearless heart, that never before an enemy quaked before, trembled at the sad intelligence…The rudely carved and lettered cross of wood that marks his last resting place, whereon is written ‘He like a soldier fell’ speaks more unto the thinking mind than the grandest marble monument in Westminster, upon whose polished face the pomp of woe is exhausted by the sculptor’s art, telling of those who rest below, what they have never been.”

However, casualties at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg changed the personnel of the circle quickly. Captain Rorty was killed at the end of the Confederate barrage on 3rd July 1863 at Gettysburg. Captain Billy O’Shea was wounded three times and his brother Danny was killed when the 42nd New York rushed forward to help the 69th Pennsylvania at the Bloody Angle- the climax of Pickett’s Charge. While recuperating from his wounds in New York City, Captain O’Shea attended the summer picnic of the Fenian Brotherhood.

ohn Whitehead Byron, Successor to James McKay Rorty as Recording Secretary of the Army of the Potomac Circle

John Whitehead Byron, Successor to James McKay Rorty as Recording Secretary of the Army of the Potomac Circle (New York Public Library Digital Gallery)

Captain Byron replaced Rorty as the Recording Secretary of the Potomac Circle. Still the circle continued to recruit new men. Captain Billy O’Shea swore in Cork City man Captain William Davis, of the 69th Pennsylvania near Cold Harbor, Virginia in 1862. Captain Joseph Gleason, 63rd New York from Tipperary was sworn into the circle in 1863. Lieutenant Galwey who joined the 8th Ohio from the Cleveland Hibernian Rifles had problems at home. His mother, a devout Catholic, listened to her priest and felt the Fenian Brotherhood was a secret society like the Freemasons and outlawed by the Church. She wanted her son to resign from what she saw as the evil group of Fenians. Eventually Galwey’s resolve faded away and he chose not to return to Ireland with his friends.

It wasn’t until 1864, when there was a stagnant period during the siege at Petersburg, that many new circles and members began to see Fenianism on the horizon. Lieutenant-Colonel Gleason from Co. Cork recruited two new officers from the 63rd New York. Canadian born Captain Michael Kelleher who had served as an enlisted man in the 37th New York Irish Rifles, Captain James McQuaide, an Irish-American from Utica, New York were also sworn into the brotherhood at this time. Kelleher went to the north of Ireland but McQuaide lost a leg and never left America.

New circles were formed with enlisted men in charge. However one enlisted man’s circle, the Gleason Sub-Circle, caused much trouble in Ireland later. The Head Centre was John J. Corridan from the 63rd New York. Caught by detectives in Ireland he turned informer and identified many Fenian officers. But neither recruits nor money could solve the rift between James Stephens and John O’Mahony. As the first Fenians were sent back to Ireland in 1865, O’Mahony’s status crumbled. There were rumours of fraud and embezzlement which nailed his coffin shut. Eventually Stephens took over and the American officers were so displeased they wished to kill him.


Galwey, Thomas Francis (edited by W.S. Nye) 1961. The Valiant Hours: An Irishman in the Civil War: Eighth Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Ramon, Marta 2007. A Provisional Dictator: James Stephens and the Fenian Movement

New York Irish-American (1861-1866 issues)