Historian and author Christopher Klein has recently published When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veteran’s Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom, a book which charts Fenian efforts to advance their aims through attacks on British North America. In this new guest post on the site, Christopher shares some of his research, telling the fascinating story of the Fenian’s main on-field military leader– Monaghan native and Civil War veteran John O’Neill.
Thirteen months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, hundreds of Union and Confederate veterans returned to the front lines. With some dressed in Union blues, others in Confederate grays, these former foes did not pick up their guns to reignite the Civil War but to undertake one of the most fantastical missions in military history—to kidnap Canada and ransom it from the British government for Ireland’s independence.
Entwined by Irish bloodlines, eight hundred members of the Fenian Brotherhood toting secretly stockpiled rifles and ammunition crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York, in the early morning hours of June 1, 1866, and pierced the soil of the British Empire with three green Fenian battle flags.
As he led the Army of the Irish Republic across Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, the thirty-two-year-old colonel John O’Neill fulfilled his boyhood dream. “The governing passion of my life apart from my duty to my God is to be at the head of an Irish Army battling against England for Ireland’s rights,” he declared. “For this I live, and for this if necessary I am willing to die.” (1)
Even after taking a Confederate bullet in defense of the Union, O’Neill never forgot the plight of his homeland. After the Civil War, he joined the Fenian Brotherhood when he heard of its plan to attack the British province of Canada, which was directly ruled by London. And no man would be as consumed by the improbable scheme of holding Canada hostage as O’Neill.
O’Neill was bred to hate the British. Born in 1838 in the small Ulster parish of Clontibret, (2) O’Neill learned the Irish language and studied the history of his native land and its folk heroes who dared to pick up the sword. “I wept over the speeches of her orators, and asked myself whom of the Irish patriots I would seek to emulate. I decided that eloquence will not do unless it be that which flashes from the cannon’s mouth,” O’Neill recalled of his childhood. (3)
O’Neill’s devoutly republican grandfather stirred his soul with epic tales of two of Ireland’s most revered rebels with whom he shared a last name and bloodline. The young boy listened intently to the story of Hugh O’Neill, the Irish chieftain who in 1595 routed the troops of Queen Elizabeth I in the hills and bogs not too far from his front door at the Battle of Clontibret, although his rebellion ended with a devastating defeat in the 1601 Battle of Kinsale. A generation later, the vanquished chieftain’s nephew, Owen Roe O’Neill, led another Catholic revolt against English rule.
Beginning in 1845, the young boy watched his farm and village wilt along with its potato crop. The Great Hunger struck with particular virulence in south Ulster. Clontibret lost over 17 percent of its population between 1841 and 1851, and O’Neill was among those forced to flee to the United States.
After working in a string of jobs, O’Neill enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry in 1857 and headed west to Utah to serve in a standoff with Mormon settlers. When the United States turned on itself in 1861, O’Neill returned east to join the Union Army’s First U.S. Cavalry as a sergeant. He had a horse shot out from underneath him during the Peninsular Campaign, and in December 1863 he sustained severe injuries during the siege of Knoxville as a first lieutenant with the Fifth Indiana Cavalry. After being bypassed—unfairly in his estimation—for a promotion to colonel, the thin-skinned O’Neill resigned his commission in November 1864 and opened a real estate and claims office in Nashville, Tennessee.
Even after living upwards of two decades in the United States, O’Neill could neither forgive the British for the unspeakable horrors that he had witnessed as a boy coming of age during the Great Hunger nor forget his grandfather’s soul-stirring tales of ancestors who dared to take up arms against the Crown. Radicalized by his experiences, O’Neill paid his $1 initiation fee and joined the Fenian Brotherhood after learning of its plans to attack Canada. “A firm believer in steel as the cure of Irish grievances, I was attracted to the ranks of the organization for no other reason than it proposed such a remedy,” O’Neill wrote. (4)
At the end of May 1866, O’Neill received a telegram from General Thomas William Sweeny, the Fenian Brotherhood’s secretary of war, summoning him to the warfront. He wavered not a moment in leaving behind his budding business, new wife, and two-month-old son. When he arrived in Buffalo, O’Neill found himself the right man in the right place at the right time. With illness and cowardice sidelining the invasion’s anticipated leaders, O’Neill was the highest-ranking man who could be found. Only hours before crossing the Niagara River, O’Neill was chosen as the man to lead the Army of the Irish Republic into Canada.
Although his force lacked food, horses, artillery, and even a map, the accidental commander carried plenty of confidence in his pedigree and ability into Canada. Amazingly, it took more than 24 hours before the Fenians encountered the first Canadian defense forces about twenty miles south of Niagara Falls.
From his perch on a long ridge of limestone three miles north of the village of Ridgeway, O’Neill watched as the volunteers of the Queen’s Own Rifles marched north at the head of a column trailed by the Thirteenth Infantry and the York and Caledonia Rifle Companies. The enemy force was at least three times the size of O’Neill’s army. The odds were against the Irish once again.
O’Neill advanced two companies in skirmishing formation along the ridge. They formed a battle line behind a temporary breastwork, constructed with pieces harvested from the split-rail fences that dissected the fields parallel to the enemy line and the road to Fort Erie. As the enemy skirmishers came into view, sharp fire cracked the air. O’Neill watched as the white puffs of smoke from his forward skirmishers blossomed, followed a split second later by the reverberation of their gunshots. Biting into the end of their cartridges, the battle-hardened Irishmen once again tasted that familiar acrid gunpowder before loading the shot into their rifles.
Officers with swords raised in the air shouted orders to fire over the din: “With ball cartridge, load.” With every gunshot they heard, the inexperienced Canadians instinctively ducked. Although more than a year removed from the Civil War, the Union and Confederate veterans were used to the whistle of bullets flying over their heads.
The Canadians, however, maintained a steady advance to dislodge the Fenians from the thick timber that protected the center of their line. O’Neill feared that the enemy flanks had become so prolonged that his men could be enveloped. Knowing that he was outmanned, the Fenian colonel decided to undertake a risky maneuver, one that could only be tried with experienced troops. O’Neill ordered his men to slowly fall back a few hundred yards to coax the Canadian center and form a new line. Believing the Irish in retreat due to the relatively small size of their force, the Canadians became bold with their attack. They charged ahead until they found themselves practically in a valley at the base of the limestone ridge.
With their center uncovered, O’Neill waited until the Canadians were within one hundred yards. “Charge!” he suddenly shouted. The Fenians took the Canadians by surprise, unleashing a terrific volley. They sounded a chorus of wild Irish whoops as they advanced behind a green flag. Seeing O’Neill on top of a stolen horse, the inexperienced Canadian commander ordered his men to form a square, a textbook defensive position against a cavalry attack.
There was no cavalry, however. All the maneuver did was leave the Canadians exposed to withering fire because the Fenian infantry had a target on which to focus. A succession of soldiers fell to the ground with bullet wounds. Officers made futile attempts to rally their forces until the bugle sounded their retreat. After nearly two hours of fighting, the Canadians ran for their lives, throwing aside muskets, overcoats, knapsacks, and anything that could slow them down.
The victory at the Battle of Ridgeway incited joy among the Irish diaspora and in Ireland itself. The Nation in Dublin exulted in the news that “the red flag of England has gone down before the Irish green” and reported that the news “fills our people with tumultuous emotions impossible to describe, impossible to conceal.” (5)
Following the battle, O’Neill doubled back to the Niagara River, prevailed at another firefight through the streets of Fort Erie, and discovered that American warships had cut the Fenian supply lines. Reluctantly, the Fenian commander evacuated his troops back to the United States. Before leaving British soil, however, O’Neill ordered the nearly two dozen Canadians taken prisoner by the Fenians lined up. The Canadians feared they were about to face a firing squad. O’Neill, however, proceeded down the line, greeting each man with a handshake and informing them they were again free men. He also promised to return to Canada—soon. O’Neill would be a man of his word.
Hailed as the “Hero of Ridgeway,” O’Neill became one of the most famous Irish-Americans of the post-Civil War era. Few speakers on the Fenian fund-raising circuit proved to be as popular as O’Neill, and he eventually became president of the Fenian Brotherhood in 1868 and put his full effort into attacking Canada again. “Were it not for the almost insane enthusiasm of O’Neill himself, I should consider the affair almost at an end,” British minister to the United States Edward Thornton wrote to Secretary of State Hamilton Fish about the Fenians in August 1869. (6)
O’Neill struck Canada again on May 24, 1870, as he led several hundred Fenians down a country road in northern Vermont toward the international boundary. The resulting Battle of Eccles Hill would be a disaster for the Fenians. As soon as the Irish army crossed into Quebec, shots rang out from a Canadian home guard stationed on a promontory overlooking the border. Two Fenians were shot dead, and the rest of O’Neill’s men ran for cover. As O’Neill tried to rally his men, a U.S. marshal arrested him on the battlefield for violating American neutrality laws.
The Fenian attack fizzled after making it mere yards into Canada. O’Neill spent months in a Vermont prison until he was pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant after pledging to never again attack Canada. “That we have been a source of trouble and expense to you for nearly five years I need not tell you,” he wrote in a message to all Canadians, “but your trouble is now at an end.” (7)
Perhaps O’Neill actually believed the words he wrote, but within months his eyes again turned northward. Without the sanction of the Fenian Brotherhood, which stripped him of the presidency, O’Neill and three-dozen men attempted an invasion of Manitoba in October 1871. Not only did the Hero of Ridgeway fail to conquer Canada, this time he failed to even enter it. O’Neill’s men seized a Canadian customs house and Hudson’s Bay Company outpost that they thought was a quarter-mile north of the border between Manitoba and North Dakota. Unbeknownst to the Irishmen, though, the border had been recently re-surveyed and the two buildings they occupied were actually three-quarters of a mile south of the border—on American soil.
O’Neill spent the last years of his life planting Irish-American colonies on the plains of Nebraska. (The first of these towns is now named in his honor—O’Neill, Nebraska.) A possible return to Canada, though, seemed to retain a hold on his imagination. He cryptically mandated that one-eighth of the land for each of his colonies be “devoted to the cause of Ireland.” (8) O’Neill would not lead another army into battle, however. He passed away in Omaha, Nebraska, on January 7, 1878.
On his tour of the United States in 1919, Eamon de Valera placed a wreath of roses at O’Neill’s grave inside Omaha’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. The Irish rebel leader spoke of O’Neill’s connection to Irish independence. “The Fenian Brotherhood for which General O’Neill fought is the backbone of the Irish republic,” de Valera intoned. “We have vindicated O’Neill by establishing the republic.” (9)
Christopher Klein is the author of four books including When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom. Click here to learn more about the book and to purchase copies. For more about the author, visit www.christopherklein.com or follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.
References & Bibliography
(1) Noonan, Gerald R. “General John O’Neill,” Clogher Record 6 (1967): 318.
(2) Thomas Fox, author of the forthcoming John C. O’Neill: The Irish Nationalist and U.S. Army Officer Who Invaded Canada, has recently found evidence that O’Neill was born in 1838, not in 1834 as long thought.
(3) An Phoblacht, January 27, 2000.
(4) O’Neill, John. Official Report of Gen. John O’Neill, President of the Fenian Brotherhood: On the Attempt to Invade Canada, May 25th, 1870. New York: John J. Foster, 1870: 3.
(5) Wilson, David A. Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Vol. 2, The Extreme Moderate, 1857-1868. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011: 279.
(6) D’Arcy, William. “The Fenian Movement in the United States, 1858–1886.” Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 1947: 318.
(7) O’Neill, John. Official Report of Gen. John O’Neill, President of the Fenian Brotherhood: On the Attempt to Invade Canada, May 25th, 1870. New York: John J. Foster, 1870: 30.
(8) O’Neill, John. Northern Nebraska as a Home for Immigrants. Sioux City, Iowa: Sioux City Times Print, 1875: 4.
(9) Omaha World Herald, October 29, 1919.
Susan PetrakisAugust 5, 2019 3:33 pm
I seem to recall that the Fenians considered Phil Sheridan as a commander in the Canadian invasion. Does anyone know why he didn’t join? Perhaps the book discusses this?