Kentucky’s Fenian Brotherhood Recruiting Through Newspaper Advertisements
Before the June 1866 Fenian Raid into Canada West, the 17th Regiment, Irish Republican Army from Louisville Kentucky, was actively recruiting former veterans into their ranks for the upcoming struggle for Irish independence. Advertisements posted in the local Louisville newspapers, The Courier-Journal and the Daily Courier, from February 1866 right up to early June 1866 gives good insight into the activities of the “First Kentucky Fenian Volunteers” as they openly prepared for their strike into British North America.
Lectures by the Senate faction Fenian leaders, Colonel William R. Roberts, Brotherhood President and General Thomas W. Sweeny, Fenian Secretary of War, started the Kentucky recruiting drive on February 2, 1866 at Wood’s Theater in Louisville. The lecture ad implored the readers with the enthusiastic come on: “Let every lover of Liberty attend.”
During this lecture, it was also announced Major William Mangan, formerly of the 5th, 11th and later the 12th Kentucky Infantry, had been appointed as the Assistant Inspector General of the Fenian Brotherhood for the State of Kentucky, tasked with organizing troops as well as setting up an armory to be designated for the “reception of muskets, rifles and pistols.”
In a short time, Major Mangan discovered publishing advertisements in the local newspaper Wanted Ad section was a convenient recruiting tool. He specifically was in search of “Gentlemen who have seen active service and can recruit a company” and to notify him by letter immediately for instructions. As seen later, it didn’t matter to the Irish Republic which side these gentlemen fought previously, the Fenians wanted trained veterans Blue AND Grey.
Another March 8th Wanted Ad from Mangan called “Attention, Fenian Soldiers” drilling was to commence every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at Beck’s Hall.
By March 12th, two full companies of one hundred men each were mustered in, answering the call for the “Irish Army of Liberation.” These companies drilled inside Beck’s Hall. When the command to “charge bayonets” was given, the New Albany Daily Commercial of Indiana described it as sounding much like the “Confederate yell”. After the drill, Mangan enlisted these men into service explaining they had no fixed or determined period for their term but they were to serve until the “Saxon is expelled and Ireland is free.” There was immense applause, and the men tossed their “caps and hats” in the air as the “general determination was to go in for the British Lion”. Afterwards, companies paraded on the street and made a “decidedly military appearance.” No description was given as to if these men were wearing uniforms however.
Mangan was not simply satisfied with just battle ready men at arms, he posted another wanted ad looking for a regimental music, a “Martial Corps – Those who can play fife and beat the drum to join the Fenian companies now forming in the city”
The New Albany Daily Commercial noted this advertisement remarking: “Major Mangan seems bent on war, for he advertises for fifers and drummers, these especial concomitants of a battle-field in your eye!”
By March 19th, Fenians were drilling regularly in preparation of their June invasion of Canada.
Owen Starr, the newly commissioned Colonel of Kentucky’s Fenian 17th Regiment, Army of the Irish Republic, even took out his own Fenian notices for three days, and he saw brisk recruiting, quickly swelling his ranks.
Starr served as colonel of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry (US), a veteran unit which served the entire war and in the later part served under Sherman in his March to the Sea campaign. The Louisville Daily Courier (Mar 19, 1866) noted Starr as being “well-known as a brave and gallant officer” with a new appointment commanding the 17th Infantry, Army of the Irish Republic, while directing their readers to Starr’s advertisement in that day’s edition.
Starr would be credited as the first Fenian to plant the green flag of Ireland on the Canadian shore as well as raise that flag above Fort Erie during the Fenian Raid into Canada on June 1, 1866. He was later promoted by the Fenian Brotherhood to Irish Republican General and served with General O’Neill during the disastrous 1870 Battle of Eccles Hill Fenian Raid, where Canadian newspapers chided him as running away while gloating on this Fenian debacle. Obviously this was pay back for Starr’s earlier notoriety at Fort Erie in 1866.
Louisville’s four Fenian Brotherhood Circles (Emmet, Fitzgerald, Sarsfield and Wolfe-Tone) did their parts as well to support their Fenian military by posting meeting notices and advertisements for dances and receptions in the local newspapers which helped promote recruiting and raised monies for the Fenian Army. All these efforts continued to directly support Kentucky’s 17th Regiment, Irish Republican Army.
The Emmet and Fitzgerald Circles’ Grand Ball ads specifically mentioned that the monies collected were to “defray the expenses of equipping a company now organizing in our midst for the Fenian Army” and to “Benefit the [Fenian] Military.”
By May 25th, the Louisville Daily Courier reported the Fenians of the city were “up and doing” and members were to meet that afternoon to fully understand the undertaking. By the 29th of May, “the Fenians of Kentucky were on the move” with “five hundred arriving in Indianapolis.” The Lexington Observer and Reporter soon followed up by mentioning “Twenty five Fenians left the city on the cars for Louisville, yesterday afternoon (May 29), we understand more will leave for the same place today. In Louisville, they will join a brigade which has been formed there. Beyond this we are not informed as to their movements.” Kentucky’s part in The Fenian Invasion of Canada was in motion.
There were other news reports that more Fenians were arriving in Buffalo from the West with 1,000 already in the city. When asked, the Fenians all were told to say they were laborers bound for California. Most bore no arms or looked to be in military dress, yet oddly, they were traveling east for a destination which was west.
These public advertisements provide great insights into the early development of Kentucky’s Fenian Regiment as well as documents these Fenians who were actively seeking musicians to supplement their ranks, supporting another earlier account published of an Irish Army Veteran who recalls hearing the tunes of Garry Owen and Wearing of the Green being played during the Battle of Ridgeway on that summer day on June 2, 1866.
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